Inside Opinion

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Tag: Legislature


The Puget Sound Gateway needs heroes in Olympia

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Take a good look at the list in the next post.

Those 24 lawmakers have the power to create nearly 100,000 jobs and keep Pacific Rim shipping pouring into Puget Sound through the 21st century.

Yet those same lawmakers could also help forfeit 100,000 jobs. For lack of interest or courage, they could allow the ports of Tacoma and Seattle to become backwaters of maritime commerce — which supports more than 200,000 livelihoods.

The decision before these South Sound legislators is whether to throw their combined weight behind the Puget Sound Gateway to secure its passage in the special session of the Legislature.

The Gateway is a $1.8 billion project that would extend state Route 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma, state Route 509 from Sea-Tac Airport to Interstate 5 and build strategic interchanges to create a transportation super-corridor in Pierce and King counties.

It’s an expensive project: Highways don’t come cheap. Regardless, the future of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, the preservation of jobs, the expansion of payrolls, and the efficiency of Interstate 5 all depend on passage of the $1.8 billion Gateway project.

Because it will require gas taxes and tolls, the Legislature won’t touch it in 2014, an election year. And there’s no reason to believe it will pass in 2015 if it can’t pass this year. Business and labor organizations are pulling together to get it to the governor’s desk as part of a larger transportation package.

But so far, there has been no corresponding push from what might be called the Pierce County caucus. (We’re including the three lawmakers from the 30th District in the Federal Way area.)
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America’s on the wrong end of DUI standards

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

The Washington Legislature has been wrestling lately with ways to bring down drunk driving fatalities. Now it’s got another option to look at.

The people charged with making the nation’s roads less deadly, the National Transportation Safety Board, called on states Tuesday to reduce the legal limit of blood alcohol from .08 percent to .05 percent. There’ll be the usual complaints about nanny statism, but the board makes quite a case.

Start with the fact that the United States and Canada are virtually alone among the world’s developed countries – including Europe, Russia and nearly all of Asia – in permitting people to drive with .08 percent ethanol running through their brains.

According to the NTSB’s new report, the laws of more than 100 nations consider drivers intoxicated if they have .05 percent in their blood. Some forbid any level above .00.

Why? Because lower thresholds save lives.

The board cites many studies indicating that serious impairment begins well below .08. At .05, drivers – on average – are 38 percent more likely to cause crashes than if they drank nothing before they drove.

The “average” part is important. Some people have higher tolerances for alcohol, some lower. A safety rule should be calibrated to the drivers most – not least – likely to kill others.
Someone who does fine at .07 percent wouldn’t likely be nabbed in the first place, because officers must have probable cause – e.g., seeing the car swerving erratically – before they pull someone over on suspicion of DUI.

But .07 is a long way from safe for most drivers. The report found that someone driving with that much alcohol has twice the risk of crashing as a sober driver.

In the United States, unless you hang around with street gangs, you are far more likely to get killed by a drunk on the road than by a thug with a handgun. In any given year, the number of Americans killed by drunk drivers exceeds the combined U.S. military deaths in both the Iraq and Afghan wars since 2001.
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School funding without taxes sacrifices the poor

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

“Fund education first” has been a Republican slogan for years in this state. The idea is appealing, but – if it’s combined with hostility toward any tax – the reality is harsh.

The slogan got a big boost from last year’s McCleary decision, in which the state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to, well, fund education first. The court found that lawmakers had routinely violated the state constitution by underfunding the K-12 system while expanding other programs.

McCleary flipped that: Schoolchildren are supposed to get the state’s first dollars while other state beneficiaries wait in the kitchen for the leftovers.

Earlier this month, the Republican-dominated state Senate approved an education-first budget while refusing to extend a number of soon-to-expire taxes. This reflects what the GOP has become in this state: a party unified only by hatred of taxes.

The inevitable result is that money was carved out of Washington’s social safety net, the collection of programs designed to help the poor, elderly and disabled stay above water.

The Republican budget does some smart things. For example, it would repeal existing mandates for automatic pay raises for teachers, and paid family and medical leave for parents.

The Legislature doesn’t fund them, so what’s the point? The Democratic House doesn’t want them repealed – but it doesn’t propose to pay for them either. End the charade.
The Senate would also – unlike the House and governor – require co-payments for Medicaid.

Co-payments, however small, should be required for most medical services. Unnecessary “free” visits to emergency rooms and clinics inflate medical costs for everyone, which threatens health coverage for the very people no-cost care is supposed to benefit.
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Dollars alone won’t ensure first-rate public schools

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

Last year’s McCleary decision is not just about money.

As the Washington Supreme Court noted 14 months ago, the state constitution mandates that the Legislature “make ample provision for the education” of all the state’s children.

What does “education” mean? The court defined it – logically – as “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.”

It’s a question of quality as well as quantity.

You could spend fortunes feeding fast food to kids, and they’ll grow up malnourished. Likewise, the Legislature could dump another

$5 billion a year into the K-12 system without offering students the skills they need to survive in the 21st-century economy. More money is necessary, but not sufficient.

Lawmakers this year have been taking important steps toward improving the quality of public education in Washington.

One pair of bills would create a date certain – July 1, 2015 – for increasing state high school graduation requirements to 24 credits.

More important, the credits must mean something. The plan is to align graduation requirements with college admission requirements. Students shouldn’t just be given a piece of paper when they graduate; they need the intellectual tools to succeed in a four-year college, two-year college or technical-vocational program.

