Responding to the myriad effects and after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly occupy state lawmakers for years to come. The central issue, as in most things in government, will resolve around money.
In the Aug. 4 primary election, voters in District 10 will choose among five candidate who covet Rep. Norma Smith’s seat in the state House of Representatives. The longtime Republican representative is not running for reelection, opening up an important seat in a district that covers Island and Skagit counties, as well as part of Snohomish County.
An online forum run by the League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island illuminated, to some extent, the candidates’ views on how the state should respond to the pandemic.
Voters with progressive inclinations may have a tough time picking their preferred choice with four Democratic candidates, while there is only one Republican candidate.
Oak Harbor resident Angie Homola is a former Island County commissioner, a small business owner and an architect. She also ran unsuccessfully for a District 10 state representative position in 2016. Homola came into office as a county commissioner at the height of the Great Repression and has experience balancing a declining budget while trying to minimize the impact on services.
Scott McMullen, also a former District 10 legislative candidate, is a firefighter, a former Mount Vernon councilman, an Air Force veteran and a community volunteer.
Suzanne Woodard of Clinton is a first-time candidate, a labor advocate, a registered nurse with 30 years of experience and a volunteer for community service efforts to help young people.
Ivan Lewis is a Central Whidbey resident with diverse life experience as a small business owner, a manager with years of experience in early childhood education and a volunteer firefighter and EMT.
Greg Gilday, a Stanwood attorney and real estate broker, stands alone as the only Republican candidate. A first-time candidate, he’s a Rotarian and a former board member of the Safe Harbor Free Clinic and the Stanwood Camano Food Bank.
During the online forum, the candidates were questioned about funding for Employment Security and education in the face of the pandemic.
Homola said the state’s taxing structure is the least fair in the nation, with “multi-millionaires who are paying less taxes than the people who are making them rich and can’t afford to buy diapers.” She said she would support a capital gains and wealth taxes, but they may not be able to fill the gap in the state’s projected budget shortfall.
“I would like to advocate an economic impact study to evaluate our existing tax structure and alternatives,” she said, “one that engages the public and then helps decide what will work best for them.”
In response to a question about education, Homola said the pandemic has created an unprecedented need to overhaul the “delivery system of education” and the state will need to help pay for that. She said bringing students back to schools is important because those with struggling home environments don’t do as well with remote education.
She said impact fees that the military pays school districts may need to increase. She would like to see junior taxing districts being able to increase tax collections above the current 1 percent-a-year limit, which doesn’t keep up with inflation’s costs.
McMullen said the state cannot let people fall through the cracks and Employment Security needs to be shored up. He also stressed that the wealthiest are paying only a small percentage — 3 percent — of the state’s tax revenue. He said capital gains and luxury taxes will need to be looked at, but cuts may also be necessary.
“Everything should be on the table,” he said.
McMullen said bringing students back to schools is important if it can be done safely. He said parents want students to go back and students want to go back.
“We have to make this a priority,” he said of funding the increased costs of education due to COVID-19, “and hopefully it can come from some of the tax revenues we will look at to finance this as well.”
Woodard said working families, senior citizens and those in the service sector were hit hard by the impact of the pandemic. Working families and small businesses, she said, struggled with the tax burden even before the pandemic and leaders can’t look at them for the state’s increased revenue needs.
“We can’t sacrifice our commitment to services that support our community during these times of trouble,” she said.
Woodard said it’s “imperative to correct our aggressive tax structure” and that includes looking at “tax carve outs” for corporations and taking a hard look at capital gains and luxury taxes.
When it comes to bringing students back to schools, Woodard was the most hesitant among the candidates. She has a husband who works for the South Whidbey School District, she said, and will always err on the side of safety. She said the officials need to put the brakes on opening schools until it is ensured that students and staff will be safe.
“We don’t want to start something and then have to reel it back,” she said.
Lewis spoke more broadly and philosophically about his ideas. “
“It is imperative that we strongly invest in our funding mechanisms rather than falling on austerity,” he said.
Lewis said Employment Security isn’t a program the state can allow to come up short. He said lawmakers will need to look at different funding mechanisms “for a more secure environment moving forward.”
Lewis said education has a wonderful return in investment and it should be something the state more broadly invests in. That means, he said, funding not just K-12 education but an array of support services, mental health professionals, child care, pre-K education and career readiness.
“Those are things we need to be investing in and we should do that as a broad package,” he said, “not just filling in the stopgaps with shortfalls but also looking at how do we really invest in cradle-to-career education.”
In contrast to his opponents, Gilday said he is not in favor of tax increases. He said the first thing that needs to happen is for Suzi LeVine to step down as commissioner for the Employment Security Department because she’s shown “a failure of leadership.”
Gilday said it’s not the right time to raise taxes.
“Increases in taxes just stunt any resurgence in the economy,” he said, “and would incentivize businesses to leave the state of Washington. And right now we need to encourage businesses to stay and invest in our state and invest in our labor pool.”
Among the candidates, Gilday spoke most strongly in support of bringing students back to school. The issue is “near and dear” to him since his wife teaches second grade in the Mount Vernon School District and his sons are in the Stanwood Camano School District.
He said he agrees with the American Academy of Pediatrics that said the policy considerations need to start with the goal of having in-person classes, which he said is “fundamental to a child’s development and well being.” He said the solution is to focus on the “risk mitigation strategies.”
But if remote learning is mandated or necessary, he said, it needs to meet educational standards, which currently isn’t happening.
“Schools were able to get away with doing very little,” he said, “and our kids are falling behind.”