This Washington

The 37th District's Bleak Town Hall Meeting

By Chris Kissel February 20, 2010

The town hall held this morning by 37th District state legislators—Reps. Eric Pettigrew and Sharon Tomiko Santos, and Sen. Adam Kline, repping South Seattle, Renton, and Tukwila—turned bleak fast.

In the light of Gov. Chris Gregoire's December all-cuts budget, (she since proposed taxes to save programs) constituents from Seattle's notoriously underserved district testified in varying states of desperation.  A woman who said she lost the state medical benefits to help pay for her lupus treatments talked uneasily and seemed on the edge of tears. "It just seems like the most vulnerable are getting hammered," she said. "I've worked for my whole life," she added.

That exemplified the dire tone of the meeting, as others made pleas for programs like Planned Parenthood, adult day care, and state medical benefits, giving the Democratic legislators the opportunity to try and sell the tax increases and unemployment measures they're pushing in Olympia. (Both the state House and Senate Democrats will propose their budgets on Tuesday, both are likely to include tax increases like the governor's latest proposal.)

About 120 people filled up the cafeteria at Zion Prep School in Columbia City. There was murmuring at the start of the meeting about Tea Partiers, and there seemed to be a collective anxiety at the idea, but aside from a couple standing awkwardly by the door in McCain/Palin T-shirts, there wasn't much in the way of a Tea Party rebellion. (Kline, making opening remarks, told Tea Party members to “please identify yourselves. It's what we would do if we were at a meeting of your organization.”)

Kline sat between Tomiko Santos and Pettigrew on the stage, and was clearly the center of gravity among the three,

harping forcefully on the need to raise taxes, and gathering waves of applause almost every time he spoke. (Oly veteran Kline is facing a Democratic challenger in November, Eric Liu.) "There's this disconnect in the public mind, they have no idea what these taxes are for," Kline said at one point, after mentioning his efforts to take on Tim Eyman, who he referred to as "the salesman from Mukilteo." "They think that [taxes] fund fraud, waste, and abuse. Government can't run without taxes."

Sen. Adam Kline (D-37)

Steve Gibbs, a member of the Board of Directors at Lifelong AIDS Alliance, asked the legislators what they were going to do to get funding back for services like his. (Kline responded, "This is a service we pay for with taxes. Of course, the proponents of tax cuts will never mention that.")

Afterward, Gibbs was hesitant to say he was optimistic about the possibility that they would win back a lot of the cuts in the remainder of the session (it ends on March 11).

I asked Kline afterward about how he prioritizes his constituents' concerns. “I try not to do it on my gut, but you kind of have to," he said. "I really try to give the priority to low-income people.”

Those who weren't asking about funding cuts asked mostly about jobs. Nicole Grant, an electrician who lives in the 37th, asked a question about job losses. Tomiko Santos and Kline talked about selling government bonds to finance more building projects, a plan that would create jobs for blue collar workers (and also stick Washington State with a long-term debt to pay back). "We have to engage in great public works, [which will] benefit an entire generation," Tomiko Santos said. (The House Democrats are pushing a bill, sponsored by Everett-area Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44) that would fund green retrofits of public schools with an $861 million bond.)

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37)

Grant told me afterward she was mostly satisfied with the response. "I think that'll be an opportunity for people to say, 'we want jobs,'" said Grant. "I think people feel really disenfranchised right now, and that would give them something to fight for."

One more interesting item: A group of town car drivers who had been entirely silent during the question session mobbed around each of the legislators directly after the meeting. At one point, about 10 or so of them gathered around Kline, lobbying him on a bill in play in Olympia right now that would allow cities to regulate limo and town care drivers the way they regulate taxi services. (PubliCola Olympia reporter Josh Cohen reported on the limo bill here.)

"We've been singled out," one of them said angrily, jabbing at the air with his forefinger. The man standing next to him nodded. "You'll see us in Olympia, we'll be down there knocking on your door," he said.

Kline wasn't eager to agree with the limo drivers or the bill sponsors when I asked him about the exchange. "I don't think this is a safety issue," he said, citing bill sponsor Rep. Scott White's rationale for the bill. "I think this is an issue of competition between two industries, and I'm concerned that they're not playing on an even field.”
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