In Meridian High School’s auditorium, Whatcom County residents gathered to question local politicians on a range of topics.
District 42 Senator Doug Ericksen, Representative Luanne Van Werven and Representative-Elect Sharon Shewmake met on Jan. 5 and fielded questions regarding local and state-level issues. Two hotly-debated topics were the proposed carbon tax and teachers’ salaries.
Shewmake, who was recently elected as a District 43 representative will be sworn in Jan. 14, said climate change is a serious issue and stated her support for a measure that would tax polluting companies $10 per ton of carbon they produce.
Sen. Ericksen, however, was hesitant about the tax and said it felt more designed to change transportation habits of people rather than of corporations.
“The people who are advocating cap-and-trade, they want to change behavior,” Ericksen said.
“They don’t want you to drive your car, they want you to ride the bus.”
This statement came after an audience member expressed concern to Ericksen that the carbon tax could hurt gas prices.
One audience member expressed to Shewmake concern over whether the revenues from the tax will go to homeowners and not to other unsanctioned governmental uses. Shewmake said the money generated by the tax goes directly back into Washington households.. This, she said, should put traditional energy production on an even playing field with clean energy.
“It should be that reducing pollution saves you money; right now it doesn’t,” Shewmake said.
Shewmake said she believes the current version of the tax is preferable because other politicians are more likely to rally behind it.
“I want a policy that legislators in Virginia will want to copy,” she said. “That’s also something you need to pressure your legislators about.”
In November, Washington voters rejected a carbon fee on fossil-fuel emissions that was proposed under Initiative
1631, but discussion about a similar measure has continued.
During the meeting, the carbon tax was repeatedly referred to as a “cap-and-trade system.” However, according to the Carbon Tax Center website, the two operate differently. The carbon tax is a fixed fee on a set amount of carbon expelled by factories.
A cap-and-trade system sets a high limit on carbon emissions, but permits companies to buy and trade allowances to emit more. This gives them incentive to find more cost-effective ways of cutting emissions, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Another prominent issue in the meeting surrounded the topic of raising teachers’ pay, which legislators had differing opinions on.
“These are the people who are working for students; who are in charge of our future,” Shewmake said. “And there’s really good data that said if you don’t pay teachers appropriately, when you don’t treat them like professionals...they don’t do a good job of treating our students.”
The issue of teacher salaries came up at a few points during discussion of taxation and what to do with tax revenue.
One of the ideas was the concept of giving that money towards schools.
Rep. Van Werven agreed with Shewmake that teachers are an important facet of children’s lives, but doubted whether a pay raise would work towards giving students a better education.
“Are we saying that last year they were doing less than their best, and now that we’re going to give them double-digit pay raises they’re going to be better teachers?” Van Werven said. “Money alone isn’t going to produce the results we are looking for.”
Earlier in the meeting, Rep.Van Werven said Washington state teachers make about $100,000 a year. When asked about it later, she clarified that the average for Washington state was actually around $85,000 a year and that bonuses increase that by $25,000.
According to the National Education Association, the national average for teachers’ starting pay from 2016 through
2017 was $38,617 a year. The average for Washington state is slightly higher at $40,725.
In addition to concerns over the carbon tax and teacher salaries,
Inland Boatman’s Union member Anthony Distefano told Sen. Ericksen that 75 percent of ferry captains and engineers are retiring and that the workforce is aging in that sector. He asked Ericksen what Washington state was planning on doing to benefit ferries.
Ericksen said subsidization of ferries, increases in fares and finding different ways to increase competition between Washington State Ferry corporations were all under discussion.
Distefano attended the town hall because two of the three hosts were part of the House Transportation Committee and he wanted to speak to those in charge of funding his industry.
“All the representatives and the senator presented their viewpoints very well,” Distefano said.