Archive for April 2009
From my weekly print column:
It always astounds me how quickly the state capital becomes a ghost town when a legislative session ends.
On Sunday, lobbyists were still swarming the Senate and House doors. Lawmakers rushed toward midnight in a mad scramble of last-minute deals, deadlocks and dead bills.
The next morning, the place was silent as a tomb. Most lawmakers and many staffers quickly fled, only too happy to see Olympia in their rearview mirrors. The coffee makers were packed up, the pizza boxes hauled off and a large mobile shredding truck went to work, ingesting tens of thousands of pages of bills, amendments and reports.
So it’s probably a good time to see how some people and issues fared in Olympia this year…
There are no known cases of swine flu in Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Wednesday, as health officials elsewhere confirmed dozens of cases — including one toddler death — in 10 states.
“Right now, we have no confirmed cases in Washington state, and we are doing our best to monitor the situation hour by hour,” Gregoire told reporters at the capitol.
Given the spread of the illness, however, she added that she would not be surprised to see it crop up in Washington. The virus apparently started in Mexico.
“Some people have suggested shutting the border,” the governor said. “That isn’t going to stop it. It’s human-to-human contact. We already have it in 10 states.”
Washington state officials have asked the federal Centers for Disease Control for enough anti-viral medication to treat 230,000 people. The drugs should arrive late this week or early next week, Gregoire said Wednesday.
“This is not a vaccine,” she said. “It cannot prevent the swine flu.”
The doses are used to battle the illness in people already infected, the governor said.
Washington has also stepped up monitoring for the disease. Mary Selecky, the head of the state Department of Health, said Monday that the state is asking doctors and labs for samples from people who come in with heavy flu symptoms, like heavy breathing, a very bad fever or very sore throat. Those samples are tested by the state.
If the type of flu cannot be determined, she said, the samples are then sent to the Centers for Disease Control for typing.
“Hopefully very soon we will have the capacity to do that (testing) in-state,” Gregoire said Wednesday.
She and Selecky are stressing common-sense steps to prevent getting or spreading the disease, like frequent hand-washing and keeping sick children home. Anyone with flu-like symptoms,
Gregoire said, should see a doctor for testing to confirm that they do not have swine flu.
“Our No. 1 agenda right now is prevention,” she said.
Gregoire also said there’s no reason to avoid eating pork.
“There is no reason to be concerned about eating a pork product,” she said. “This is human-to-human contact, is the nature of this new strain of the swine flu.”
OLYMPIA – All eyes were on state spending in Olympia this year, as lawmakers wrestled with their greatest budget problem in decades.
But it’s not all that Washington lawmakers did. By the time they ended the session early Monday morning, they had approved hundreds of changes to state law.
They extended most spouse-type rights and responsibilities to same-sex domestic partners. They launched the biggest overhaul of school funding in decades. And at the last minute, they approved a major win for business: hundreds of millions of dollars in lower unemployment insurance taxes.
Here’s a roundup of how major things – and some minor ones – fared:
-Andrew Villeneuve at the Northwest Progressive Institute blog has the much-predicted news that Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, is in fact going to run for King County executive. Also running: fellow lawmaker Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island.
-Spokesman-Review editorialist Gary Crooks weighs in on the state’s tax structure, saying that as a percentage of income it’s dropped significantly in recent years. Writes Crooks:
That’s probably surprising to most people given the Republicans’ drumbeat on “out-of-control” spending…The problem with measuring the affordability of taxes and spending against total income is that the state doesn’t have an income tax. The above calculations help explain why it should. The state is relatively rich, but it has a tax code that’s unsuited to tapping that wealth. The result is that high-income households send relatively large sums to the feds and relatively paltry amounts to the state. Conversely, the state taxes the poor at the highest levels in the nation because of the heavy reliance on our regressive sales tax.
-On that note, Publicola’s Josh Feit seems to be predicting a citizen’s initaitive in 2010 to launch a state income tax.
-Lastly, a little desert with the tax-structure leafy greens we’re serving up today: South Korean researchers claim that they’ve cloned beagles that glow red. Really.
From this morning’s paper:
OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday she intends to call Washington lawmakers back into a special session to finish budget-related bills left undone when midnight struck Sunday night, ending the 105-day legislative session.
