A standing-room-only crowd greeted lawmakers from Washington’s 18th Legislative District at a Saturday morning town hall held inside the Port of Camas-Washougal’s headquarters.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, state Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, and state Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, shared their views on everything from electric vehicles, low-carbon fuel standards and growth management to gun control and vaccine mandates at the two-hour Jan. 4 event.
Several Camas-Washougal elected officials, including both mayors, three city council members and representatives from the Port and East County Fire and Rescue attended the mostly polite town hall. The day’s only true disruption occurred toward the end of the event, when a man in the front row shouted at the legislators, calling them liars and saying the answers they were giving were the same answers they’d been giving for years, then turning to the crowd and demanding to know why people didn’t want to pay taxes and fund services that would benefit future generations before saying he was out of control and going to leave.
Later, Hoff said he appreciated the man sharing his opinions, but thought people should express their opinions in a way that led to conversation instead of disruption.
Following are some of the topics constituents asked the lawmakers to address at the Saturday town hall:
Low-carbon fuels and electric vehicles
Vancouver environmentalist Don Steinke, whose work fighting climate change earned him a coveted Sierra Club award for service in 2015, quoted facts from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website showing that reducing transportation emissions helps reduce healthcare costs — the site states that, by 2030, national air-quality emissions standards for vehicles will prevent 40,000 premature deaths, avoid 34,000 hospitalizations and prevent 4.8 million lost work days each year — and asked the legislators to support state programs that would help reduce vehicle emissions.
In 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed five bills aimed at fighting climate change by reducing greenhouse gases — including a bill that subsidizes electric vehicles — but state senators rejected a bill that would have required more low-carbon vehicle fuels such as biodiesel. Lawmakers also rejected a 2019 bill that would have imposed a carbon tax on greenhouse-producing fuels, something Washington’s voters have twice rejected in the form of ballot initiatives.
“I supported the gas tax to get projects for my area back in 2015. It was a really hard vote for me,” Rivers said. “The low-carbon fuel standards would have (added) 30 cents a gallon, according to the governor’s staff’s numbers. We were sweating an (additional) 11.5-cents a gallon to actually build projects.”
Rivers added that the gas tax money goes into a dedicated fund that can “only be spent on roads and transit,” but said “the low-carbon fuel standard, as it was presented last year, represents an enormous source of revenue that could be spent on anything.”
Rivers told Steinke she knew he was “absolutely passionate and committed to (his) position,” but that she worried low-income families would not be able to afford to keep up with the new standards.
“I work a minimum-wage job in the interim … and I work with minimum-wage earners who thought that brakes were a luxury,” Rivers said. “So, for them, buying a new electric vehicle is simply out of reach. They couldn’t even afford to buy a hybrid if they wanted to.”
She added: “If I can make sure we’re moving forward in a way that isn’t financially hurtful and that doesn’t gut our ability to replenish or rejuvenate or build new infrastructure … then I’ll have to take a look at that. But what we’ve been presented with seems like it would be fairly devastating for certain segments of our society and for the infrastructure.”
Hoff and Vick both said they would not support anything resembling last year’s low-carbon fuel standards bill.
“Last year’s bill suggested everything that was delivered on a truck would have gone up in price,” Hoff said. “I appreciate the issue you’re talking about and I understand the ramifications, but I don’t think that was the answer. What the answer is, I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t believe last year’s bill was the answer.”
One of the topics that seemed to hit a nerve with several people in the crowd on both sides of the issue was vaccine mandates for school children, particularly a new law that could mandate Washington students receive the Gardasil 9 human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
The national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 12 receive two doses of the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active to prevent cancers caused by the virus.
A woman at the town hall on Saturday asked legislators to vote against any mandating of the HPV vaccine, and cited statistics showing higher death rates for the vaccine than cervical and other cancers caused by the virus.
“The death rate of cervical cancer in the U.S. is 2.3 out of 100,000. The death rate in the Gardasil clinical trials was 85 out of 100,000,” the woman said. “According to Gardasil, there is a 2.3 percent chance you will develop an autoimmune disease after receiving the HPV vaccination … Please do some research on what goes into the vaccines and about what other studies have said the vaccines do. It’s not just about the disease, it’s about all of the other things that happen in your body when you inject them. Please do what you can to keep my child in school … I cannot afford to homeschool.”
Several members of the audience broke into applause after the woman spoke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the 29 million doses of the HPV administered in the U.S. between 2014 and 2017, there were seven reported deaths. However, according to an October 2019 report in Medical News Today, “after a review of each individual case of death, the CDC determined that there was no link between the deaths that occurred and the Gardasil 9 vaccines.”
