A Republican state representative from Yelm is facing his first primary election challenge this year, but not from either of the two major political parties.
State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, will battle Steven Nielson, a Libertarian from Orting, and Graham resident Rick Payne, who is identified on the ballot as preferring the Marijuana party.
The three candidates are vying to represent the right-leaning 2nd Legislative District, which straddles the Pierce and Thurston county line and includes Graham, Orting, Yelm, Eatonville and other communities near Mt. Rainier.
The Aug. 5 primary election will decide which two candidates will move on to the general election, which is Nov. 4.
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Wilcox, the former chief financial officer for his family’s dairy farm in Roy, said his ties to the community and his political experience distinguish him from the other candidates in the race.
Since being elected to the state House in 2010, Wilcox has become a leader in his party, serving as House Republican floor leader and as one of three top Republicans on the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.
But Payne and Nielson both say it’s time for a change – albeit for different reasons. Nielson, a quality engineer who was recently named secretary of the state Libertarian party, said he thinks more can be done in the Legislature to cut government waste and lower taxes.
Payne, a retired union official, said he’s frustrated with what he called “gridlock” in Olympia, and that he thinks the state should make it easier for people like him to open marijuana businesses.
Debate over education funding will dominate the Legislature in 2015 and beyond. Lawmakers have been ordered by the state Supreme Court to fully fund the state’s education system by 2018, which legislative staff estimate will cost at least another $3.5 billion.
Wilcox said he thinks the Legislature needs to create a separate education budget that is funded first, which he said would ensure education spending is prioritized above other programs and projects.
“It’s just a simple moral choice that schools should be funded first, then we have discussions based on priorities about everything else,” Wilcox said.
The two-term incumbent has been wary of increasing taxes to boost education spending. In 2013, he opposed a plan proposed by House Democrats that would have raised money for schools by extending some taxes and letting some tax exemptions expire.
But Payne said he thinks lawmakers must look at ending tax exemptions to help fund education. After existing tax loopholes are closed, the Legislature still may need to consider other taxes, such as a soda tax, he said.
“We need to close loopholes before we do taxes,” Payne said. “Loopholes across the board.”
Payne said he also wants to route 80 percent of tax revenues from recreational pot sales to K-12 education.
Nielson, the Libertarian candidate, said he opposes any kind of tax increase, and that he thinks money for schools can be found within the state’s existing budget. Nielson said the state has plenty of money, but is wasting it on projects like salmon culverts and road beautification.
“If you cut the special projects and redirect that funding toward real things like education...then we are using the government properly,” Nielson said.
Another big issue lawmakers face is how to pay for road and transit projects throughout the state.
So far in the Legislature, Wilcox has opposed a plan to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation projects.
Wilcox said he is open to discussing a transportation tax package, but only under certain conditions: It would have to include projects that benefit rural communities, as well as reforms to the state’s transportation system, he said.
“My only vote so far has been a no, because I wanted a fair package and it had zero reforms,” Wilcox said.
Nielson takes an even sterner stance on increasing the state’s gas tax: he won’t consider it under any circumstance, he said.
“As a Libertarian, I would absolutely oppose a gas tax increase,” Nielson said. “There is no way I would support any increase in taxation for anything.”
Nielson said he believes money for transportation expenditures can be found by cutting wasteful spending within the Department of Transportation, as well as privatizing some state services, such as the state’s ferry system.
Payne, meanwhile, said he thinks an increase in the gas tax may be necessary to reduce freeway congestion and help drivers who spend hours of their day stuck in traffic. When it comes to completing road projects, “we are so far behind right now,” Payne said.
“If anyone in the traffic line says they don’t want to pay a little more to be out of traffic, they do. They’re wrong,” Payne said.
The candidates’ views align more closely when it comes to marijuana use and regulation – an issue that Payne said got him into the race. All have concerns about merging the state’s recreational and medical marijuana markets, especially the idea of taxing medical marijuana and putting patients’ names on a state registry.
Though Payne is a precinct committee officer for the Pierce County Democrats, he said he chose to identify himself with the Marijuana party while filing to run for office because “Democrat for Marijuana” wouldn’t fit on the Secretary of State’s online filing form.
Payne has applied for a license to grow recreational marijuana on his property in Graham, but his application is still being reviewed by the state Liquor Control Board.
Wilcox will undoubtedly have an edge in the race when it comes to raising money. Both of his opponents have filed paperwork with the state Public Disclosure Commission saying they don’t plan to raise more than $5,000 in contributions.
As of the first week of July, Wilcox’s campaign had already raised $102,369, and had spent more than $30,000 on things such as political consultants, yard signs and campaign events.
Nielson said he is not accepting donations from big businesses – only from private individuals -- as a matter of principle.
“I represent the people – I don’t represent corporations,” Nielson said.
Payne is going even further: he said he is using only his own money to fund the campaign, and is not accepting donations from anyone at all.
“The people need their money, so they should keep it,” Payne said.
Wilcox said he thinks business owners have the right to contribute to political causes, just like everyone else.