But the governor said she first wants wrung-out lawmakers to get a break to decompress. She met with legislative leaders shortly after midnight Sunday to gauge their mood.
“What I saw last night was ‘Go home, relax, reconnect with your family,’ ” she said. “They need to be thoughtful about how we do this.”
Some Democrats were frustrated Sunday night that several bills didn’t pass. One – opposed by Republicans and some rural Democrats – would cut school levy equalization dollars, which help poor districts that cannot raise much in tax money. It would also allow dozens of districts to collect voter-approved dollars that a state limit now places out of reach. Another unfinished bill involves sentencing reforms, including more deportation of noncitizen criminals.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Sunday night that she wants to hold a special session. “We believe these are important bills that fit within the budget,” she said.
Brown said a session could be short and might give lawmakers time to revive a couple of other key bills. Among them: a cap-and-trade bill involving greenhouse gases and a revamp of voter-approved renewable-energy requirements for utility companies.
House Democrats were more lukewarm on a special session, saying that nothing critical had been left on the cutting-room floor.
“Usually when you have a special session, there’s something you can’t live without,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. “That isn’t the case here.”
Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said Monday that he’d be open to a special session. But he suggested it might be better held later this year, if at all. The amount of money involved in the unfinished bills, he said, is “tiny” compared with the multibillion-dollar budget. And many of the levies, he said, wouldn’t be affected until next year.
One potential wrinkle, however, is that the levy bill also affects how many levy dollars school districts can ask voters for. With the state spending hundreds of millions of dollars less than expected on schools and teacher pay, districts will see their levy limits lower unless lawmakers change the limit. That, Chopp said, might make a special session necessary.
“I’m sure it will all work out,” he said.
Minority Republicans – many of whom would be happy to see the cut to levy equalization die – called a special session a terrible idea.
“I am dumbfounded at the mismanagement that brought us to this point,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, who said reconvening the Legislature would cost $20,000 a day. “They wasted time, then tried to jam everything through in the final two days and failed.”
Chopp dismissed that criticism, saying that Hewitt “likes to complain.” Chopp pointed to the three major budgets that lawmakers passed, as well as a long list of reform bills.
“We effectively got the job done on time,” he said.
Gregoire also defended lawmakers, saying they did “an unbelievably good job” in the highest-pressure session in decades. Lawmakers had to grapple with billions of dollars in cuts, the effects of which will play out in the coming months.
“They did not make decisions they liked or wanted to make,” Gregoire said. “They did not want to vote for that budget. At all.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire said she intends to call a special session, but wants to talk to lawmakers first.
She said she hopes the session is soon — not waiting for the June revenue forecast, for example — short, and limited in scope. She wants to hash out an agreement with lawmakers to limit the time of the special session, perhaps to a single day, and limit it to a few agreed-to bills. She doesn’t want it to morph into a month-long rehash of lots of bills that didn’t pass, she said.
But Gregoire also said she wants lawmakers to have time to decompress and spend time with their families before returning to Olympia. The final days of the session were full of late nights and high emotions, she said, and lawmakers are clearly worn out.
She said she hopes to talk to Democratic and Republican legislative leaders tomorrow to set a date.
Lawmakers wrapped up around 1 a.m., adjourning even though several bills necessary to implement the budgets never made it to a vote. Among them: bills affecting school levy rates and another to require the deportation of non-violent foreign criminals.
Gov. Chris Gregoire sent out a statement saying that she would meet with lawmakers soon “to determine when the Legislature will reconvene.”
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown indicated that she wants to hold a special session to finish the unfinished budget bills.
“We believe these are important bills that fit within the budget,” she said. Asked when a special session could be convened, she responded that it wouldn’t be Monday, but could be this week.
“Presumably, we would come back and have a very short list,” said Brown. “The good news is that almost all the key things were done.”
During any special session, she said, lawmakers in the Senate would probably also try to resurrect a couple of critical bills: a cap and trade bill and SB 5840, a controversial revamp of voter-approved renewable-energy requirements for utility companies.
“That would be a Senate priority,” Brown said of the latter bill.
In the House, however, leaders sounded a lot more lukewarm on the idea of a special session.
“There’s nothing that was left undone that would force us into a special session,” said Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes. “…There’s nothing critical that has to be resolved in the next sixth month.”
If there is a special session, it won’t be this week, he said.
