In a debate hosted by the Association of Washington Business at Suncadia last week between the general election contestants for Washington Public Land Commissioner, Democrat Hilary Franz seemed to move toward a reversal of her previously stated position that Washington should decouple state public lands timber sales revenue from school construction project funding.
That earned her some criticism afterward, for mishandling a key policy question the first time around. Franz declined comment to Lens, through her campaign manager Kristina Brown.
Her opponent, Republican Steve McLaughlin, re-affirmed his support for the practice.
Previously Called Practice ‘Harmful’ And ‘Archaic’
Franz previously has stated in a candidate questionnaire that the state mandate to use revenue from timber sales on public lands for school construction is “environmentally harmful” and “archaic,” and should be replaced with another funding source like a higher gross receipts tax on Washington businesses or “redirection” of employer tax incentives. She also said she favored a state capital gains tax.
However, when asked by debate moderator Renee Radcliff Sinclair of TVW.org about removing the mandate, she seemed to retract her previous statements by saying that “timber is part of the solution” to adequately funding public education.
“It is critical for us to have that economy, not only for schools but also for people in this state,” she said. “I’m committed to diversifying the (state trust land) revenues just the same way you do with your businesses or your home savings,” she added.
Rep. Buys: Decoupling Not “Tenable’
State Rep. Vincent Buys (R-42), the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said the change in tone by Franz on the state mandate is because she “is realizing these ideas actually aren’t tenable.” Buys is also a McLaughlin supporter.
Removing the state mandate would require a constitutional amendment and such a proposal “wouldn’t even pass a Democrat-controlled House committee,” Buys said.
State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) is also opposed to ending the state mandate. He told Lens that politically, “I don’t think it’s a viable option at all.” Blake is the chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He has declined to endorse either candidate in the race.
No Policy ‘Whims’ Welcome
While Franz appears to have taken a more favorable stance toward timber harvesting on public trust lands, some private forestry leaders such as Mark Doumit believe she “needs to become more consistent” and clear about her views. Doumit is the executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a trade association that represents private forest landowners in the state.
“Those trusts have generated billions of dollars over the generations for schools. Delinking to them just kind of on a whim is a mistake,” Doumit said.
Combined timber sales and aquatic leases provided $313 million in revenue to the state in 2015. The state public trust lands are managed under the state Policy for Sustainable Forests, which was approved by the Board of Natural Resources in 2006.
The state trust land was granted to Washington by Congress through the Enabling Act of 1889. Article Nine, Section Three of the Washington State Constitution requires the state generate timber harvest revenue to fund public education projects.
During the debate, McLaughlin opposed ending this constitutional requirement.
Historically severe wildfire seasons in recent years have highlighted the importance of the Commissioner role. As head of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Commissioner manages 2.1 million acres of forested state trust lands, as well as state aquatic lands. The commissioner also chairs the Forest Practices Board, which sets timber harvesting rules on both public and private property.
The current Commissioner is Democrat Peter Goldmark, elected in 2008. He chose not to seek reelection.
An environmental attorney with 20 years of experience, Franz stressed her extensive work throughout the state with local governments and communities to preserve farmland, forestland, and shoreline. She vowed to engage in “true asset management” of state trust land and to increase the value of forestland by creating “market demand for actually sustainable wood product” such as cross-laminated timber.
“We should not take more forest offline from production and growth,” she said.
A retired Navy Commander, McLaughlin was a political military advisor in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and helped write the Kosovo peace agreement. More recently, he has trained over 2,000 firefighters, land enforcement and public safety personnel in incident command management. He said his leadership background will enable him to take the reins of DNR and effectively lead the employees by ensuring “their professional development and a career path within the department.”
McLaughlin Levels Attack On Franz, Futurewise
In the AWB debate last week, the two candidates disputed the modus operandi of Futurewise, a statewide public interest group that focuses on growth policies for farmland, forests and shorelines. For four years, Franz was the executive director of Futurewise, before stepping down to run for Commissioner.
McLaughlin cited 100 instances of litigation filed by Futurewise against numerous counties, and questioned whether or not Franz could serve as a “fair and balanced” Commissioner.
“In visiting and talking to county commissioners, when we talk about Futurewise, alarm bells go off,” he said during debate.
Franz defended her involvement with the organization, arguing that since taking over she worked to steer Futurewise away from the use of litigation and toward more cooperation and collaboration with local governments and communities.
“We have very challenging issues out there, but the way we’re going to get long term solutions is not by filing lawsuits,” she said.
Both candidates share similar views on forest health restoration practices and advocate better working relationships between DNR and local communities. Franz accents forest health improvement. So does McLaughlin, who also emphasizes the importance of improving initial firefighting response.
A post-primary survey in August by Seattle pollster Stuart Elway had Franz and McLaughlin virtually deadlocked, with 33 percent and 32 percent respectively, plus 35 percent undecided.