PULLMAN - Ongoing needs of residents living in our state's rural areas and small towns, as well as issues surrounding the primary election situation, occupied much of State President Terry Hunt's report given to delegates attending the 115th annual convention of the Washington State Grange in Pullman this morning (Thursday).
Hunt spoke about problems in rural areas ranging from the impact of environmental regulations on rural Washington to education policy and technology in these communities. Much of the address was focused on the Grange's efforts to shape public policy and represent the interests of all of Washington's citizens. Hunt's message was that of inclusion, while emphasizing the need to retain the Grange's rich heritage.
The Grange leader disapproved of "one size fits all" approaches to rural America's problems. The best way to approach local problems, he stressed, is to focus on local solutions.
"Overbearing state and federal agencies imposing costly regulations often restrict the growth of our communities," Hunt said. "Local communities can best decide how to develop, constrain or use their resources for the benefit of rural economies."
The state's role, Hunt explained, is to help where it can without hindering where it is unnecessary. More local control will also lead to more civic involvement and higher participation in the democratic process, Hunt predicted.
Hunt touched on several bills affecting the agricultural community which were addressed during the 2004 legislative session. Among these was a bill (HB 1677) which would have exempted farmers in Snohomish, King, Pierce, Thurston, Kitsap, Clark and Spokane counties from certain county personal property taxes on agricultural machinery used in agricultural activities. "This would have been a big win for many of our Grangers in these counties," said Hunt. However, he added, the bill was vetoed by the governor.
Hunt said another issue addressed was that of cougar population control. Substitute Senate Bill 6118 allowed citizens more flexibility in the steps taken to control the cougar population, specifically including the use of hunting hound dogs. The bill was passed into law.
Hunt also referred to the declaration and creation of the Washington State Apple Commission in Substitute House Bill 2367 as "a positive compromise." The bill provided for greater representation of growers in Washington State, and the Governor passed the bill, he said.
Hunt outlined for the delegates the features of two bills concerning water that were introduced in the most recent session of the Legislature. The first was the instream flow bill (SHB 2396), which "created an overly burdensome system with unrealistic timeframes to set instream flows," Hunt said. "We're please that the bill never made it into law."
The other piece of water legislation Hunt addressed focused on the issue of relinquishment. The basic premise of the complicated Senate Bill 6734 was to repeal relinquishment and move to a system of abandonment where a water right holder wouldn't lose his/her water unless he/she intends to not use it. "The water right holder would have been able to choose to use or not use the water without fear of losing his/her water," said Hunt. "Unfortunately, the bill was never passed.
"Our water laws have been in a state of contention for as long as Washington has been a state," continued Hunt. "Water is the life-blood of everything we do. We cannot live without water, and the regulations need to be monitored. When they are excessive and abusive to the livelihood of our rural communities, they need to be fixed. It's about creating balance for the state: a balance for people and the environment-one can't survive without the other."
Hunt also expressed pride in having the opportunity to be a member of the Washington State Biodiversity Initiative Committee.
"Through our involvement with this entity, we are able to ensure that the interests of farmers and ranchers are taken into consideration when environmental policy initiatives are being developed," Hunt said. "This allows us to make sure that environmental regulations are carefully planned out and do not have adverse unintended consequences for rural communities."
Grange members are very much involved with their local schools, Hunt noted, and Granges are making a real difference in the education of our children. The Grange is actively supporting the Ag in the Classroom program that provides instructional material to elementary students. These materials help the students understand our agricultural system - making them more aware of how food gets to their table. The Grange is also working closely with the older students through FFA and 4-H. Locally, many Granges are donating dictionaries to third grade students in the "Words for Thirds" project, he said.
"A tremendous amount of work is being done all around the state with Granges participating in the Dictionary Project," said Hunt. "This project continues to be a great success, giving thousands of dictionaries to third-graders across the state. Many Grangers continue to contribute to volunteer services, books and supplies to their local schools. We have helped schools for centuries as a volunteer organization, and now we're becoming even more involved in the education process. I am pleased to see the devotion you continue to give to our children," he told those in attendance.
Hunt also noted that the Grange was actively involved with education policy during this year's legislative session. The Grange supported a bill allowing for new charter schools, as well as a bill allowing school districts to collect more of the local property tax money authorized by local voters.
Hunt closed his lengthy report by pointing to two impressive accomplishments by the Grange over the past year. The Grange's Technology Project currently has 14 Granges participating and more are in the wings. The project has established these sites in rural areas where community members can go to access high-speed Internet. The project is funded in part by a generous grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"The Grange will continue to seek projects that help rural communities realize the benefits of high-speed Internet access and modern computer technologies," Hunt said. "We are working toward a day when the sites can interact with each other and with other locations using video conferencing software. This will bring new educational opportunities to those sites and allow rural residents to share in the activities of other communities around the world."