“We were required to get three budgets done, those budgets are passed and on the governor’s desk,” he said.
“Usually when you have a special session there’s something you can’t live without. That isn’t the case here,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.
One House Democrat said the budget fallout from the stalled levy bill could be serious, however. Without that legislation, he said, school districts will not be able to collect tens of millions of dollars in voter-approved levies that were based on the assumption that lawmakers would approve hundreds of millions of dollars in smaller-class-size dollars and teacher cost-of-living increases. Since levies are capped at a percentage of state and federal dollars, that matters.
“If we don’t pass that bill, the voters will have written a check and they won’t be able to cash it,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. “That’s real damage to our school districts, and I’ll make it clear to leadership.”
Gov. Gregoire’s statement on legislative session
OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire released the following statement tonight on calling a special session of the 2009 Washington Legislature:
“The 2009 legislative session completed the most difficult regular session in a generation with a balanced budget, very significant transportation improvements, and other important agreements, but work remains to be done with respect to a few items.
“I will meet with legislative leadership shortly to determine when the Legislature will reconvene.”
Special session for the few remaining bills?
Looks that way. Top lawmakers and the governor are trying to figure out what to do.
Lawmakers are on track tonight to end a grueling legislative session that saw two lawmakers hospitalized and left the state facing $4 billion in cuts to schools, adult day care centers, colleges, hospitals, and health coverage for the working poor.
“It has been a brutal year, frankly,” said Rep. John Driscoll, D-Spokane.
The session ended with some 11th-hour drama, as Pierce and Clark county lawmakers teamed up to defeat a controversial bill from Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. The bill would have rewritten some renewable-energy requirements for utilities. After a cascade of legislative “hostage-taking” lead to a days-long deadlock over other bills, leaders killed Marr’s bill.
“It was a fun round of cards tonights,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy. “Of course, the winners always feel that way.”
Marr argues that the bill, SB 5840, was a careful balancing act that preserved the voter-approved focus on expanding renewable energy while not wanting to place too hard a burden on utilities and ratepayers. He said the fight could have gone on, pushing the session into overtime, but the Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown decided to press ahead and not hold up other key bills, including a related tax break for renewable power projects.
Tensions have been brewing for days over an already-very-controversial bill: Sen. Chris Marr’s SB 5840, which would retool parts of Initiative 937.
Environmental groups have been unhappy with the changes, which they see as a wrongheaded softening of the goal of I-937: to spur investments in alternative power.
Marr insists that his complex bill is a carefully-crafted compromise that preserves that goal.
“This bill has suffered a number of near-deaths, in part because of the willingness of a number of folks to play political brinksmanship with it,” he said recently. “A lot of folks are overreaching at every step.”
Marr said that bill “works for too many stakeholders for it not to” pass, meaning industrial users, some environmental groups, large power companys and public utility districts. He argues that his bill preserves the commitment to a diverse power portfolio “amid economic realities.”
“I think, end of day, people will say that we struck a balance,” he said.
The end of the day is near, however — there’s already a lot of talk about lawmakers being forced into a special session instead of ending as planned late tonight — and the bill is locked in a tangled web with several other critical bills.
In recent days, a coalition of Pierce- and Clark County lawmakers has been holding out for changes to benefit local utilities, and a number of other bills have gotten caught up in the fighting.
Wading into the fight, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, has written to the reluctant lawmakers, urging them to stop tying it up with other bills. (Or, as the TNT’s Joe Turner put it better: “Release the hostages!”)
Brown’s letter is excerpted in the read-more link below.
It’s clear from reviewing the proposed budget documents that in addition to major changes for schools, colleges, social services and health care, budget writers also did some work with the fiscal equivalent of a scalpel, trimming spending on things like the governor’s bodyguards, classes on robots, and the flower plantings around the state capitol.
“No one was spared the pain,” said House budget writer Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham. The bodyguard budget was reduced by $190,000. The flowers were cut $42,000. And the robot class will be ended, saving $300,000.
Gone also is a “teak surfing” awareness program to tell people that it’s foolish to hang onto the back of a speeding motorboat. It will be replaced by a sticker warning would-be teak surfers about carbon monoxide.
Some things were added. Lawmakers set aside $642,000, for example, to open the Eastern Washington Veterans’ Cemetery on Memorial Day 2010.
