Today marks the 30th year we’ve published a civic agenda.
The emphasis changes with current events, but the underlying values don’t vary much from year to year. Affection for the greater South Sound community and concern for the welfare of its people have always been the driving force.
The 2018 civic agenda is an outline of priorities for “our voice” editorial comment; it also helps inform our election endorsements.
It does not shape the letters to the editor, guest op-eds and syndicated columns that appear on the opinion pages. Our goal is to offer a provocative mix of viewpoints, including our own — what John Milton envisioned as a “marketplace of ideas” — and let you sort it out.
Here are seven key themes for the TNT Editorial Board in the year ahead.
Attack root causes of local poverty
While Wall Street booms and Seattle rides the Amazon wave, that same level of robust economic opportunity hasn’t carried over to Pierce County.
We have homegrown success stories, to be sure, and an infusion of foreign investment has been good for downtown Tacoma, but the losses of Russell, DaVita and now State Farm are painful gut punches.
Stagnant family incomes and pockets of crushing poverty also hold us back.
Pierce County’s median household income of $61,468, as recorded in the Census Bureau’s most recent data, trails the state median ($62,845) and falls far below King County ($78,800).
Meantime, our poverty rate stands at 12.1 percent compared to the state (11.3) and King County (9.3).
Poverty reveals itself most glaringly at the margins of society — for example, at Tacoma’s homeless stability site, which the city opened in the Dome District last summer, or at the various encampments along the Puyallup River.
But it also hides among the working poor stuck in dead-end minimum-wage service jobs. It nips at the heels of families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, yet are running out of health insurance options for their children as Congress fails to fund the CHIP program.
Increasingly, poverty threatens to devour those who can’t afford to live here. Tacoma had the second-fastest-rising rents in the nation last spring, according to the website ApartmentList, largely due to pressure from the hypercaffeinated Seattle housing market.
Solutions won’t come easy, but this Editorial Board will continue to advocate for affordable housing incentives, aid for the homeless, a humane and accessible health care system, and other essential strands in the social safety net.
Expanding the local professional income base is important, and building more Class A office space downtown is a worthy means to that end.
But we also will keep touting the timeless advantages of our deepwater port — which turns 100 this year — and defend the light-industry, maritime and other blue-collar employment that’s historically given Tacoma much of its earning power.
If not for that economic workhorse, countless more families would fall into poverty.
Invest in three-tiered education system
This agenda item flows naturally from the first one, because a full-spectrum education system gives young people their best chance to rise from poverty.
It starts with early-learning programs. Young brains need nurturing and stimulation to succeed in later years. When they don’t, we all pay the consequences. Affordable pre-kindergarten programs (and quality child care) for at-risk children are a must.
What comes next, the K-12 years, dominated our editorial pages as surely as they occupied the Legislature for the better part of a decade. Lawmakers made slow but steady progress toward their constitutional “paramount duty” to fund public schools, pledging an additional $7.3 billion since the Supreme Court issued its 2012 McCleary decision.
They have one last hill to climb: finding $1 billion to plug a one-time hole this year before the phase-in of new property tax revenues in 2019.
Some say they’ve spent enough and shouldn’t bother. We say the Legislature needs to finish the job and let no students slip through the cracks, including those in higher-cost programs such as special education.
The third tier is higher education and vocational training; not every student wants or needs a bachelor’s degree, nor does our increasingly skill-based high-tech economy call for it.
Whatever form it takes, the chapter after high school is quickly becoming a priority for K-12 advocacy groups like Graduate Tacoma; it closely tracks enrollment and completion rates for students pursuing a college degree or technical certificate.
Last year the number of Tacoma students completing a post-secondary program within six years of high school graduation stood at 35 percent. We can do better; we have to.
Don’t let up on transportation
Five of America’s worst 25 freeway congestion spots are in the Tacoma-Seattle metro area, the American Transportation Research Institute reported last year. That ties us with Houston for the most. The I-5, I-705, SR16 interchange near the Tacoma Dome made the biggest jump of any chokepoint on the annual naughty-traffic list, ranked at No. 16.
As long as our region shows up on lists like this, transportation will have a firm place on our civic agenda.
The good news is that politicians put taxpayer money into prudent road projects, such as additional freeway lanes near JBLM and the buildout of SR 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma. On the mass-transit front, voters in 2016 traded short-term pain for long-term gain by approving a $53 billion Sound Transit package that will bring light rail to Tacoma.
Now comes the delivery and accountability stage; we all have a huge stake in demanding these projects aren’t shortchanged or delayed.
