Elections can put our divisions on display, but they also remind us there is far more that unites us here in Washington – the common goals and challenges of nearly 8 million people across our state.
Last week I was elected by my colleagues to serve as the new leader of our team of Democrats in the state Senate. As the only member of our caucus representing people in Eastern Washington, I’m used to working across the aisle to find common ground. I feel honored to have the trust of my colleagues and am proud to be able to represent the people of Spokane from the Senate majority leader position.
Regardless of party affiliation, the Class of 2019 in Olympia – 49 senators and 98 representatives – will be judged by the work we’re willing to put into action through good faith and good-faith negotiation. Last year, with Democrats in charge for the first time in six years, I’m proud to report more than 98 percent of bills passed with a bipartisan majority vote.
We made huge progress on issues like education, voting rights, net neutrality, equal pay and women’s health. We also passed two capital construction budgets, including one from 2017 that had been stalled as a political football, delaying urgently needed infrastructure projects in every corner of the state.
Our 2019 team in the Senate is made up of firefighters, business owners, military service members, community organizers, educators, tech workers and housing advocates. We are also moms, dads, sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts. Some of us are grandparents.
The laws that we write this session will focus on people, not special interests. Over the past few months, we’ve heard that message loud and clear from Washingtonians border to border. We’ve talked to thousands of our neighbors across the state and common concerns emerged:
People want affordable health care. We can do better to improve access to affordable care and to reduce prescription drug prices. Our state was one of the first to expand Medicaid and set up an affordable insurance marketplace. A key priority now is to protect Washingtonians from rollbacks in health care access by the other Washington.
People want great schools. Whether you live in Ritzville, Bellevue or Spokane, parents expect their kids will receive an equal opportunity to learn. That’s what our state’s 70,000 educators want, too. While the historic McCleary school funding case has been settled, our work to improve schools continues in 2019 – especially for our earliest learners and students with special needs.
People want economic prosperity. A decade ago, in the face of the Great Recession, devastating cuts were made at the state level. Today we have a positive economic outlook and unemployment is at historic lows, but the middle class is not seeing the economic progress enjoyed by the wealthy. Many aren’t making much more than they were a decade ago. We plan to take a fiscally responsible approach to our state budget while identifying feasible ways to ease the tax burden felt by middle- and low-income households.
People want safe communities and opportunities for all. Voters overwhelmingly approved new common-sense gun safety measures on the ballot, and we will have new school safety legislation to consider. We also know people want safe neighborhoods and a justice system that uses evidenced-based tools to reduce recidivism and lower crime rates. We also must address our homelessness crisis and take action to reverse income inequality.
People want clean air and clean water. In 2019, we will pursue legislation to protect clean air and water, reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the threats a rapidly changing climate poses to our state. Our state has spent nearly half a billion dollars fighting wildfires over the last five years. We need to take action on forest health, with more thinning and prescribed fire to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires.
This summer, the world watched as an orca named J35 grieved the death of her newborn calf for nearly a month in Puget Sound. It was just the latest example of the damage to our ecosystem. We are committed to pursue bold action to improve our salmon and orca habitat, icons we can’t sit by and watch disappear.
People want a mental health system that works. We must help those who are struggling with mental health and addiction obstacles. The need is widespread and alarming, and both Democrats and Republicans agree it’s a top priority in 2019. We have both a legal and moral obligation to ensure our state cares for the most vulnerable among us.
People want to be treated with dignity. We have made great progress advancing the rights of historically marginalized communities and showing respect for people – regardless of the color of their skin, where they were born, whom they love, whom they voted for, whom they pray to or whether they pray at all. We will stand up for science and loudly reject hate.
Most of all, we will fight for a democracy where everyone can participate and every voice is heard. People in our state are hopeful, and tired of fear. We are too.
By putting people first in 2019, we can live up to the promise of this state that everyone can achieve their fullest potential.
Andy Billig, D-Spokane, represents the 3rd Legislative District and will serve as the new Senate Majority Leader in the Washington state Senate.
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