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Eye On Olympia

Archive for March 2006

State to appeal felon-voting decision…

Secretary of State Sam Reed and Attorney General Rob McKenna said Wednesday that the sate will appeal a recent King County Superior Court ruling allowing voting by felons who’ve served their prison time and probation but still have unpaid fines or other court debts. (See item below)

In a joint statement, Reed and McKenna said that each state has the right to determine the process for restoring voting rights to felons.

“Under the `rational basis test’ used by the courts, we believe a rational basis does exist for the Legislature to deny felons the right to vote until they have completed their entire court-ordered sentences, including payment of criminal penalties, victim’s restitution and legal fees.”

Cancer strikes Yakima lawmaker…

Rep. Mary Skinner, R-Yakima, was diagnosed with colon cancer on Friday, her office announced today.

She’s slated for surgery on Thursday at a Yakima hospital. Intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments will follow in April.

In a statement, Skinner said she hopes to be back at work as a lawmaker by mid-summer.

“I am facing the greatest challenge of my life,” she said. I have never backed away from any challenge, including this one. I plan to meet it with all of my faith and strength.”

The daughter of migrant workers who arrived the Yakima Valley when she was three months old, Skinner is a former high school teacher who was elected to state House of Representatives in 1994. She’s married to retired surgeon Hal Skinner.

AG seeks another round in court fight over Education Association fees…

Attorney General Rob McKenna says he’ll challenge the Washington Education Association’s recent victory over the state Public Disclosure Commission (see “Teachers union wins Supreme Court case…” below). McKenna’s asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the state Supremes.

At issue: how the union can spend mandatory “agency shop fees” paid by non-member teachers. The state high court said Washington’s law — which required unions to get non-members’ permission before spending the money on politics — was unconstitutional.

The law was part of Initiative 134, which established broad campaign disclosure laws in Washington.

“Initiative 134 was approved by nearly 73 percent of the voters,” McKenna said in a press release, “and we will vigorously defend it.”

Johnson (yet another one) to run for Supreme Court…

State Sen. Stephen Johnson, R-Kent, said Wednesday that he’ll run against Justice Susan J. Owens for a spot on the state Supreme Court.

If he wins, the court may be able to save some money on stationery. This is a court, after all, that already has two other Johnsons: Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson and recently elected Justice Jim Johnson.

Johnson — the senator — was elected to the Legislature in 1994. He went to law school at the University of Washington with another familiar Supreme Court name: Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.

Taxes tossed? Snohomish County judge rules against state money-shifting…

A Snohomish County judge ruled Friday that the state improperly shifted around $250 million to various state accounts in order to raise the state spending limit, according to a spokesman for one of the plaintiffs.

Last summer, a group of conservative, farm and business groups (the state Farm Bureau, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, Building Industry Association of Washington, state Realtors’ association and the state Grange) filed suit over the state budget, saying the state broke the law when it enacted hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes.

On Friday afternoon, according to EFF spokesman Jason Mercier, the superior court judge ruled that the state had improperly shifted the money to evade the limit. Mercier said the judge ordered that several tax increases that were part of that the budget (cigarettes, alcohol and extended warranties) not take effect unless voters ratify them with a statewide vote.

Judge James Allendoerfer based his decision partly on e-mails by legislators and their staff in which they reportedly discussed ways to get around the spending limit.

State officials were scrambling Friday afternoon to figure out what the ruling means. But it’s considered unlikely that the taxes will disappear overnight. The state could make a motion to reconsider, or could simply ask that the judge’s ruling be stayed pending appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had no immmediate comment.

“Since there’s nothing in writing, at this point it’s really somewhat speculative,” said spokeswoman Holly Armstrong. “It’s yet to be seen what will be done.”

She said the ruling would not affect Washington’s estate tax, but could affect last year’s House Bill 2314, which includes those other tax increases.

Teachers union wins Supreme Court case…

The state Supreme Court this morning upheld the Washington Education Association in a five-year-old case over whether the union was improperly using non-members’ fees for politics.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court ruled unconstitutional a state law banning unions from spending non-members’ fees on politics.

The majority also found that “there is no indication or argument that WEA is compelling non-members to support political activities.”

“This decision from the high court is yet another affirmation of educators’ political rights,” said WEA president Charles Hasse.

The case was one of a series of complaints and court fights between the union and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative group based in Olympia.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling strikes a terrible blow against the rights of workers in Washington State,” said Mike Reitz, director of EFF’s labor policy center.

In a dissent to Thursday’s ruling, Justice Richard Sanders said “the majority turns the First Amendment on its head,” since there is no constitutional right for unions to collect dues or fees from workers.

Read the majority opinion, written by Justice Faith Ireland, here.

And Sanders’ dissent here.

2006 Legislative session, by the numbers…

It was a short session this year, but it didn’t act like one.

