Josh Cohen and Camden Swita contributed to this report.
With the special session to resolve the budget standoff under way in Olympia this week (Nay Sales Tax vs. Yea Sales Tax), some of the non-budget policy stuff the legislature worked on during the regular session is getting ignored.
PubliCola's Oly team (me, Josh Cohen, Teodora Popescu, and our new newsie Camden Swita) tried to keep up with the maelstrom of policy bills all session. Here's a wrap up on some of the bills we followed as the official session came to a close last week.
First up—civil liberties issues.
Sen. Ed Murray’s (D-43) move to abolish the death sentence in Washington State had public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22, but it never received a vote in that committee.
“I strongly favor this bill,” Judiciary Chair Sen. Adam Kline (D-37) says. “But it is not the year to do a bill like this, we have the political controversy of the murder of six police officers, four at one time, it’s pretty against the grain of the political atmosphere.”
The ACLU of Washington fought to prevent the Senate and House form passing bail reform bills, introduced in reaction to the Maurice Clemmon's shootings. Despite its efforts, a version of the constitutional amendment to grant judges greater authority in denying bail to violent offenders make it to the ballot next November.
Though disappointed that the bill passed, the ACLU of WA's legislative director, Shankar Narayan said they're happy to have successfully lobbied for language that won't cast quite as broad a net over who can be denied their constitutional right to bail. During the session Narayan worried that an individual accused of committing several “lesser” felonies could face life imprisonment despite the fact that his or her crimes were far less heinous than the “worst of the worst” criminals like Clemmons.
"Although the legislature moved in a positive direction by including some bounding language in the amendments, we still believe this issue needs to be looked at by a group of experts to determine whether the constitutional amendment is really necessary," said Narayan.
Tacoma Sen. Rosa Franklin's (D-29) drug overdose bill, which provides legal immunity to individuals reporting a drug overdose, was signed by the Governor on March 10 and will effective on June 10 of this year.
Other ACLU-supported drug bills, like Seattle Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles' (D-36) pot decriminalization bill, and Seattle Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson's (D-36) pot legalization bill both died very early in the session, as expected. Both bills drew crowds at the public hearing. Although, a medical marijuana bill—expanding who can prescribe medical marijuana—passed last week.
Also: Tacoma Rep. Jeannie Darneille’s (D-27) bill to ban the shackling of a woman in labor was passed with enormous support in both chambers. It now awaits Gov. Chris Gregoire’s signature.
Advocates from Planned Parenthood weren't as successfule as their liberal cohorts from the ACLU. Early in the session, we reported on Bellevue Sen. Rodney Tom's (D-48) limited service pregnancy centers bill. The bill would have required the centers (which usually don't provide abortions and often have religious affiliation), to disclose more information to the public. It's all for naught, however, as the bill died in committee in February.
Seattle Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-43) also waded in the culture wars. He had what seemed to be a pretty small bill that would have clarified the language in the law to recognize same sex marriages from out of state as state registered domestic partnerships in Washington. Apparently, that was a bigger deal than one might think. The bill never made it to the House floor and died in February at cutoff.
The education reform bill we obsessed over passed on the last day of session and is on the governor's desk.
The bill, hyped as "historic" by the House, is meant to make Washington a more competitive candidate for federal Race to the Top funding, the carrot in Obama’s education reform initiative. Although the legislation includes many musts of the reform movement, many reformers (and off-the-record Democrats scared of the teachers union) think the bill falls short.
The big changes: It provides alternative routes toward teacher certification; makes it easier for schools to get rid of bad principals; gives more power to the state to deal with flopping schools; and actually locks in education funding for an expanded definition of the basics.
However, the bill left comprehensive teacher evaluations on the cutting room floor—or, at least, sidelined uniform evaluations to a pilot project. The teachers’ union ixnayed the idea.
With a strong sense of desperation over the budget crisis, many legislators turned to, uh, creative ideas for raising revenue. One plan came from Lynnwood Sen. Paull Shin (D-21) who proposed putting advertising on school busses. The bill never made it to the Senate floor, so kids will have to just settle for inadvertently consuming advertising before school, in school, after school, and on the weekends.
Another big revenue idea was privatizing liquor stores. The bill died in committee. Turned out, studies showed it wouldn't have raised much revenue in the short term (which is when the state needed money) and the long term payback was debatable. The governor also opposed it because, she argued, only big companies like Rite Aid would have been able to win out in the auction for licenses—which wouldn't have created any new jobs, and moreover, low wage, inexperienced sales clerks wouldn't be as likely to safeguard against underage sales.
Transportation was also a big issue this session. Eastside Rep. Deb Eddy (D-48) had a big win (and a win over her boss, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp) by ushering through a bill that chose a 520 option and gets work started.
"Let my people go." Rep. Deb Eddy on 520
Chopp had joined forces with westside neighbors (and Capitol Hill legislators Ed Murray and Jamie Pedersen—and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn) to advocate for an alternative plan.
