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Morning Wire: LD redistricting map proposals, Q&A w/ Sen. Emily Randall, School seismic upgrades

Rain or shine, we here at the Wire are gearing up for today’s Convening Panel meeting in preparation for the 2021 Re-Wire Policy Conference. We’ll be hearing from a wide range of folks on what policy issues they think are the most important and pressing in Washington. It helps inform our coverage, and ensures you’ll be getting the most relevant information at the conference on Dec 15

While convening panels and conferences sounds awfully formal, what we’re really trying to do is keep our finger on the pulse of Washington State politics. Part of that means listening to our readers. If you’ve got a tip or lead you want to plant in our ear, we want to hear from you!

1. Redistricting opinions drawn along partisan lines

Even in a state like Washington, which has a bipartisan redistricting commission, politics are front and center as commissioners submit and redraw legislative and congressional district maps. If you need more proof, check out our story. In short, partisans from both sides are calling foul on the other, and there’s interesting decisions in each of the four maps. Keep an eye out for congressional district maps, which are scheduled to be released later today. 

Highlighted in our story is some political skirmishes in northwest Washington, particularly around Bellingham. Both Republican plans want to carve the blue city out, and merge it with the San Juan Islands, which would make Sen. Doug Ericksen’s reelection season much less stressful. Democrats on the other hand want to shrink the 42nd LD, while leaving Ericksen’s town of Lynden in a relatively more urban district with Bellingham. There’s also points of contention over how commissioners dealt with Aberdeen, Bainbridge Island, and the Hood Canal peninsula.

2. Q&A w/ Sen. Emily Randall on higher education

Sen. Emily Randall is hoping to find a way to allow students who graduate from technical or apprenticeship programs to earn an associate’s degree at the same time. It’s one of several issues Sen. Randall, who chairs the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, told us she’s thinking about as the 2022 session approaches. She’s also examining ways to increase and strengthen the pipeline of nurses and health care workers in the state’s education system as the pandemic continues. 

Higher education enrollment took a hit in 2020, with enrollment in two-year institutions dropping 19.3% and enrollment at four-year colleges dropping 2.4%. This year’s head count isn’t in quite yet, but Sen. Randall said there’s mixed signals with some colleges reporting an increase in enrollment, while others are seeing lower numbers again. The reasons for that likely vary, but students who were more vulnerable to being pushed out of higher education before the pandemic will likely need targeted assistance, which Sen. Randall is hoping to address this session. 

3. How to fund seismic school upgrades

To bring every school built before 1997 up to seismic code could cost north of $3 billion, according to some back of the napkin math from the OSPI. It’s a hefty number considering the total capital budget for the 2021-23 biennium was roughly $6.3 billion. Since 2020, the Legislature has allocated $53 million to retrofit schools and bring them up to code to protect students and staff in the event of an earthquake. 

That’s considerably less than British Columbia, Oregon, and California, as pointed out in a letter the Wire received from former state Rep. Jim Buck. Retrofitting the schools that need attention is also made more difficult by the way capital projects are financed, where the cost is split between the state and the local school district. It means that while some places with a greater tax base, like Seattle, can afford to pay their share of the retrofitting funding, other districts cannot. OSPI and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos would like to see the Legislature go back to the drawing board and put more state funds toward upgrading vulnerable schools. 

4. Two items on COVID vaccines

There’s pandemic news on two fronts this week, both dealing with vaccines. The first comes by way of a lawsuit that was filed challenging Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state employees, health care workers, and educators, which takes effect on Oct. 18. A Walla Walla Superior Court judge yesterday granted the state’s petition to change venue to Thurston County. The lawsuit challenges the vaccine mandate on grounds that Inslee overstepped his authority. 

The second item is Inslee’s announcement last week that booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine are now available for Washingtonians 65 and older, and all adults with underlying health conditions. It’s a long-expected move, and one that has not been without controversy. Those who received either Moderna or J&J vaccines will still need to wait for approval before getting booster shots.

5. Where to put a new commercial airport

Demand for air travel is expected to double by 2050 in Washington State, and is expected to outstrip capacity at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Paine Field, even with planned expansions. At the same time, air cargo and general aviation are also expected to increase. So the state is on the hunt for a new commercial airport, and wants your feedback on where it should be located. 

There’s a shortlist of six possible airports, each with their own set of restrictions, and according to a statement from Sen. Karen Keiser, none of them appear likely to be fully-developed into a commercial facility. Still, that increase in air traffic will need to go somewhere, and according to a survey conducted over the summer, the least popular option among Puget Sound residents is to do nothing. 

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