Lawmakers proposed, debated, then killed or passed 2,640 bills this session, including a broad array of big-issues items: dozens of sex offender bills, three budgets, a massive Columbia River water storage program, etc.

As for a bill’s chances of passing, they’re about 1 in 6. To be specific, 16 percent of House bills passed, 14.7 percent of Senate bills passed.

Bizarre ending to Senate’s year…

What a weird way to end things.

On Wednesday night, lawmakers in the normally fractious House of Representatives were pouring on the bipartisan, obviously heartfelt praise for retiring Rep. Don Cox, R-Colfax.

In the normally collegial Senate, however, the year ended on a bitter note.

According to Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, he and Majority Leader Lisa Brown had a deal to pass two final bills. One was a pension bill, the other was House Bill 3293, Rep. Dan Roach’s bill requiring protesters at funerals to stay 500 feet away from mourners.

If you’re saying `Huh?’ about the need for such a bill, here’s the backstory: The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, an anti-gay group, has taken to protesting at the funerals of American military members killed overseas. The nation’s travails in Iraq and Afghanistan, the church members maintain, are a manifestation of God’s wrath against America for accepting gay and lesbian people. Among their picket signs: “God hates your tears” and “Thank God for IEDs” — meaning insurgents’ improvised explosive devices.

In response to these bizarre protests, several states have this year enacted bills like the one Roach proposed. The group, according to Roach, has recently protested at military funerals in Yakima, Kirkland and Renton.

But as the Legislature’s final moments ticked down on Wednesday night, Brown skipped the funeral protest bill. It died — with a livid Hewitt protesting loudly — when the final gavel fell.

Roach called the move a slap in the face for troops’ families.

Said Hewitt: “The bottom line is that we had a deal and she broke it.”

Brown late Wednesday said that the bill died due a miscommunication between Democrats and Republicans as the clock ticked away on lawmaker’s plan to adjourn a day early. She said many senators, apparently believing that all the bills were finished, had already left the Senate floor when the funeral bill’s turn came. She even went into the Republican wings trying to round up enough lawmakers, she said.

“We have nothing against the bill,” Brown said. “I think it’s a fine bill. Hope it will be introduced next session.”

House Speaker Frank Chopp offered to make the funeral bills one of the first to pass the House next year.

Snow falling on solons…

Perhaps it was a sign from God for lawmakers to get the hell out of town — or, for those who have to brave the mountain passes to get home, an attempt to try to keep them in Olympia.

Either way, shortly after the gavel fell Wednesday night and ended a frenzied legislative session, snow began falling in Olympia. It’s still falling this morning.

A nailbiter of a bill nears the finish line…

Late Tuesday night, the state Senate approved a slightly-toughened version of Rep. John Ahern’s felony DUI bill. This bill, which has been repeatedly on the verge of failing, only to be revived by an unlikely alliance of House Democrats and House and Senate Republicans, now seems likely — we think — to pass.

Budget compromise: a first look…

The House and Senate today inked a budget compromise that includes millions of dollars for local programs and projects.

Among them:
-$10 million for Washington State University to start construction on a $63 million new bioscience lab complex in Pullman.
-$2 million for repairs to Avista Stadium.
-$2 million to the Spokane County Conservation District for a biodiesel seed crushing facility in the Spokane Valley.
-$1 million for Washington State University’s Institute for Systems Medicine, a Spokane biomedical research program.
-$1.1 million toward cleanup of the Spokane River, plus another $1.2 million to speed up the cleanup of toxic contamination in the area.
-$100,000 for Spokane’s 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, plus a promise of another $500,000 in the next budget if the city wins its bid to host the 2009 world championships.
-$400,000 to Eastern Washington University to design the remodeling work on Patterson and Martin Williamson halls.
-$300,000 for food bank refrigeration at Second Harvest.
-$100,000 for Eastern Washington University’s Northeast Autism Center.
-$100,000 for Spokane’s International Trade Alliance.
-$520,000 to settle a Spokane County claim against the Department of Social and Health Services.
(Note: this is not a complete list. We’re still combing through budget documents in Olympia.)

Harder to break down locally — but arguably more important — will be $14 million more put into affordable housing programs and $50 million more into mental health programs and hospitals statewide.

Other big slices of the budget pie:
-More than $40 million to improve student test scores and help them with math and science.
-$15.7 million for teacher salary increases.
-$10 million more for nursing home reimbursement rates.
-$13.8 million more for children’s services.
-$6.1 million more for additional high-demand slots at colleges, including math and science spots at WSU.
-$4.2 million for training and Job Skills programs for high schoolers choosing trades over college.
-$4.8 million more for schools through the levy equalization program.

Speaking of which…

The Senate later this morning is expected to pass Sen. Lisa Brown’s still-unnumbered resolution “recognizing the talent and hard work of the Gonzaga University Bulldogs men’s basketball coaches and players.”