The Seattleites wanted a plan that didn't wreak much havoc on Montlake, provided better transit connections to the planned U.W. light rail station, and made room for rapid transit instead of car lanes. A compromise was struck so that the Seattle could continue to modify the plans on the westside, but the 520 bill—Eddy calls it the "Let My People Go" bill—gives the green light to begin construction on the new 520 which could limit Seattle's options.
"Once you've started work on one plan—six lanes with no infrastructure for [rapid transit]—you're kind of done," Sen. Murray says.
520 was the high profile fight, but there were a ton of other transportation bills.
If your blood boils at the thought of watching the Microsoft Connector bus cruise by in a transit only lane while you're stuck in traffic, you'll be happy to know that Senate transportation chair Mary Margaret Haugen's (D-10) bill is dead. As we reported in February, Sen. Haugen's bill would have allowed private carriers to use bus-rapid-transit lanes and public park-and-rides, currently reserved for public transit. Things looked bad when it passed nearly unanimously through the Senate, but the bill died when it stalled in the House Transportation Committee.
The Senate killed Rep. Marko Liias' (D-21) transit funding fee amendment. The amendment would have allowed Pierce and Community Transit to pass vehicle-license fees up to $20 to help restore Sunday bus service. It would also put a $100 fee on the ballot to restore other cuts to transit service.
Like Rep. Marko Liias' transit funding bill, Sen. Joe McDermott's (D-34) Vulnerable Users (bicyclists) bill rose from the dead once before finally laying down to die in the Senate Rules Committee.
The legislature passed a ban on texting and talking on your cell phone while driving. Doing so could earn you a $101 ticket.
North Seattle Rep. Scott White (D-46) had a bill that would have regulated all the limo and town-car drivers in Seattle. The bill made it through the House, but never made it to a final vote in the Senate.
Of course, we can't really ignore the budget. In fact, a bunch of the policy issues we've been tracking are in play during this week's budget negotiations.
The House and Senate agree on raising the Hazardous Substance Tax (a priority of the environmental community this year), but not on how much they’d like to see it increase. The tax rate is currently at .7 percent of the value of the substance—which includes petroleum products (the stuff you put in your car to make it go). The House supports an increase of .85 percent and a tax exemption for exports (which calms down the oil industry), generating a little over $100 million a year. The Senate wants an increase of .5 percent generating about $100 million for cleanup.
This proposed tax increase has been one of the most controversial issues this session, packing committee rooms with environmentalists and oil company employees alike. Both bills currently state that none of the money would go into the state general fund, an idea environmentalists originally used to sweeten the deal for legislators, but which the oil industry called a bait and switch. If the striking amendment in the House version is adopted the funds would be “unspecified,” raising questions about the destinations of those funds.
Another big issue for environmental advocates—and also at play in the budget negotiations because it involves a tax exemption—is the renewable energy incentive. The House wants to extend it and the Senate wants to curtail it.
Social services are also at play as the House and Senate negotiate the budget.
There’s a marked difference in how the Senate and House are funding some facets of the state’s largest entity, the Department of Social & Health Services.
The House has earmarked $90 million for General Assistance for the Unemployable (GAU), which would provide $339 grants for living expenses plus medical benefits to people who cannot be employed due to physical and mental disabilities. This plan depends on Obama’s health reform bill passing, because $71 million of its funding would come from federal dollars.
The Senate, on the other hand, has co-opted a GAU model, originally floated by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36) as a small pilot program in the House’s version, and now championed by Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-24) as a striker amendment. It’s based on San Francisco’s “Care Not Cash” program, and would force GAU recipients to use a housing voucher or participate in a housing program in order receive a $50 stipend, meant to cover their other living expenses. They’d still receive medical benefits, however. A major hole in the Senate’s plan? The voucher program is unfunded.
The Senate and House also disagree on the Working Connections Child Care program, which provides working parents with money for daycare. Bottom line, the Senate has allotted $30 million for the program and the House has given it zilch.
A high earners income tax ($200,000 salary for a single person), $300,000 for a single parent, and $400,000 for married couple) caused a stir when it was re-introduced last week. And Senate liberals hoped it would get some play in the special session. But Rep. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the main sponsor of that legislation, said that bill isn’t going anywhere.
Another budget related bill we followed this session is taking center stage during week's budget negotiations. Rep. Hans Dunshee’s (D-44) pet project to retrofit public schools is getting a new head of steam after being stifled by a conspicuous absence in the Senate’s budget.
Dunshee is claiming it will generate 38,000 private sector jobs, $2.5 billion in projects to retrofit energy-wasting schools and public buildings, and thus save taxpayers $190 million every year. The program is funded by $861 worth of “Hans Bonds,” general obligation bonds issued by the state, which is why the Senate has a problem with it. Where’s the money to pay the interest on those bonds going to come from, they ask? the deficient general fund?
Gov. Chris Gregoire, however, is absolutely cuckoo for jobs, stating publicly and often that the key to Washington’s recovery will be job generation. It’s likely she’s pulling strings in the final negotiations between the House and Senate to push Dunshee’s bill through.