Here’s a look at where some of the chips fell. Except where noted, the numbers are compared to the previous state budget.
Washington legislators are very close to approving tens of millions of dollars in new buildings and other work in the Spokane region.
The capital budget, expected to be approved by Sunday, includes new community college buildings, $4.3 million for a central Spokane YMCA/YWCA, and $350,000 in elevator work at
Spokane’s Masonic Temple building.
Washington State University will get $86 million in repairs, renovations and new projects. At its Riverpoint campus in Spokane, $4.3 million in early work will begin on a new biomedical and health sciences building. The Vancouver campus will get a $27 million new technology building.
WSU will also get approval to spend $6.2 million for a new animal health lab and $7.4 million for work on a new biomedical sciences building in Pullman.
Eastern Washington University is in line for $50.5 million, including $5.5 million for its Riverpoint Center, nearly $27 million to remodel Patterson Hall.
Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College will each get about $40 million for buildings, including a new technical education building and a chemistry and life science building. Also included: $13.8 milion to renovate SFCC’s Music Building 15, and $9.7 million for work on SCC’s Building 7.
The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture stands to get $1.9 million in repairs and upgrades.
The Spokane Neighborhood Action Program will get $79,000 for its Riverwalk Point Community Building.
Airway Heights will get $1 million from the construction budget for its water treatment plant.
The Spokane County Courthouse will get $500,000 for restoration work on its historic features.
Colfax’s McDonald Park will get nearly $40,000 in lighting work, and Palouse will get $12,000 in work on its city park.
Spokane will get $530,000 for work on its historic Iron Bridge. The county Parks and Recreation Department will get nearly $200,000 to realign Centennial Trail at Gateway Park, as well as $1.7 million to buy land at Antoine Peak.
Can’t find something you care about on this list? Here’s where to find the budget documents. (Timesaver: start with the budget summary, and save yourself a lot of time by using the search function on Adobe.)
Also Friday, lawmakers released a transportation budget that includes $28 million more for the North Spokane Corridor project and $250,000 for a turn lane at the dangerous intersection of Highway 195 and Cheney Spokane Road.
Lawmakers had hoped for more for both projects. But in a tight budget year, they did the best they could, said Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane.
The $28 million, he said, was by far the largest amount set aside in the budget for new work. It will pay for engineering work, updating environmental documents and buying land for the freeway’s next phase from Francis to Upriver, he said.
“We are now teed up to proceed,” he said.
Just 10 hours after unveiling the details, House lawmakers on Friday night approved a $35 billion state budget that includes about $4 billion in cuts.
The budget, which now goes to the Senate for approval, passed on a largely party-line vote, 54 to 42. It includes numerous fee increases but no major tax hikes. It cuts schools, health care, social services, higher education and government.
Majority Democrats said they did the best they could to curtail spending without destroying schools, health care and the social safety net. One budget writer said she cried over some of the decisions they had to make.
“This is not a budget we would have chosen in a perfect world, but this isn’t a perfect world,” said House budget writer Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham.
Minority Republicans blasted the plan, saying that it continues to overspend at a time when budget writers should be slimming government.
“We should be making the hard choices now,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead.
The budget relies on about $5 billion in federal stimuls dollars and other one-time money. To Democrats, that money was a lifeline at a critical moment.
“This budget is responsible and I’m proud to vote for it,” said Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle.
Republicans blame Democrats for state spending that’s grown by $8 billion _ or 33 percent _ in the last four years.
“This state made promises it could not keep,” said Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend. “…We have lived on credit, and we’re going to continue living on this credit card.”
Democrats say its unfair to blame them for the greatest economic downturn in decades.
“This is the Great Recession,” said Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.
Linville also said that further reforms are coming, “because we have to, and because we want to. Nobody wants to vote for this budget that cuts things that we care about.”
Total budget (two years): $31.4 billion.
-Ending fund balance: $830 million.