As things stand, many students – especially from low-income families – have only a foggy understanding of what college demands. They often wind up with a hodgepodge of credits that don’t add up to a marketable high school diploma.
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Lawmakers must revisit sensible gun safeguards

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

So far, the 2013 Legislature hasn’t shown much interest in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerously unbalanced people.

Next year may be another story. Let’s consider a few things an older and wiser set of lawmakers ought to do:

Every gun sale – including those between private parties – should be subject to a federal background check. This safeguard is so stupefyingly reasonable that lawmakers should have approved it by acclamation by now.

Instead, it’s been derailed in the Democratic House by pressure from Second Amendment absolutists. Their chief objection, we gather, is that it will lead to registration and confiscation of all firearms by a future tyranny.

But there’s a disconnect between their rhetoric and existing law. If they’re serious, why aren’t they trying to repeal the existing laws that require all licensed gun dealers to run background checks on all buyers?

Dealers not only run checks but also maintain records of sales subject to review by police. So the dreaded registration already exists – and has existed for many years without jackbooted storm troopers sweeping up citizens’ guns.

What’s more, all applications for concealed pistol permits also go through the system and are kept on record by law enforcement. Again, registration without confiscation.

Those requirements apply to all law-abiding people who keep and bear firearms, and nobody’s raising a stink. Yet when private sales are involved, the very same background checks suddenly become a terrifying step toward dictatorship. Come on.

Here’s another proposition that ought to be even less controversial: People who lack the mental competence to use firearms safely shouldn’t have them.
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A chance to get poor adults back to the dentist

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

Since the Great Recession hit five years ago, the Legislature has had to do dumb things with money – short-term spending cuts that, long term, were bound to cost more money than they saved.

One of these forced errors was the elimination of Medicaid dental coverage for more than 400,000 poor adults in recent years. For every dollar saved, the state forfeited another dollar in federal matching funds – and set itself up for higher medical expenses down the road.

It’s now time to reverse that penny-wise decision. With the Affordable Care Act about to supplement state Medicaid spending with federal, the restoration of dental care would leverage far more federal dollars than it would cost.

Dental infections are like other infections: Let them fester, and the problems only get bigger and more expensive.

After the Medicaid cut in 2011, adults who’d lost their coverage either had to seek charity care or go to the emergency room when they got a toothache.

Pain in the jaws and the teeth can be symptoms of nasty conditions, including abscesses turning into massive bacterial infections. Emergency room staffs can provide painkillers and antibiotics, but they can’t treat the underlying dental diseases.

Diabetes is the best illustration of pay-now-or-pay-more-later.
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The high price of saving money on mental health

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

The fate of people with severe psychiatric disorders in this state has traditionally been driven by two factors:

Washington hates to spend money treating the mentally ill.

Washington also hates to commit them to involuntary treatment unless they’re on the verge of killing themselves or others.

The two are closely connected. Those who don’t want to spend much on the sick may find it especially easy to give them the “freedom” to live on the streets.

As The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson and Jordan Schrader reported Sunday, this state’s economy-minded approach to mental illness carries an appalling human cost.

Washington ranks at or close to the bottom of all states in hospital capacity for the mentally ill. There aren’t near enough beds for patients who need intensive care in a secure setting.

The scarcity backfires in nasty ways.

Some people with severe but untreated illnesses act out in fear, anger or delusion and wind up in jail. They may commit crimes they wouldn’t have committed had they gotten enough care.

A jail is a miserable – and extremely expensive – substitute for a psychiatric hospital.

Other sick people wind up languishing in emergency rooms awaiting an opening at Western State Hospital or other appropriate setting.

On one day two weeks ago, for example, 11 patients with mental illnesses were rolled into Pierce County’s involuntary commitment court on gurneys. They’d been more or less warehoused in conventional hospitals­ – receiving minimal mental health treatment – under a system misleadingly named psychiatric boarding.
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Why isn’t this gun-check bill racing through the Legislature?

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

The effort in Olympia to require background checks for private sales of firearms is turning into a case study of veto by minuscule minority.

Washingtonians want all gun purchasers screened for criminal records and severe psychiatric disorders. The margin of support for universal background checks is off the charts: A recent Elway Poll suggests that roughly 79 percent of Washington voters want everyone screened, including private individuals buying from other private individuals.

Among gun owners, 71 percent of the respondents wanted checks on all purchasers.

The poll hardly looks stacked against gun supporters. It also reported that 55 percent considered the protection of gun rights more important than the control of gun ownership. But even if, say, a 10 percent bias against firearms were embedded in the poll, support for universal background checks would still be extraordinarily high.

Cut to Olympia, where a bill that would enact those checks is faltering in the Legislature – fought by absolutists purporting to represent responsible gun owners.

House Bill 1588 wouldn’t ban military-style “assault weapons.” It wouldn’t require that gun owners register their firearms. It wouldn’t slap them with prohibitive insurance requirements. It wouldn’t make it harder for them to get concealed pistol permits.

No reasonable person can construe it as attack on a law-abiding person’s right to bear arms – a right that is explicitly guaranteed by the Washington Constitution, not to mention the Second Amendment.

HB 1588 is designed to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on firearms. It wouldn’t catch all of the bad guys – who can steal guns or buy them on the black market – but it wouldn’t deter irresponsible sellers and create an additional obstacle that would likely save lives.
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