A shared sense of destiny and affection for our community.
A desire for civil public discourse.
A respect for basic human dignity, democratic institutions and the rule of law.
A pledge to our descendants to leave the South Sound, like the proverbial Boy Scout campsite, a little better than we found it.
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If The News Tribune Editorial Board were to publish a declaration of ideals, it might look something like that. But how should those principles play out, what form should they take, as we the people of Washington and Pierce County advance into an uncertain 2017?
Today marks the 29th year we’re laying out a civic agenda, outlining priority topics for editorial comment. The agenda varies somewhat from year to year, although several topics stick around because they reflect transcendent values, such as education and open government.
We’ll start by putting our flag in the sand on an issue that’s new to the agenda this year.
Sustain a blue-collar employment base
Having a deepwater port known as one of the deepest in the country is a rare asset that should never be taken lightly. The South Sound’s stature as a gateway for U.S.-Asia trade was established long before a public vote created the Port of Tacoma nearly a century ago, in 1918.
But Tacoma is more than just a shipping hub for inland freight. It’s always enjoyed the benefits of a working waterfront, dating back to the sawmill Nicholas Delin built at Dock Street and Puyallup Avenue in 1852.
Local leaders must rededicate themselves to preserving this economic workhorse in 2017.
The future of the Tideflats entered an alarming phase last year when citizen activists, mobilized under the auspices of Red Line Tacoma, burst onto the scene. Their public safety and environmental concerns about port energy projects went viral through social media, supplemented by traditional grass-roots tactics.
Red Line helped kill a proposed $3.6 billion methanol plant, although the private company behind the refinery didn’t do itself any favors; it clumsily communicated its shifting plans to produce up to 7.3 million tons of methanol a year for China using an unproven low-emissions technology.
Let’s be clear: Tacoma needs an informed, engaged citizenry more than it needs pom-pom wavers. We take no joy criticizing people driven by the admirable goal of keeping their neighborhoods safe.
But a bad precedent was set when standard permitting practices weren’t allowed to run their course. Instead of sound science and a full public process, which might well have killed the plan, economic development policy was hijacked by pseudo-scientific speculation and raw fear.
Emboldened activists then tried to derail Puget Sound Energy’s plans for a liquified natural gas plant. This project has survived Red Line protests because LNG is a known commodity, it will help wean shippers off dirty diesel fuel, and the facility is further along in the permit process.
Some local politicians stoked the anti-industry frenzy last year with irresponsible talk of rezoning land at the port. Such attitudes are blind to the port’s central role in creating and supporting hard-hat employment — the sector of our economy that ranks fifth in workers, but third in earning power.
While the Frederickson industrial area is an important extension of the port, containing all new manufacturing there would reduce job-creating opportunities and be a mistake. Only a fool would discount the value of direct access to deep water.
A Tacoma that trades its working waterfront for more condos, restaurants, shops and museums would be a poorer and less vibrant place, a city willing to sell part of its soul.
Candidates for mayor, City Council and Port Commission this year must lead a dialogue about sustaining a home base of living-wage blue-collar jobs. Let it be a dialogue in which hard facts prevail over high emotions.
Take the offensive on school-funding mess
There’s no time left for state lawmakers to waste while figuring out how to bring full and fair funding to the public school system.
For five years, they’ve been chasing a state Supreme Court deadline to meet their constitutional duty to K-12 students by 2018. On top of that, they passed a bill last year pledging to get the job done in 2017. They’re off to an ominously slow start, after a bipartisan task force met for the last seven months but couldn’t agree on recommendations before the Legislature opens Monday.
One of the big obstacles hasn’t changed: Reaching agreement on how the state will shoulder the full burden of school employee salaries, no longer leaning on local school district levies to pad paychecks. Shifting some local taxing capacity to the state is the only way to ensure revenues flow equitably to all districts — wealthy and poor, urban and rural.
The political dynamics also haven’t changed: Republicans hold slight control in the Senate, Democrats in the House, while Gov. Jay Inslee oversees it all. A breakthrough hinges on fresh thinking and changed hearts.
If that’s not possible, and if elected leaders can’t accept the costs and tradeoffs of the court’s edict to fully fund a basic education, then perhaps they should redefine what a basic education is.
State budget writers also must remember that producing lifelong learners and successful citizens doesn’t stop with K-12; it is bracketed by preschool at the front and higher education at the back.
The word “punt” has been used too many times in recent years — by legislators, education officials and this editorial board — to describe lawmakers’ halting progress toward school funding reform. This year, they must keep the offense on the field as long as it takes.
Care for mentally ill, addicts and homeless
Evidence of a behavioral health crisis is pervasive and appalling. The mentally ill fill local jails, emergency rooms and every available bed at Western State Hospital. People with addictions and other untreated conditions inhabit street corners, riverbanks and makeshift camps. Prescription drug and heroin abuse are rampant.
