Washington State 14th District House Representative Gina McCabe toured the Gorge Jan 4, as part of a “listening tour” making two stops in White Salmon.
McCabe’s first stop was at Wallace & Priscilla Stevenson Intermediate School where she visited 4th graders who have been studying government. McCabe began by explaining her role as a legislator to the class, giving examples of laws that she is working on or has helped to pass.
For example, there is a proposal to make it the law that children must wear seatbelts on school buses. Or “Travis Alert Act” which helps inform how emergency responders should respond to emergencies where children with autism or other special needs are the victims.
McCabe asked the class if there are any laws they would like to have changed or made. The 4th grader she called on said he wanted the laws changed on how we vote for the President of the United States.
McCabe’s response to the boy was that that was a very difficult process and a “hot button” issue right now.
The 4th graders then got to ask questions they had written down for McCabe, ranging in content from that which you would expect from a 4th grader, like “how many times do you go to Washington D.C.?” to surprisingly mature questions like “what has been your greatest achievement since being in office?” By far the best question with the most surprising answer was “What did you want to grow up to be when you were in 4th grade?”
“I wanted to be a ballerina,” said McCabe.
“I opened my own dance studio in my hometown of Goldendale when I was 16. My daughter runs it now and it offers a range of dance classes and even a karate class,” she added.
To close out her time with the 4th graders, she suggested ways for them to get involved in their communities to make a difference. McCabe suggested they write letters to their representatives, like her, explaining that a lot of things have become laws because of letters kids have written.
She also referenced situations where 18-year-old high school seniors are running for public office and holding seats on city councils, encouraging the 9/10-year-old 4th graders to run for office in the next eight years.
McCabe’s second stop was an hour-long town hall, at the White Salmon Valley Community Library. Many community leaders, representatives of local industries, as well as members of the public , were present to ask questions of McCabe.
At the end of the town hall, one resident noted the lack of age diversity in the room. Most people in attendance were part of the Baby Boomer generation or the early part of Generation X. Millennials were absent, possibly more in part due to the timing of the town hall conflicting with the workday than apathy often attributed to their generation’s involvement in politics.
The town hall covered multiple topics: mainly infrastructure, public education funding and health care, while briefly touching on others like net neutrality and taxes.
The first set of questions directed at McCabe on the topics set the tone of the town hall off to a rocky start. Her answers “ I will need to read the bill,” “I need to research it more,” or “I will have to get back to you on that,” produced audible disgruntlement from those in attendance.
One such question asked of McCabe was regarding where the representative stands on the issue of Net Neutrality, in general. Net neutrality is a principle that says Internet service providers should treat all traffic on their networks equally, a “free and open Internet.” Meaning those same services providers shouldn’t slow down access, block or charge you for using sites partnered with their competitor’s.
Under the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set protections to keep the Internet fair and free. The FCC under the Trump administration recently undid those protections. This is alleged to be especially bad for rural areas where Internet access is already very difficult to access.
McCabe’s first answer to this question made it seem like she was either uninformed or did not want to give a definitive stance on the issue. She later definitively said, “I don’t think companies should be able to profit off citizens’ rights to Internet access.”
A response which received a round of applause from the town hall audience.
McCabe went on to state that she would, to the best of her ability and knowledge answer the questions constituents asked, but conceded that she may not have satisfactory answers because the new session had not yet begun.
She conceded that this “listening” tour should have taken place in the late summer or early fall, but due to the extended session had to be moved.
McCabe also stated multiple times that very few bills make it to her desk but the ones that do she reads thoroughly.
“ I am happy to go to bat for you when I know exactly what’s in a bill,” said McCabe.
Naturally one of the first topics was the replacement of the Hood River-White Salmon bridge. Constituents asked if there is a federal or state option to get a replacement and what McCabe’s thoughts are on the potential of a private company building a public bridge in a partnership.