K-12 schools: total spending: $13.4 billion
-net cut after federal stimulus dollars are included: $794 million
-I-732 suspended for two years
-I-728 reduced by $600 million
-K-4 class-size reduction fully funded
-Average per school district cut : $2.6 percent
-one learning improvement day is eliminated: $35.7 million
-school district levy capacity increased by 4 percent, capping at 35 percent
-reduction, after tuition increse: 7 percent at UW/WSU, 6.5 percent at regional universities like EWU, 6 percent at community colleges
-tuition raised 14 percent at 4-year schools, 7 percent at community colleges
-enrollments eliminated: 9,028
-state need grant is fully funded
-total financial aid increase: $52 million
-Basic Health Plan — attrition of 40,000 enrollees, saving $255 million
-no reductions to Medicare Part D premium support
-no reduction to adult vision care
-“General Assistance (for the Unemployable, or GA-U) is preserved — more focus on getting the right services to people”
-Long-term care programs: rate reduction of about approximately 4 percent
-Adult day health: in-home services are preserved
-“Public safety concerns were tantamount in making savings - public defenders and law enforcement in support”
-“No specific institutions are closed.”
-No parks closed; all revenues from a $5 voluntary, annual fee per car goes toward maintenance and operation of parks
-No hatcheries will be closed unless there is not enough revenue from fees
-“Agencies are encouraged to use strategies such as reduced work schedules, use of voluntary leave without pay, and temporary furloughs that enable employees to maintain permanent employee status, full insurance benefits, full accrual of retirement service credit and a living wage.”
-Administrative cuts totaling roughly $250 million.
Lawmakers, as has been written, reached agreement on the budget last night.
$4 billion in cuts, we’re told. People will die. Big tuition hikes. Cuts to the Basic Health Plan, to mental health, to hospitals, to the social safety net. “Everything got whacked,” one lawmaker says.
And it looks (see below) like there will be no major tax hike to offset cuts.
But how deep do those cuts go? And to what, exactly? How many layoffs? How deep will the cuts be to schools? How high will tuition go? Nobody’s talking.
And the weirdest moment of the day came a few minutes ago, when most of the state’s capitol press corps and a TV crew were clustered around the Senate Democrats’ door (closed), waiting for a lawmaker to emerge and tell us what the hell’s going on.
Then on the other side of the door: drums. The strumming of a guitar. Some keyboards. And singing. It was, we were told, the time for the legislative interns to perform a song.
This is an idea that legislative advocates should have had weeks ago: The folks at the private Washington State Budget and Policy Center have put together a handy online calculator to estimate how much a person would receive if the state working families tax rebate becomes reality.
The rebate is a key part of a proposed third-of-a-cent state sales tax increase. To offset the impact for low-income families, many Democrats are insisting on a rebate. It would be patterned on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. If you get that, you’d get an extra 5 percent from the state.
Writes the policy center’s Jeff Chapman:
For example, a married couple with two kids and $20,000 in wages would receive $251 dollars. A single parent with one child would receive $152. The minimum credit for those who are eligible is $25.
The sales tax plan, which would steer hundreds of millions of dollars into hospitals, nursing homes and other health services if voters agree, is struggling to find support in the House in the final days of the legislative session. Republicans and some conservative Democrats argue that in a consumer-driven recession, it’s unwise to increase taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who had earlier proposed a state income tax on high-earners, now says that changing the state’s tax system is still the right thing to do, but that this is not the year to do it.
“Many members of the Senate Democratic caucus — but certainly not all — still believe that changing our tax system is the right thing to do,” Brown told reporters at a crowded press conference in the capitol. “However, we’ve concluded that this is not the right time to do it…It’s clear we don’t have the legislative support to move forward at this point.”
“Statewide, I understand there’s quite a bit of antipathy toward this, as if a state income tax was a new invention that 41 other states didn’t already have,” said Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle.
Brown also said it’s unlikely that lawmakers will approve a proposed bond issue to spur jobs by spending hundreds of millions of dollars fixing up schools and other public buildings.
“I don’t believe the bond measure is moving in either chamber,” she said.
And a proposed increase in the state sales tax?
Senate Democrats like the fact that the regressive increase would be offset by state rebates to low-income families, Brown said. But she added that it’s not clear that the bill will make it through either House. Even if the House approves it, she wouldn’t commit to holding a vote in the Senate.
“We’ll consider the bill when it comes over,” she said.
Brown, Kline and other Senate Democrats said they’re committed to continuing a public dialogue over a state income tax and other structural tax reforms.
