By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Two Whidbey Island natives with strong community ties are running for the 10th District Legislative District Senate seat, which is considered a high priority race by both political parties.
While Republican Sen. Ron Muzzall, a North Whidbey resident, and Democrat Helen Price Johnson, a Clinton resident and county commissioner, have differing — though not entirely dissimilar — opinions on a variety of issues, their strengths are what really set them apart.
The district includes all of Island County, the northwestern tip of Snohomish, and the southwestern part of Skagit counties. Cities in the district include Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Langley, Mount Vernon, La Conner, and Stanwood.
Muzzall was appointed to the position last year after Sen. Barbara Bailey announced her retirement. He is a fourth-generation farmer who previously served as an elected fire commissioner for North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, as well as on boards of Skagit Farmers Supply and the Land O’Lakes Cooperative.
Muzzall said he was disheartened, after being appointed, to learn that so many people are unwilling to listen to the other side of an argument and be open to other opinions.
“I’m a big dialogue guy. Anybody who’s served with me knows that,” he said. “I’m open to differing points of view. I’m willing to listen.”
He pointed out that he isn’t afraid to go against his caucus or cross the aisle in search of support for a bill.
Price Johnson is a third-generation small business owner who was elected to the South Whidbey School Board before becoming the first female Island County commissioner in 2008. As a commissioner, she also has served as president of the state Association of Counties and has volunteered for a long list of community organizations.
While she loves being a commissioner, she said she decided to seek a state position because of the frustration she’s felt over how disconnected lawmakers are with local government and the impacts their decisions have on the local level. Bailey, for example, rarely met with county commissioners, she said.
The one-size-fits-all model for policy, she said, doesn’t always fit all.
“I can take the experience I have in 20 years in local government,” she said, “and help build more efficient and effective state programs.”
In the recession of the 2008 era, the state cut programs like the Public Works Trust Fund, which Price Johnson said was exactly the wrong thing to do at a time of economic distress. The fund supported construction projects that provided valuable jobs, sparked the local economies, maintained vital infrastructure and lowered the cost of housing.
She said she wants to make sure the state doesn’t make the same kinds of mistakes in the COVID age.
“Infrastructure investment is what we need right now,” she said.
Muzzall, on the other hand, said the problem in Olympia is a culture where nobody takes responsibility. He points to the problems at the Employment Security Department, particularly the software snafu that allowed criminals to make billions of dollars in fake unemployment claims.
“Our state needs more structure, discipline and accountability,” he said.
He also isn’t happy about the unilateral decisions Gov. Jay Inslee has made regarding the state’s response to the pandemic, which he feels state lawmakers should have been involved in.
The two candidates break with their parties somewhat when it comes to their thoughts on the relationship between environmental regulations and affordable housing.
Price Johnson said the Growth Management Act — which requires planning for population increases to protect important environmental areas — wasn’t meant to be a perfect, untouchable law when it was first adopted.
She said she supports “very thoughtful adjustments” that would allow local government to have more flexibility, particularly in rural areas.
She said the GMA has actually become a disincentive to housing in-fill.
Muzzall, on the other hand, said relaxing environmental regulations would be problematic.
“It’s like letting the genie out of the bottle,” he said, “and makes us subject to lawsuits.”
He pointed out that the state paid $518 million in legal claims last year and that many groups wouldn’t hesitate to take the state to court if environmental protections were eased.
Still, he’s cautious about new rules.
“I’m not a climate denier, but I’m very concerned about unintended consequences,” he said.
Both candidates have strong feelings about taxes, but for different reasons.
Price Johnson points out that Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the country, which means a larger percent of state revenue is coming from low-income people.
“For a state that prides itself on some pretty innovative and progressive ideas, it’s shocking,” she said.
In addition, the gas tax no longer generates enough to fund basic maintenance of roads in the state, which points to another “fundamental flaw” in the system.
Price Johnson said a bipartisan task group is currently looking at the issue, and she hopes it will come back with some workable solutions.
Muzzall, on the other hand, is more concerned about how money is being spent.
“We’re taking in a lot of money,” he said, “and we really don’t have a lot to show for it.”
He said he wants state officials to “stop and catch their breath” and take a deep look into how money is being spent.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.