The second recent accomplishment Hunt mentioned was the organization's ongoing fight to preserve the rights of Washington's voters. Following the Grange's decisive victory in federal district court in 2002 to preserve the blanket primary, the political parties chose to appeal the ruling. "The political parties seemed intent on controlling the entire process," Hunt said.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the parties' appeal of the federal district court's decision in February, 2003. The Grange and the State presented a vigorous defense of the blanket primary, led by Grange attorney James Johnson. Unfortunately, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled the blanket primary unconstitutional last September, and the Grange filed an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, said Hunt. In March of this year, the Grange received word that the highest court in the land would not review its case. The Grange was then forced to develop an alternative primary system which would satisfy the constitutional requirements set forth by the courts.
However, the Grange continued to be committed to preserving the fundamental voting rights of the people in this state, and any new system that was developed would have to conform to the will of the people, he said. The Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties were able to overturn Washington's blanket primary system, which allowed all people to vote in primaries regardless of party affiliation. Voters previously were not required to register by political party in Washington State. The Grange led the initiative drive to create that system in 1935.The Grange began advocating, during the 2004 legislative session, for a constitutional top-two qualifying primary. This system, to voters, would look almost identical to the old blanket primary. Voters would still be able to vote for any candidate in any office without regard to party affiliation, and the two top vote-getters would advance to the general election. Hunt said the Grange was hopeful that the Legislature would adopt such a system, but "...we also filed a proposed initiative to the people in the event that political parties were able to persuade the Legislature to act in a manner that wasn't consistent with what the people wanted," he said.
The Legislature passed a plan - in Engrossed Senate Bill 6453 - to enact a qualifying primary, (according to the restrictive title of the bill). However, the bill also contained a provision in it stating that if certain political party lawsuits were successful, the state would revert to an open - or "Montana-style" - primary system. Gov. Locke vetoed the "top-two" system out of the bill, leaving only the Montana-style system in its place. Under this system, voters are required to choose a ballot from only one party at a primary election - in effect, forcing citizens to vote a straight party ticket.
"Changing our primary in this manner will have long-term consequences," said Hunt. "California and Alaska experienced massive drops in voter turnout following the change from a blanket primary to a closed system. California had its lowest primary turnout percentage ever in 2000 following the change in their primary. In an era when we are asking government to be more accountable, we need more voters, not less, to participate in the democratic process.
"This is why we are running I-872, the "People's Choice" initiative," Hunt continued. "We believe it is imperative that the people have the final say in what type of primary system we adopt. We began collecting signatures in April, and we have until the end of this month to collect more than 250,000 signatures in order to ensure that I-872 will have a place on the November ballot. This initiative, if passed by the people of Washington State, will institute the same type of top-two system that the Legislature intended. The Governor defied the will of the voters, and he defied the will of the legislators elected to represent those voters. And now we're going to take back control over our primary election process.
"I don't think we have seen a more exciting and influential period in the history of the Grange since the 1930s," Hunt said. "We are again seeing the fruits of our labor and what a true grass-roots movement can accomplish. We see that we, the people, really do have a say in what happens to us. Our lives are not dictated by the agendas of political parties or by the incompetence of government bureaucracy. Our lives are uniquely ours; they belong to us."
In closing, Hunt left the delegates with a vision for the Grange's ongoing work to improve the quality of life for all of Washington's citizens, especially those in rural regions of the state. But the message also emphasized the need for inclusion.
"The importance of rural America to the fabric of our society cannot be overstated, but we need to recognize that as rural communities continue to develop and change, the lines blur between what is rural and what is urban," he said. "As a result, the Grange needs to be able to adapt to these changing times, without losing the important characteristics that comprise its rich heritage.
"In the coming years, it will be extremely important for the Grange to not only represent rural interests, but the interests of a diverse range of communities," continued Hunt. "We need to be an inclusive organization which will not only strengthen the strong foundation of community life that already exists in many rural areas, but which will also plant the seeds for a vibrant sense of community in some of the more urban areas that have become fragmented over the years. We can provide a vehicle for these urban communities to regain some of what has been lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. People long for a sense of belonging - for the need to be a part of something that is greater than the individual.
"This is why our vision for the Grange needs to focus on the issues that we can all agree on," he continued. "The Grange is not just about representing the people in rural communities. We must represent the vast majority of the people in this great state of ours, just as we have done with the blanket primary issue. We must build our role as a group of equals that share a common concern for family, community and the land. And we must do so regardless of age. We can appeal to a diverse range of people without losing the essential heritage that brought us to this point in history. We must show that we are more than great halls. Each community Grange can act as a source of strength when pursuing good legislative policy, a source of fun when families and others want a safe place to congregate, and a source of support for citizens who want the same access to technology and services.
"The values of community involvement, compassion for those in need, strong families, and liberty do not end at the edges of our metropolitan areas," Hunt concluded. "Whether a person lives in downtown Seattle or outside of Colfax, they deserve the chance to be part of a great organization in the Grange. Our vision should encompass all of Washington's citizens, because therein lies the heart of the Grange. Our core values live in our people, the Grangers who care about their communities and the rights of the people who live there."