Our readers deserve to know our agenda. That’s why, every January, The News Tribune’s editorial board spells out its chief concerns and priorities for South Sound communities and the state as a whole.
The list evolves from year to year as problems get solved, issues fade and new ones take their place. This is meant as a key to the local and state commentary we are likely to make over the course of the year. If we sound obsessed about, say, state Route 167 over the next few months, the discussion below gives you fair warning.
Our civic agenda for 2014:
OPEN TRAFFIC CHOKEPOINTS
The Legislature must pass a statewide transportation package this winter.
Another round of investment in Washington’s highways and transit systems is overdue. Traffic – and the state’s economic future – is being squeezed at chokepoints from Spokane to Snoqualmie Pass to Interstate 405.
The biggest chokepoint of all is state Route 167, which abruptly ends at Puyallup instead of connecting to Interstate 5 and the Port of Tacoma, as originally planned. The unfinished six-mile gap is forcing processions of northbound trucks onto crowded I-5. It is threatening the future of the port and blocking the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.
A proposed transportation bill would complete that critical connection as part of a larger strategic plan to speed the movement of goods to and from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
The same package would include enough funding for a major down payment on expanding the I-5 corridor from Lakewood to Lacey – a stretch that has become severely congested by the growth of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and nearby communities.
The Legislature can’t neglect the state’s critical transportation infrastructure without threatening the jobs and commerce it supports.
Tough childhood, tough life. Stress, neglect, abuse and poverty put many kids at a severe disadvantage long before they hit kindergarten.
It’s not just a matter of attitude or self-esteem. Using MRI scans, researchers at Washington University, Mo., have been charting distinct patterns of physical brain damage in young children who’ve endured harsh parenting and other early life stresses. Just getting yelled at frequently, it seems, can impair a child’s prospects in life.
Many of America’s social problems would be eased if more of the very young were getting a healthy start. A network of Pierce County community groups, coordinated by United Way, are working to protect struggling children, prepare them for school and teach positive child-rearing practices to their parents.
These and similar efforts deserve wholehearted support.
IMPLEMENT MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION RESPONSIBLY
Washingtonians in 2012 voted to legalize the production and sale of marijuana under tight conditions designed to help keep the drug away from minors. That was the easy part.
The hard part will be making the new system work well enough to actually cut use among adolescents and hurt the black market. The illegal grows and trafficking won’t go away just because licensed stores open; state and local officials will need the courage to shut down criminal dealing and help push the market to the regulated outlets.
The Legislature will face an early test of its seriousness as it considers tighter rules on “medical marijuana” to eliminate the dispensaries and quack prescribers who chiefly cater to recreational users.
Drug seekers – as well as bona fide patients – will soon be able to get cannabis at the licensed retailers. The new law won’t live up to its promises if selling outside the system is tolerated.
Colorado, which also legalized marijuana in 2012, is a little ahead of Washington in creating a regulated industry. Lawmakers and the Liquor Control Board should track Colorado’s experiment closely and avoid any mistakes it makes.
TREAT MENTAL ILLNESS
Washington’s approach to mental illness is a monument to public indifference and penny-pinching.
The Legislature’s failure to adequately fund treatment has left disturbed and anguished people wandering the streets, committing petty crimes and repeatedly landing in jails, which have become de facto psychiatric hospitals. In the worst cases, people with untreated disorders have committed violent crimes, including homicides.
Libertarianism and fiscal conservatism dominate Washington’s political culture. Both approaches to government have their virtues, but not when it comes to caring for people with disabling mental illnesses. They translate into fewer psychiatric hospital beds per capita than any other state.
The long-running push to close expensive beds at Western State Hospital has been cloaked as a humanitarian measure to allow patients to live in the community. Without enough treatment, though, “the community” often amounts to doorways, sidewalks, barred cells and unrelieved torment.
State policy should acknowledge that some patients need permanent, intensive, expensive care – and reopen hospital beds when that care can’t realistically be delivered on the cheap “in the community.”
Washington is now seeing a huge postwar homecoming as the United States withdraws its combat troops from Afghanistan.
Thousands of veterans are leaving the service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and the pace of separation is picking up: Roughly 6,000 soldiers will be discharged here in each of the next few years. The Puget Sound region is the best place many of them have seen, and 40 percent of the JBLM vets are expected to stay in Washington.
Most would probably trade some of the hero talk they get from the civilian world for a few good job offers.
America owes a great debt to the small percentage of citizens who’ve borne the burden of its military missions. As the economy picks up, employers in both the private and public sectors should go out of their way to consider hiring JBLM soldiers and airmen transitioning to civilian life.
CUT GOVERNMENT OVERHEAD
Five years after the Great Recession hit, some governments still haven’t adjusted to the new fiscal reality.
The City of Tacoma’s plight illustrates how the public suffers when city leaders fail to control spending.
Year after year, past city councils and city managers presided over expensive operations, creatively generous pay scales and fat medical benefits. They handed out big pay raises in the depths of the recession. They relied on short-term federal grants, optimistic budget assumptions, deferral of road work and other evasions to escape the unpopular decisions needed to put the city on a sustainable fiscal trajectory.
The reckoning has been terrible. Access to Tacoma’s once-proud library system has been curtailed, and two libraries in low-income neighborhoods have been closed outright. Neighborhood streets are decrepit. Police protection is in jeopardy.
Today’s City Council and City Manager T.C. Broadnax are struggling to bring the spending curve down. Tacoma should serve as a cautionary tale for other municipalities. Spendy practices and rich contracts ultimately hurt the citizens a city or county exists to serve.
KEEP GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABLE
The struggle for open government – which began in colonial days – is never won. Left to themselves, public agencies will try to restrict citizens’ access to potentially embarrassing documents and discussions.
In Olympia, for example, local governments have been pressing lawmakers for more power to restrict, delay or deny information requests they deem abusive or harassing. But it’s impossible to write broad rules targeting “abusers” without also targeting honest citizens who are trying to get to the bottom of suspicious and murky government actions.
Any exemptions from Washington’s open records and open meetings laws can be justified – solely and narrowly – for purposes that serve the public interest. Individual privacy, trade secrets, real estate deliberations and police investigations may be legitimate reasons to restrict information – but few other claims pass the public interest test.
Access to the inner workings of government should be expanded, not restricted.
The Legislature should require that all council and board meetings closed to the public be electronically recorded.
Citizens wouldn’t have access to those recordings, but they should be able to ask a judge to review them to determine whether the governing body had legal grounds for excluding the public. As things stand, citizens must take it on faith that critical decisions weren’t made in illegal secrecy.
The best local public records policy we’ve seen is an ordinance enacted last month by the Kirkland City Council. Among other provisions, it would allow citizens to track pending and completed information requests on the city’s website. That’s an example of genuine transparency – the foundation of accountable government.