“There are going to be renewed conversations on this in our upcoming session, infrastructure is one of our main issues. Because it is a bi-state bridge that creates a new set of obstacles, we are having the same conversations in Clark County with the Vancouver bridge. As far as private and public relationships go, I would need to do more research on it, “ said McCabe.
The same constituents that asked the question, fervently let McCabe know that the way it is now, Klickitat County does not receive any of the benefits from the Bridge, and would be the most affected if the tolls continued to go up or the bridge fell into the river.
“All of the shopping, tourism, and entertainment is on that side of the river, people don’t come over here for any of that. If they come over here it’s to work for the railroad or Insitu,” said one resident.
Others echoed the statement pointing out that this situation is not like Vancouver, that this area is reliant on the bridge.
The next big topic was education. Everything from public school funding, promoting trade school education to teacher training.
Many White Salmon School Board members and teachers were in attendance and expressed concern to McCabe about the lack of funding for rural school districts. A situation that should have been resolved through the landmark house bill 2242 better known as the “McCleary Fix,” which passed on June 30 of 2017.
In 2007, Washington State was sued by families, teachers’ unions and education organizations for not following the state constitution and adequately funding public schools. In 2012 the lawsuit went to the state’s Supreme Court where the legislature was ordered to raise education funding, so schools will not be reliant on levies by 2018. They needed to have a plan by April 2014, when they didn’t they were found in contempt of court and had to pay a $100,00 fine every day until they had one. For a moment in 2016, many schools threatened to close until the legislature came to a decision. It was this situation that played a key role in the longevity of the legislative budget session last summer.
Alan Reitz, White Salmon school board member, pointed out that rural school districts like White Salmon had not yet seen an increase in their funding.
McCabe acknowledged this and stated that the rollout of this bill was going slower than anticipated due to working around levy restrictions.
Another constituent wanted to draw attention to the lack of young people getting involved in trades after high school. “A lot of young people view trade schools as an alternative to college, not an equal option, we need to change that view,” he said. “There needs to be a push for vocational education and apprenticeships, especially in this area.”
McCabe agreed “We are considering a bill that will do exactly that with the hope that it will open up job opportunities for young people and fill that age gap in that part of the work force,” she said.
The average age of a person who works in trades is 47-55 years-old according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To close out the conversation on changes that need to be made in Washington public schools was a local parent, Gabrielle Gilbert. Gilbert brought up a class action lawsuit filed by the Washington State ACLU against the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) regarding the discipline of children with learning and behavioral disabilities in schools.
According to The Seattle Times, “The lawsuit calls for the superintendent’s office to ‘do its job’ and ensure that students who require special education be fully included in the state’s education system.”
This is a fight Gilbert has been having with the White Salmon School Board for the last four years, advocating for teacher training in how to properly discipline kids with special needs.
Gilbert also brought up an assessment done on the mental health of students at Columbia High School and Henkle Middle School citing that during the last school year 20 percent of students at both schools thought about or attempted suicide.
McCabe was not aware of the lawsuit or the assessment and said she will look at it. She also brought up how school districts in Yakima and in more populated areas had begun to implement into their budgets social and emotional councilors and teachers to address situations like these. Normally these types of councilors are brought in after traumatic events in communities or at the schools themselves and are not a part of the regular staff.
The conversation flowed into an overall conversation on health care in Klickitat County. McCabe knew the county has only two healthcare providers, Lifewise and Community Health Plans of Washington, Regence having left the county in June of 2017.
“We are still fighting the battle to get better coverage for healthcare in Klickitat County. There are some things that have happened congressionally that will affect us, unfortunately, but we are considering some protections from it,” said McCabe.
McCabe is also considering sponsoring a bill that would provide Medicaid/Medicare for all in rural areas.
Many of those at the town hall expressed appreciation for the face to face opportunity and gave McCabe praise over having more guts than Congressional Washington 3rd District Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler. Herrera Beutler recently held a town hall of her own via phone.