A sampling:

“Whereas, Gonzaga University’s basketball bans are the self-proclaimed `Zag Nation,’ and the Bulldogs keep giving them plenty to celebrate this season…

“Whereas, the Bulldogs have not lost a home game since early 2003…”

“Whereas, the Bulldogs’ head coach Mark Few, who has an impressive career coaching record of 183-40 over nearly seven seasons…”

And so forth. It singles out junior forward Adam Morrison, senior center J.P. Batista and junior forward Sean Mallon for special praise, and orders that copies of the resolution be dispatched to Coach Few.

Dollars versus a potential voter veto…

It must have pained some fiscal conservatives, but Republican leaders last night argued against a provision that would add an estimated $10 million more to state coffers without additional taxes or fees on anyone.

At issue was Senate Bill 6896, which sets up a series of accounts into which the state plans to dump hundreds of millions of surplus dollars this year. That cash, budget writers know, will be needed in the next two-year budget cycle.

But Republicans balked at the bill’s emergency clause, which allows the bill to take effect immediately instead of after the usual 90-day waiting period. But such a clause also makes it much harder for voters to overturn any bill with a ballot measure.

Democrats said it just makes sense to shift that money into the hands of state investment managers as quickly as possible. Sen. Ken Jacobsen said that the extra three months would translate into about $10 million more in interest and earnings.

It might be a good idea, Sen. Stephen Johnson, R-Kent, said. But the constitution, he said, doesn’t allow for “emergencies” like that.

Democrats said it’s silly to lose the money.

“If we don’t do this right away, then we will lose the interest,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “It’s like saying we’d just rather put it under the mattress for a few months.”

The amendment (and the bill) passed.

E-waste bill headed to governor for her signature…

In a victory for environmental groups (and anyone with an old computer monitor gathering dust in the attic) the Legislature on Monday voted to require electronics manufacturers to set up a collection and recycling program for computers, TVs and monitors.
In Washington State alone, according to the Department of Ecology, between 2003 and 2010, more than 4 million computers and 5 million monitors will become obsolete. All that waste – much of it heavy in plastics and lead – is starting to worry environmental regulators.
Senate Bill 6428, which passed the Senate Monday afternoon, requires makers to pay for collection, transportation and recycling of the machines, starting Jan. 1, 2009. Any fees passed on to consumers would have to be when the equipment’s purchased, not when it’s dropped off years later for recycling. The must be at least one staffed recycling collection site for any city with more than 10,000 people.
Some electronics manufacturers fought the bill, saying they don’t want to be required to recycle other makers’ machines. They also argued that foreign companies could sell their products in Washington without paying for the program.
“If you’re a manufacturer in the state of Washington, you are at a decided disadvantage with this bill,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. Yes, electronic waste should be cleaned up, he said. “The way to get to it is not to poke in the eye those who are creating jobs in the state of WA.”
Sen. Bob Morton predicted that the bill will send shoppers flocking over the borders to Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to buy their electronics without the surcharge.
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, maintains that the bill will not penalize Washington companies.
“It’s a solid bill,” he said. “It is not gonna be a jobs killer for Washington.”
The bill passed, 38 to 11.

$5 million farm fuel tax break inked by governor…

Wasting no time, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday signed into law a $5-million-a-year diesel tax break passed Friday.

The change, which includes an emergency clause, takes effect immediately.

For years, Washington has exempted red-dyed diesel for farm use from the regular state fuel tax. Instead, users paid the lower sales tax.

Under House Bill 2424, however, diesel (red or clear) and aircraft fuel sold to a farmer for “non-highway purposes” would be exempt from the sales and use tax as well. The tax break does not, however, apply to fuel used for heating water or human dwellings.

“Agriculture is an intensive user of diesel fuel,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “Unfortunately, as those prices have basically tripled in recent years, the tax tripled with it.”

Farmers and farm-belt lawmakers pushed hard for the bill, noting that the recent diesel price spikes for the first time pushed the cost of a gallon of fuel above the price for a bushel of wheat.

Farmers, wedded to the commodity markets, cannot boost their crop prices to compensate for the rising cost of fuels, said Rep. David Buri, R-Colfax. “The high cost of fuel is the single, most critical problem facing growers and ranchers,” he said.

The bill was opposed, however, by some cities and counties, who got a share of the tax. In Whitman County alone, treasurer Robert Lothspeich told lawmakers last month, the change would mean a lost $75,000 to $100,000 to the county.

According to a state budget analysis, the exemption is expected to cost the state (or save farmers, depending on how you look at it) $3.9 million a year. Local cities and counties would lose another $1.1 million.

Restrictions on bogus degrees…

The Senate on Friday unanimously passed a bill to crack down on diploma mills and bogus college degrees.

