OLYMPIA – An effort to make it easier for Gold Star families to renew their special license plates might be considered a textbook example of the way the Legislature can respond when a constituent brings a problem to a lawmaker.
The response – dropping the requirement that families of Armed Services personnel killed in action must pay their vehicle taxes and fees to renew their plates once they have qualified – is also an example of how fast lawmakers can move when they hit on a good idea.
Under a bill that moved through the House Transportation Committee with unusual speed and sailed through the full House, Gold Star families will only have to produce the documentation once that proves a family member was killed while in the military. The vehicle license fees and motor vehicle excise taxes will also be dropped for qualifying family members.
Matt and Keirsten Lyons, of Spokane, are the driving force behind the change. They became Gold Star parents when their son, Marine Sgt. Jacob Michael Hess, was killed in Afghanistan on Jan. 1, 2014.
“Our world shattered around us,” Matt Lyons told the House Transportation Committee. “Life is never the same.”
Later that year, the Lyonses applied for a Gold Star plate, providing the proof at a Department of Licensing office that Hess had been killed in action.
“It’s a poignant moment when you put that plate on,” Matt Lyons said. It demonstrates “freedom has a cost.”
He recalled the day when a stranger came up to their car in a parking lot, said he knew what the plate meant and thanked them for their sacrifice.
“He gets it, he knows the cost,” Matt Lyons said. “In that moment, we knew we weren’t forgotten.”
They paid the fees and renewed the plate online for several years, but in 2018 the department’s website wouldn’t approve the renewal. They went to the office with the documentation, but the staff member at the window also couldn’t get her computer to approve the renewal. She apologized and called the main office, and still had trouble renewing the plate.
They said they waited for more than an hour while the staff worked out the problem.
Gold Star families shouldn’t have to “stand in front of a counter and certify that our hearts are broken,” Keirsten Lyons told the committee.
“We weren’t the first family that was put in that position, and we haven’t been the last,” she said, urging the committee to change the system for future families. “Deployments are still happening and wars are still being fought.”
A department spokesman said recently the Lyonses’ situation was a “conversion problem” that involved transferring their information from a previous computer system to the current one. He couldn’t say how many other families experienced the same problem, but that it is fixed.
When the Spokane couple took the problem to one of their legislators, Rep. Marcus Riccelli. He proposed a bill to remove the vehicle license fees and motor vehicle excise taxes for Gold Star families, which would mean they wouldn’t have to renew the plate every year.
Riccelli called it a great example of what legislators do – a constituent brings them a problem and they work to fix it. The day both Lyons testified, members of the committee choked up. So did motorcycle riders who were in the room to testify in favor of a helmet bill that was next on the agenda.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Riccelli, D-Spokane, said. The committee voted to suspend its regular rules, which require a wait between the hearing and its vote, and passed the bill while the couple were in the room.
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, a longtime member of the committee, said he could only think of one other time a bill moved that quickly. Two weeks later, it went to the full House, where Riccelli told lawmakers they had a chance to make public policy a little better for some 330 Gold Star family members who own vehicles in Washington.
“It’s a small token for a great sacrifice,” he said.
Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, told of writing a letter home to the family of a soldier he served with who was killed in a bomb explosion. “To make a family relive that moment through a bureaucratic process is just unconscionable,” he said.
The bill passed 95-0 and was sent to the Senate, where it awaits a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee.
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