Wednesday, January 8, 2020
OLYMPIA OLYMPICS: Alex Ramel has been appointed to serve out the remainder of Rep. Jeff Morris’ term in the Washington House of Representatives for the 40th Legislative District. The Skagit Board of County Commissioners met in a special joint meeting this week with their counterparts on Whatcom County Council and San Juan County Council to select among three names offered to replace Morris, who resigned late last year after representing the district for 22 years.
Each of the county legislative bodies that make up the 40th District received three votes to select the replacement. Ramel was nominated by Whatcom County Council member Todd Donovan, a motion seconded by Skagit Commissioner Lisa Janicki. The vote was a straightforward 5-4 in favor of Ramel, and encumbered only by the usual and predictable tomfoolery of Whatcom County Council—Rud Browne oddly recused himself, and Barbara Brenner and Tyler Bird continued their intractable patterns and voted no. This ultimately cost the Bellingham Democrat half of the votes against him. Two of Skagit County’s three commissioners—Ron Wesen and Ken Dahlstedt—also voted against Ramel’s appointment.
Commissioner Janicki said she was impressed with Ramel’s familiarity with state issues and knowledge of the priorities and committees he wanted to pursue in the coming session.
Ramel is indeed a fine choice to replace Morris in Olympia—a dependable vote, a quick study on emergent issues and already well versed in the state’s legislative agenda. He has already filed to run for election next fall to the full-term position.
Ramel was selected over three-term Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist and Marco Morales, a migrant graduation specialist with the Mount Vernon School District.
“Alex is an environmental organizer from Bellingham and brings with him a breadth of experience in addressing both the need for affordable housing and climate change in the 40th LD,” Rep. Debra Lekanoff said of her new colleague in a statement. “Immediately sworn in after the commissioners vote, Alex will be joining me in Olympia for the 2020 Legislative Session.”
Ramel in turn predicted he would join a strong team with Lekanoff and Sen. Liz Lovelett representing the diverse issues of the powerfully progressive 40th District.
Morris made his mark out of the gate in in 1997, when he went from being sworn into office to being thrown into a fight for the state ferry system, joining with Anacortes to save the Anacortes to Sidney, BC ferry run. In a remarkable parallel, Ramel finds himself cast into a similar predicament in Olympia this session.
Washington State Ferries has an operating funding gap of approximately $30 million annually. Historically, this revenue has been made up through special transfers from the WSDOT gas tax fund, but gas tax revenues are now fully committed for debt service on Dept. of Transportation highway projects as the state pays heavy interest to commercial banks.
The passage of Initiative 976 to slash car-tab fees creates additional funding uncertainty for highway—and marine highway—projects. Whether that initiative is properly constructed and constitutional is currently under review by the state courts. With the initiative in place the state is looking at $454 million gap in transportation spending.
If the initiative isn’t thrown out in court “we have to be prepared for the impacts and consequences of that, and my job is to make sure that we don’t lose services that our community relies on,” Ramel said. “I think there is a path forward.”
Ramel said he is excited to tackle state policy response to climate change, which is expected to consume a great deal of the attention of the Legislature this session.
“I am eager to see us put a price on carbon pollution,” he said. “There may be an economy-wide cap-and-trade program proposed, or a low-carbon fuel standard enacted,” he predicted. “My understanding is it will be one or the other. But if we can get it right, an economy-wide system is better than a solution for the transportation sector only. But the details in either proposal matter.”
Another issue of particular interest to Ramel this session is stabilizing the state’s Housing Trust Fund as a means to address affordable housing.
Since 1989, the Housing Trust Fund has successfully built, rehabilitated and preserved more than 36,000 healthy and affordable homes across the state. These investments have created thousands of jobs and have generated millions in state and local tax revenues.
Housing Trust Fund dollars support a wide range of projects serving a diverse array of low-income populations. Projects can serve people with incomes up to 80 percent of area median income (AMI), but the majority of projects funded to date serve households with special needs or incomes below 30 percent of AMI, including homeless families, seniors, farmworkers, and people with developmental disabilities. Washington has specifically structured its housing trust funds to encourage and support affordable housing efforts at the county level, and can leverage local housing levy tax dollars.
“We face a big crisis in the costs of housing,” Ramel admitted, “and I have been an advocate for improving the funding of that tool, fully funding it, and using those funds as intelligently as we can to address this problem.
“It’s a short session with a lot to do, and I am starting a bit behind others who are already at work,” Ramel said. “I’m looking forward to it.”