It will take a coordinated effort by state and local leaders, hospitals and nonprofits to confront the crisis in 2017. Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland had the right idea when she recently formed a regional coalition to work specifically on homelessness policies.
One perennial concern is the lack of psychiatric treatment beds, with Pierce County ranking at the bottom of Washington’s urban counties. The governor set an ambitious tone in his proposed two-year budget; he would spread 1,000 new beds around the state as part of a $300 million mental health overhaul. This would take the non-criminal patient load off Western, the chronically understaffed and underperforming state psychiatric hospital in Lakewood.
The South Sound legislative delegation will be pressured to get behind Inslee’s proposal or else identify a serious alternative. The pressure rises because of the Pierce County Council’s stubborn refusal to invest in behavioral health resources.
Depending on what happens in Olympia, progressives on the County Council must be ready to push again for a mental health tax. The county also ought to cast its lot with local cities to support a psychiatric hospital in Central Tacoma. The MultiCare and Franciscan hospital systems plan to jointly operate it as early as 2019.
Keep transportation investments on track
To look at the near-constant twinkle of brake lights on local roadways, you’d never know the South Sound has enjoyed a couple of banner years for congestion relief.
Money to finally extend light rail to Tacoma was part of a tri-county Sound Transit measure approved by voters in November. Though trains won’t reach Tacoma Dome Station until 2030, the vote represents a sort of crossing of the Rubicon for the region’s Seattle-centric mass-transit system.
Meanwhile, more freeway lanes are planned for Interstate 5 near JBLM, and state Route 167 will be built out from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma — the highlights of a package approved by the 2015 Legislature.
For those seeking immediate results, Pierce Transit is restoring 35,000 hours of service this year, and more Sounder trains and express buses will operate. Amtrak trains will run more reliably once the Point Defiance Bypass is completed this year.
But with billions of dollars of work ahead of them, transportation officials must be accountable to deliver on time and within budget while being responsive to neighborhood concerns.
Sound Transit project timelines are infamously slippery, but the southern light-rail extension can’t be allowed to slip. Legislators also must guard against backsliding on their commitments in the 2015 transportation package.
Gridlocked Pierce County has waited long enough already.
Don’t forget veterans
A hundred years ago, the seeds were planted for what is now Pierce County’s largest employer, JBLM. As World War I raged, the Army built Camp Lewis in record time (90 days) on land donated by local taxpayers. By the end of 1917, some 37,000 soldiers were stationed here.
Centennial events will come and go this year, but one way the civilian community can uphold the local military legacy is to offer ongoing support for JBLM’s training mission (including the occasional loud booms). We also should honor veterans of all generations with more than kind words.
Those hanging up their uniforms merit special attention. Recent downsizing at the base has magnified the need for job training and college opportunities, as well as life-transition programs such as Lakewood-based RP/6.
Looking out for these veterans is the least we can do, a duty owed to the small fraction of Americans who carried the fight for 15 straight years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Illuminate dark corners of government
This editorial board will stay relentless in championing the public’s right to know. Washington’s is blessed with a strong Public Records Act, a daunting bar for any government official whose instinct is to keep information hidden. But that doesn’t stop many from trying to wriggle under the limbo stick.
Bureaucrats pussyfoot on releasing records or make them too expensive to obtain. Officials exploit technology, such as text messages, to evade the noses of watchdogs.
Lawmakers like to dream up new exemptions to open meetings and public documents. The Legislature also has come dangerously close to limiting the number of hours local government clerks have to spend fulfilling records requests.
We commend those who correct their mistakes, as two local governments did in 2016. The County Council wisely ditched ethics commission confidentiality rules that punished whistleblowers. The Port Commission pledged to hold three public meetings before taking a vote on any major industrial project.
Conversely, we call out officials who have a vampire-like fear of sunshine. That includes governors and other executives unwilling to negotiate public employee contracts in the open.
Bridge the great divides
The last year or so seems to have accentuated our country’s differences, especially when it comes to race and politics.
The nation has made progress on race, but it remains a principal determinant in where we live, whom we socialize with, who gets what job or promotion, in income disparity and unequal treatment by the justice system.
Politics has devolved, in some ways, into warring camps. Compromise or accommodation is betrayal. Social media exist to excoriate, shame or shout down opponents.
On so many issues, we retreat to comfortable bubbles and fail to interact with, much less appreciate, people who don’t look, think or act like us.
We all have an obligation to work harder to empathize, understand and appreciate those on the other side. Thoughtful advocacy and a willingness to listen — community values embodied by the Tacoma Police Department’s Project P.E.A.C.E. initiative — must be nurtured and fulfilled.
As an editorial board, we pledge to praise and promote civil discourse and diverse opinions.