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Q&A with Majority Floor Leader Rep. Monica Stonier on what’s to come in the 2019 session

Rep. Monica Stonier represents the 49th Legislative District, which covers central and west Vancouver. She was elected to serve as Majority Floor Leader in Olympia next session, and will sit on the Capital Budget, Education, Health Care & Wellness, and Rules Committees. Outside her role as legislator, she works as an instructional coach at Pacific Middle School.

Stonier chairs the Improving State Funding for School Construction Joint Legislative Task Force, which was created in the 2017-19 Capital Budget and wrapped up its final recommendations in December. The Washington State Wire talked to Stonier about the task force (which has since issued its final report) and what to expect next session.

Sara Gentzler: What are the key issues you see as priorities for your caucus this session?

Monica Stonier: Definitely making sure that people have access to health care. That’s very important, particularly mental and behavioral health services. I think we recognize that that’s a huge need in every community across the state. The opioid crisis has definitely taken hold of our communities in a very scary way, and I think you’re going to see bills proposed that are going to try to address this at a community level, in K-12 schools, on college campuses, from an educational standpoint, and in the health care realm. I feel good knowing that bipartisan work is going to probably take front-and-center of a lot of our health care conversations.

Certainly, our housing crisis is one that is dynamic and the needs are different in each region of the state. So finding statewide fixes is always, always a challenge. But we really need to look to legislators in every district to determine what the needs are in their particular district and see what we can do to help support our communities in solving the housing crisis.

Our environment, of course, continues to be front-of-mind, and making sure that we are doing our part as a state to contribute to a healthier, cleaner planet is important. And I think our Caucus is excited about doing that, too.

SG: Do you think your priorities for your district align with that agenda, in general?

MS: Yeah, I do. My priorities will include making sure kids have access to health care services, making sure that we have better delivery of behavioral and mental health services, particularly for our youth. And, additionally, making sure our graduation requirements work for every kid and help build our workforce, and not just being fully focused on a university experience … actually, today I have a bill sitting next to me that I’m working on revisions for that’s very focused on making sure all kids can graduate when they meet the reasonable requirements to do so.

SG: When I looked online, I didn’t see any publicly available pre-filed bills you’re sponsoring …

MS: They’re all sitting next to me in this folder right now; they’re not ready yet. One is increasing the Medicaid rate to parity Medicare rates, which I think will help with access to health care services. One is my graduation requirements bill. Another one is a draft of an affordable benefits plan that would help stand up a portable benefits program here in Washington state. And then … the last bill I have here is a health care transparency bill that brings some regulations to our benefit managers; because currently they are operating without accountability and guidelines, and that really drives the cost of health care up.

SG: Assuming that the recommendations from the Joint Legislative Task Force on Improving State Funding for School Construction are passed on to the legislature, do you foresee any movement there in terms of policy?

MS: Yes. In fact, Senator Pedersen has been working on this for a long time and had a bill last biennium that had some of these recommendations in it. So we have a really great frame to work from in his past legislation.

I think we have to make the case to our communities better to help them pass their bonds that their schools are building that serve their community at-large in ways other than K-12. Because when the community comes into the building for a number of different activities or resource opportunities, they realize how important those buildings are and are going to be more likely to support them, in my opinion, when a bond comes up.

So if we can help sure that we give some credit for providing early learning opportunities, extended learning opportunities, community events, perhaps access to health care services when the school building is closed — if we can make good use of those facilities, then I think we can continue to garner public support for construction.

SG: There’s been buzz around that fifth recommendation, to pursue the simple majority on bonds; does it seem like that would be a realistic policy goal for this next session?

MS: That’s another folder I have here. I have been holding on to that one because I was working with folks to see if there wasn’t going to be some support from the Republican Caucus. Schools are suffering from the lack of ability to pass bonds. We win our elections by 50 percent plus one or lose them. And I think we should go back to the way the state was able to pass bonds in the past, which was a simple majority.

It’s not always been the case that we needed a super-majority to pass bonds. Sometimes I hear, “We can’t do that because it’ll land us in another McCleary.” But, in actuality, the constitution tells us we have to fund schools. The constitution says that communities can pass their own bonds for construction. So I’m not concerned about that.

Now, whether or not we have the votes for it is an entirely different situation. I’m expecting to work with others who think that we should certainly move the needle on super-majorities, but maybe not go so far as a simple majority. I’d holding fast in fighting for a simple majority currently, but I also understand that I’m going to have to work with my colleagues to see where we can get the votes. But we absolutely will do something this session.

SG: Is there anything you’d like to add?

MS: One of things I really learned in chairing that task force — and this isn’t new information for me, but certainly was better illustrated — was that the things that we do in our policy committees have direct impact on the budget. And the capital budget is a good example of that.

When we say, in policy, kids have to take a certain number of lab science classes; that means, on the capital side, construction has to meet that demand. And for schools that were recently built before that policy passed or are old and can’t pass a bond, that has a huge impact on our ability to actually deliver the teaching, and the instruction, the curriculum that has been mandated by the state.

And the same is true on the operating budget side. When our operating budget doesn’t fund the policies that have been passed, that puts a huge burden on the districts to figure out how to pay for that locally, and that’s how we ended up funding so many staff out of local levies instead of out of the state dollars. So I really learned, in this last year, all of the intersections there and how to keep a better eye on what we’re doing on the policy level and raise it to the level of awareness for our budget writers, where one may impact the other.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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