Fresh thinking is also needed in a fast-evolving era of electric vehicles, driverless cars and app-based ride-sharing services. Will elected leaders be bold enough to seriously consider a mileage tax to supplant declining gas-tax revenues?
Heavy-rail passenger trains are another piece of the puzzle. Last month’s deadly Amtrak accident near DuPont served notice that the work of developing a high-speed rail system for the Puget Sound — on infrastructure that’s both efficient and safe — is incomplete.
Care for the mentally ill and addicted
Have our leaders finally woken up to the behavioral health crisis and stepped up to the challenge of ending it? One could argue the answer is yes.
Pierce County plans to build a 16-bed mental-health diversion center in the Spanaway-Parkland area; it’s also investing in a pair of mobile response teams for people in crisis, as well as a pair of full-time behavioral health program managers.
A 120-bed psychiatric hospital is set to open in Central Tacoma within the next year, thanks to an alliance between our two local hospital systems and several local governments. And state plans are underway to bring relief to overburdened Western State Hospital; the goal is for it to primarily serve forensic patients charged with or convicted of crimes.
But much work remains. The number of patients referred to criminal wards and left languishing on wait lists soared last year. Pierce County consistently ranks as a place where people of many ages, backgrounds and incomes struggle with depression and other untreated conditions.
Opioid drug abuse has gained a big foothold. Pierce County and Tacoma responded last year by filing lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, but the legal jockeying could go on indefinitely. An all-out therapeutic offensive against prescription drug and heroin addiction shouldn’t wait.
When it comes to behavioral health, we can’t afford to nap on the job.
Support military bases and veterans
JBLM is not only Pierce County’s largest employer, it’s the West Coast’s premier military installation. Yet it’s easier to overlook the base’s local and global footprint now that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely over and brigade-level deployments from JBLM have ceased.
As the base originally known as Camp Lewis enters its second hundred years, and as its soldiers rehearse for roles they could play in emerging world hot spots like the Korean peninsula, we would do well to embrace the past with an eye toward the future.
That means local governments should keep working as good neighbors with JBLM, ensuring compatible land uses that don’t hinder the base’s training mission. The overriding goal should be keeping JBLM way down the Pentagon’s list of potential base realignments and closures.
In 2018, as always, this Editorial Board won’t take for granted JBLM’s 40,000 active-duty, guard and reserve personnel and 63,000 family members. Thousands more earned our support transitioning into civilian life and private-sector jobs. And we’d be remiss not to mention the roughly 32,000 military retirees who’ve made this area home.
Thanks for all you do to serve not just your country, but your communities.
Fight for open government
If this core value of journalism ever drops off our civic agenda, then we might as well stop producing an agenda.
Elected officials who do their decision-making in the dark aren’t looking out for the public welfare and are less likely to be responsive to community concerns. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution rests on that principle, as does Washington’s watershed 1972 Public Records Act.
Protecting that principle is vital regardless of who holds office, but even more so with a president who won’t release his tax returns, is openly hostile to a free press and wears down Americans with a non-stop tweetstorm of doublespeak and deceit.
In our state, the Legislature has long ignored disclosure rules that their local counterparts obey. For more than a decade, our Editorial Board has pounded on state leaders to release their emails, calendars and other records.
The News Tribune and nine other news organizations filed suit in September, alleging that lawmakers are violating state law by withholding records. The state Attorney General added to the drumbeat last week with an opinion that essentially agrees with us.
This Friday, a Thurston County judge may issue a ruling worth celebrating.
Promote a culture of listening
An unapologetic “us versus them” streak has always run through American life, whether it be Whigs vs. Tories, Hatfields vs. McCoys, or Trumpistas vs. NeverTrumpers.
The difference today is that it’s so easy to retreat to information bubbles and opinion loops through social media, talk radio, cable news and your favorite late-night TV host. Americans have lost the skill of listening to people outside their comfort zones.
Now more than ever, we believe there’s power in understanding what the other side has to say, and it can be harnessed only if people stop shouting, stop talking over each other, and listen — really listen.
We believe Pierce County is small enough to change the culture and make a difference.
A promising experiment will take place in Tacoma this year. The City Council is partnering with a local mediation group to retool the monthly Citizens Forum where people can raise any concern before the council. The forum had regressed into a free-for-all of intimidation and rude behavior; we hope it can turn into a time of authentic listening and productive give-and-take.
Perhaps it can be a model for how our community plumbs the depths of divisive issues, such as race and immigration. We also could use help listening to each other about sexual misconduct, gender roles and other matters that need a thorough reckoning at all levels of society in light of the national #metoo movement.
Fire and fury might be standard procedure at the White House, but listening and learning is the better path.