House Bill 2507 was amended to include language from a now-defunct bill by Sen. Mark Schoesler to make it a class C felony to knowingly grant false academic credentials — or even to use them. The punishment would be up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“This bill makes a strong statement about the use of diploma mills,” Schoesler said in a statement Friday night. “The very measure of academic integrity is what we’re talking about here…There is no place in this state for those who would falsify academic credentials to compete with those who earn their credentials the honest way.”

Diploma mills are unaccredited schools offering mail order or Internet degrees for little or no actual academic work. It’s unfair, Schoesler said, for people to pad their professional credentials with meaningless degrees. And it’s potentially dangerous, he said, when foreigners use fake degrees to get American study or work visas.

Voting early, if not often…

Both the House and Senate have approved moving Washington’s primary election date (that’s the election in September) to four weeks earlier, starting next year.

“This victory has been years in the making,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed.

Really? Really. A similar proposal died last year, wrapped around the axle with Republican calls for photo identification of voters and purging illegal aliens from voting rolls.

County auditors have long complained that about the tight timeline between September and the general election in November. It’s too short a window, they say, to cope with any election problems from September and then to print up and mail out the November ballots. (Recall that the governor’s election two years ago wasn’t decided for months. If that sort of challenge was raised in a primary vote, election officials say, it would be disastrous.)

Assuming that Gov. Chris Gregoire signs the change into law, we’ll all be voting in August now. A small number of lawmakers had objected, saying that many people are vacationing in August. But with the increasing popularity of voting by mail, other lawmakers said that’s less of a problem than it once was.

126 years too late for Louie Sam, but appreciated nonetheless…

Drum beats and tribal chanting echoed through the capitol rotunda on Wednesday, as members of a Canadian Indian tribe accepted an “expression of regret” from state lawmakers for the mob killing of a 14-year Canadian boy more than a century ago.

In 1884, according to a Senate resolution passed Monday, an angry American mob calling itself the “Nooksack Vigilance Committee” crossed the border into Canada. They were hunting for Louie Sam, a young member of a Canadian tribe known as the Sto:lo Nation. They suspected the boy of slaying a Nooksack shopkeeper.

The boy was in the custody of a Canadian deputy, who the mob apparently overpowered. They seized the boy and hanged him.

After a protest by the Canadian government, U.S. federal officials asked the Washington territorial government to investigate and ascertain who was in that lynch mob. And despite the fact that the mob members “openly bragged” about their participation, territorial officials claimed that they were unable to figure out who’d lynched the boy.

Canadian undercover detectives sent into Washington Territory subsequently determined that Louie Sam hadn’t murdered the shopkeeper. But according to the Senate resolution, the detectives “failed to follow up with the evidence that they had gathered.”

Louie Sam’s friends and neighbors were so afraid of further cross-border attacks that they permanently abandoned their border village, according to the Senate resolution.

The resolution notes that both the territorial and Canadian governments failed to do their jobs and expresses sympathy to the family of Sam.

It’s key, said Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Issaquah, to understand “the importance of being able to let the words `I’m sorry’ roll off your tongue when you are.”

Lieutenant Gov. Brad Owen called the lynching “a terrible injustice.” The resolution, he said, “is meant to further insure that such a tragedy will never be forgotten or repeated.”

Accepting the resolution from Owen was Grand Chief Clarence Pennier (pictured), who is the tribal chief of the Sto:lo Tribal Council.

“I want to lift up my hands to you,” he said, doing so. “It makes our families feel good.”

Electrasol smuggling?

The Senate on Wednesday passed a modified version of Rep. Timm Ormsby’s bill to sharply limit phosphates in automatic dishwashing detergents. Assuming that the House and governor agree, it would be the first state ban in the nation.

In the Senate version, the ban would be phased in, starting in Spokane, Clark and Whatcom counties in 2008. It would apply statewide in 2010.

The bill is aimed largely at the Spokane River, which is plagued by low oxygen levels due to decaying algae. Phosphates — a common ingredient in fertilizer — spur algae blooms. When the algae dies and rots, it eats up dissolved oxygen in the water. Result: dead fish.

The bill would restrict phosphates to half a percent or less, instead of the nearly 9 percent allowed now. The state passed identical restrictions for laundry detergent back in 1993.

Trade groups have lobbied hard against the ban, saying that they’ve been unable to find anything that works as well as phosphates for scrubbing dishes shiny clean. And it’s unclear how major manufacturers to a ban that, at least initially, would apply to just 3 of the state’s 39 counties.

That’s especially an open question in Vancouver, which is supplied by Oregon-based warehouses and distributors, local senators said.

“They are not going to supply product for one county,” said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. “…So we just won’t be able to get dishwashing soap in Clark County anymore. Gee, that’s really fair.”

Read our story here.

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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