Rivers said she thought the HPV vaccine seemed “too dicey” and later said she wasn’t sure school districts “need to be engaging in sexual health” and mandating kindergarteners get the HPV vaccine before entering school.
Several in the crowd gasped when Rivers called the vaccine “too dicey” and a woman who identified herself as a nurse told Rivers she needed to take another look at the mandate, which would require older students, not kindergarteners, receive the vaccine.
“The evidence around climate change and vaccinations is incredibly strong from a community and public health standpoint,” the woman added.
Growth Management Act
A constituent asked Hoff about a bill he’s working on to reduce the number of what he calls “unrelated associations and groups” that can speak before the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board. On his website, Hoff states that he believes “only individuals and/or groups that actually have skin in the game deserve a voice” when it comes to the Growth Management Hearings Board.
Hoff said he was proposing an addendum that would allow those who would be financially impacted by a growth management decision to have a voice at the table.
The bill would “give those who truly have an issue with growth management (the ability) to bring it before the growth management board,” Hoff said.
The constituent said she didn’t see the need for the bill in Southwest Washington, and believed limiting those who could speak in front of the board was a red flag.
“People who are concerned (about clearcutting trees or overdevelopment), their voices need to be heard,” she told Hoff.
The legislator said he was troubled by an agency (the growth management board) that “does nothing but put up roadblocks continually for whatever development is proposed.”
“Do they always put up roadblocks or are they making some valid points?” the woman asked Hoff.
“Just about all the time,” Hoff replied. “That’s not to suggest that your point isn’t valid, I just think there’s a better balance out there.”
Vick chimed in and said with the (30th) anniversary of the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) approaching, he believed the legislature needed to ask if the act could be improved and investigate if it is actually doing what legislators proposed more than two decades ago.
“I believe (the GMA) was not for regulation of growth, but to force urbanization,” Vick said, adding that he believed individual cities and areas should be in charge of their planned growth.
“I think there should be controls — we should protect certain natural resources, certain park lands and open spaces, certainly — but is that (decided in) cubicle spaces in Olympia or is that for the people in this room (to determine)? That’s where the big hurdle has been.”
Gun control in Washington
Unlike past legislative town halls with 18th District representatives that have focused a great deal of the time on issues involving gun control, the Jan. 4 event only had one constituent who brought the subject up.
The man told the legislators he was concerned about laws infringing on Second Amendment rights.
“The founding fathers of this nation put the Second Amendment in place not so we could go out squirrel hunting and kill squirrels, but it was also to stand against tyranny in our own government,” the man said. “When people feel like they’re oppressed and they have no way to act out against it — Hong Kong is a perfect example: those people are begging for a Second Amendment so they can defend themselves (to which someone in the crowd said, “No, they’re not.”) They’re fighting armed police officers with umbrellas (another “They are not” from the crowd) that are trying to usurp their rights.”
The man said he was concerned about a bill in the works that would require Washington residents to register their assault weapons.
“I honestly believe that what’s happening here is bigger than trying to keep people safe,” he said.
Vick said he believed this was “not necessarily a partisan issue” and pointed to Democratic lawmakers in rural areas who struggle with gun control legislation, “because it’s a way of life.”
“In each party, you’re going to have people that jump on the (public relations) bandwagon and follow that agenda off the edge of the planet, and you’re going to find people who realize what’s going on in their district,” Vick said.
Pointing out the number of gun-control laws already in effect in Washington, Vick added “There are not too many laws we haven’t passed around guns.
“I’ve had the privilege of walking into a few gun stores — and I’m not really a ‘gun guy’ per se. I don’t own an AR-15 or anything like that — and you ask them, you say, ‘Who buys guns here?’ and (they say), ‘Well, people who can. We have a lot of people who come in and try to buy guns who aren’t allowed to and the first thing we do is call the police. Our business is on the line, our license is on the line and, oh by the way, we have a moral compass. We don’t want to sell guns to bad guys,'” he said.
Vick said people who want to use a gun regardless of legality “are still going to get one.”
“But are they getting it through the state? The answer, to me, is no,” Vick said, telling the constituent that what he’d said “makes sense.”
Rivers said she thought the key to stopping gun violence was to “get tougher on those people who make those bad choices” and that she was introducing legislation that would give an automatic life sentence to anyone who committed a crime using an illegally obtained gun.
Asked how she would pay for that, Rivers responded: “It’s cheap. Prison’s cheap compared to the loss of life, you betcha.”