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The budget, marijuana & cell phones top ‘telephone town hall’

By Scott Eisen, University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory

State representatives Mary Lou Dickerson and Reuven Carlyle (both D-36th District) held a “telephone town hall” Tuesday evening Jan. 19 to discuss the important issues facing Olympia this legislative session. About 30,000 constituents district-wide were called to enter into the conversation, although the exact number who made it on the line is not known. Questions ranged from Dickerson’s controversial legalization of marijuana bill to broader issues including education, taxes and transportation.

The town hall worked as a sort of large conference call. Everyone on the call could hear the questions and answers, and if so inclined, could enter into a queue to ask questions themselves.

While the focus of most questions was the economy, Dickerson’s bill (HB 2401) to legalize marijuana for those who are 21 and older may prove to be the most contentious issue facing the Legislature. On Wednesday, Jan. 20th, an executive session was scheduled, but no action was taken in the House Committee on Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness. The importance of this bill to Dickerson was expressed clearly in her opening remarks.

“The bill itself will generate $300 million worth of income that will go to pay for drug and alcohol treatment prevention services,” Dickerson said.

Carlyle, who stated that he supports some form of marijuana decriminalization, focused on the hot topic of cell phone use while driving a car. This would become a primary offense with the passage of a bill that Carlyle is sponsoring. The bill would make the use of a cell phone that is not hands-free, as well as texting or emailing, a primary offense.

The overwhelming theme of the meeting, however, was the budget: how to fix it and how it would affect other government services. With a projected $2.6 billion deficit facing the state, Carlyle spoke on the biggest problem at hand.

“Once again, we’re faced with some very serious questions about not only how to balance [the budget], but what’s the right thing from an equity, fairness and really a progressive approach to how we look at our funding in this state,” Carlyle said.

A couple questions from callers dealt with the potential for an income tax. Despite both representatives noting that an income tax has never received much support outside of Seattle, they talked about their belief in some sort of progressive tax, but with different approaches.

Carlyle made it clear that while he favors an income tax, his support is contingent on the lowering of other taxes such as sales and property. Dickerson, on the other hand, focused on a specific type of income tax known as the “millionaire’s tax.”

“It is a tax on high income earners,” Dickerson explained. “I have heard different scenarios on this, but it could raise hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars that we could use for education and basic health and human services.”

Education was also a big issue, with concerns about special-needs students attending colleges and universities, as well as how to make in-state universities more accessible to students graduating from in-state high schools. Serving on the committee of higher education, Carlyle addressed these questions and talked about a big priority in the Legislature known as “Reach to the Top.”

“The Obama administration has been very aggressive about setting the stage for education reform and Reach to the Top is how that’s playing out,” Carlyle clarified. “Reach to the top is a K-12 funding effort to have states compete for dollars.”

The other big issue of the evening was funding for transportation. Both reps talked about their desire to improve connections between downtown Seattle and Ballard, as well as work on linking transportation between the bus system, light rail and passenger cars.

Those who were unable to get on the call for the town hall, or have follow-up questions, may phone or email these representatives: Carlyle, (360) 786-7814, carlyle.reuven@leg.wa.gov; Dickerson, (360) 786-7860, Dickerson.marylou@leg.wa.gov.

(Contributor Scott Eisen is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)

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