When the family of Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, moved to the Othello area in 1955, it was just in time for the young Dent to watch irrigation canals being cut into the desert soil, opening the way for the agriculture that is now the backbone of the Columbia Basin. Dent said that as a child, he watched the desert bloom.
Since then, Dent has moved from place to place, but never far from the Basin. After marrying his wife Dayna, Dent moved to Moses Lake where he has lived since 1982 and raised two children. Dent is now a great-grandfather with three granddaughters and two great-grandsons.
Since long before making his first run for public office, Dent has been a professional pilot, dabbling as a corporate pilot, flight instructor and crop duster since 1975. Dent still sometimes finds himself in the cockpit of a small airplane either as an instructor, to help out a friend with aerial application or just for the joy of flying.
History in the legislature
Dent said his political philosophy began forming in 1960 when he was 10 years old. All of his classmates had crowded into the living room of a teacher who lived nearby to watch the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Even as a 10-year-old, Dent had supported the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, but the political environment was different in those days, Dent said.
“Kennedy won, he was president, and that’s how it was,” Dent said, contrasting the reaction to the current political climate.
And Dent said his response to Kennedy’s presidency went beyond begrudging acceptance to inspiration, taking to heart Kennedy’s famous call for Americans to ask what they could do for their country. By 14, Dent said he was volunteering in political campaigns, and he was hooked from that point on.
In the intervening decades, Dent said that bipartisan relationships have become the bedrock of his political modus operandi.
“I don’t care where you stand politically, we could be 180 degrees out, but the bottom line is we have more in common than we don’t,” Dent said. “We don’t have to like each other; that’s not what it’s about. It’s about respect.”
Because of those relationships, Dent said that the bills he helped spearhead generally found support on both sides of the political aisle, as well as across the divide between state agencies and the residents they oversee.
Dent pointed to a bill he spearheaded that gave ranchers the ability to retrieve cattle grazing on public lands in the event of a wildfire, and the work he did on the Foster Parent Bill of Rights, which ensured that potential foster parents were regularly informed of their rights. Legislation such as these helped create partnerships where previously there had been conflict, Dent said.
“My seatmates say I’m an overachiever, and maybe so,” Dent said. “But I’m at a time in my life when I can afford to overachieve, so I’m OK with that.”
On improving economics in the region
To improve the economic outlook for the region, Dent said public education needs to be reformatted in such a way that students can look at career paths before completing high school, and the state needs to support vocational and technical programs.
“We need to be giving people a chance to realize that there are a lot of options and pathways you can take to be successful in your life that don’t include college,” Dent said.
Dent also talked about helping young people avoid drug use or poor nutrition, which might impede their mental health and ability to hold a job. Rising minimum wage is also an issue that keeps young or inexperienced workers from finding jobs, Dent said, and that the legislature should consider a separate entry-level wage.
Student mental health
Following a string of student suicides in the Columbia Basin, including those of two Moses Lake girls 11 and 13 years old, many in the community have wondered what can be done to improve mental health in schools.
Though he briefly mentioned the potential benefit in more counseling at schools, Dent said the answer is unlikely to come from the legislature, but rather needs to be addressed culturally.
“It’s against the law to commit suicide, suicide is murder, it’s against the law, but it doesn’t help,” Dent said. “There’s things that we just can’t legislate, but we can teach people things so they can help, help their friend.”
That means mental health first aid training, Dent said, empowering residents, parents and fellow students to recognize the signs of distress and depression and learn how to intervene before it’s too late. It also may mean reconsidering the role of social media in what appears to be a widespread deterioration in student mental health, he added.
“There’s so much criticism that comes across this stuff,” Dent said. “It’s so easy to criticize somebody when you’re not looking at them eyeball-to-eyeball.”
On funding public schools
Though the state legislature recently fulfilled the state Supreme Court McCleary decision, which said the state was previously not meeting its constitutional duty to fund public education fully, teacher salary negotiations appear to have blown another hole in long-term budgets. If this isn’t rectified in the coming legislative session, schools are facing massive deficits in years to come.
“Now we have this $2 billion, and the (state teacher union) said that’s our money, we’re going to have teacher raises,” Dent said. “OK, but that’s not what it was for. There’s a real levy cliff coming now. In two years, three years, this money’s gone and they’re going to be strapped.”
With over 50 percent of the state budget now going into K-12, it’s difficult to see how the state could find more money to fix the new crisis, he said.
Dent said that the bill’s failings were largely due to the late-night negotiations, and tired staff and legislators managed to leave out some clauses that could have helped prevent the current crisis. Dent does not serve on the legislative committees that will be taking up this issue next year, but he said he does not envy those who will be trying to come up with a solution.