“This really is becoming more urgent every year,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. “Our tax system is really not only unfair, but it’s also out of kilter. She said she’ll introduce a bill in a day or two for a sales tax on gum and candy, with the money going to children’s health care. (Maybe it would restore state cuts to vaccinations, she suggested.) But she also said that the bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the legislative session’s final few days. Lawmakers are slated to adjourn on Sunday. The bill will remain alive for next year’s session.
“The point is: we cann’t stop discussing this,” said Kohl-Welles, who has repeatedly introduced bills to launch a state income tax.
“We have an unsustainable shifting of our tax burden to the shoulders of working people,” said Kline.
Brown said she knew it would be a tough year for an income tax debate, but that lawmakers need to do something about an unfair state tax system. That’s particularly true, she said, in the face of the state’s $9 billion budget shortfall and federal discussion of having people earning $250,000 or more pay more in taxes.
Brown also points out that under federal tax law, state income tax payers can deduct that from their federal taxes.
“The goal is not to single out or target our more-affluent citizens, but to give them the opportunity to not send all their tax dollars to Washington, D.C.,” she said. Instead, she said, those dollars could go to local schools and other needs.
And she denied that the high-earners approach is a trojan horse to launch a broader, deeper state income tax in the future.
“The idea really is to introduce fairness, and the middle class pays enough already,” she said. “…There’s no intention to fool anybody, or to start high and then move down.”
Voters are clearly skeptical about tax reforms, she said.
“In general, voters are more comfortable with the devil they know than the devil they don’t,” she said, referring to the sales- and income tax plans. “There’s always an element of uncertainty.”
Any major changes would be possible only with a broad public dialogue and public support, she said.
“That’s how we do things in Washington,” she said.
“Sens. Lisa Brown, Joe McDermott, Adam Kline, Jeanne Kohl-Welles and other member of the Senate Democratic Caucus with hold a press conference today at 12:15 p.m. in the majority caucus room about the need for a continued dialogue with the public about our unfair tax system and how a high-earners income tax could benefit an overwhelming majority of taxpayers in our state.”
Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, suffered what’s being described as a “mild heart attack” last night at the state capitol. He’s been hospitalized, and doctors have scheduled an angioplasty this afternoon to clear a blockage in some of his heart blood vessels.
Armstrong, on his way to get an award involving state parks last night at the governor’s mansion, was walking up the steps near a gate when he suddenly stopped and felt weak. A state trooper in a nearby guardhouse came out, sat Armstrong down, and ended up calling for an ambulance.
Armstrong “just wanted to keep going,” said a spokesman, John Sattgast.
Doctors at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia found that he’d suffered a mild heart attack, Sattgast said.
“He’s been alert and he’s been talking” to his legislative aide, he said.
House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt issued a short statement:
“Mike had been working extremely hard these past several weeks of the legislative session. The long hours and stress can be difficult in the best of circumstances. We were relieved that he sought help and received immediate care from the State Patrol and emergency medical staff. I spoke with Mike yesterday evening and he was doing really well. He actually wanted to be back at work last night, but he agreed to wait for test results which showed he needs additional care. Mike has a lot of friends here in Olympia who are sending their good wishes and prayers. We are confident that he’s in good hands at St. Peters, and knowing Mike he will be back on the job as soon as his doctors give him the green light.”
After days of last-minute, late-night negotiations, Democratic budget writers in Olympia agreed Wednesday on a state budget with about $4 billion in cuts to schools, higher education, social services, health care and other state services.
Lawmakers, facing a $9 billion budget shortfall, avoided much deeper cuts by tapping more than $3 billion in federal stimulus dollars, delaying hundreds of millions of pension payments, and agreeing to increase college tuition.
“Out of a very tough budget, we made very rational decisions that will move Washington forward,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina. Negotiators worked until 2 a.m. Wednesday, and lawmakers now expect to work through the weekend before adjourning as planned Sunday night.
Tom and other budget writers declined to release specifics Wednesday night until they’d briefed lawmakers. But he said that public will feel the cuts.
“I think everyone in Washington will be affected,” he said. People with children in schools will see programs shrink, he said. Middle class families will find it more expensive to put their kids through college — if they can get into the classes at all. It will be harder for low-income families to get state subsidized health coverage.
The budget does not include a proposed state income tax or three-tenths of a cent sales tax hike. Lawmakers have floated both ideas — which would need voter approval — as a way to offset hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts.
The income tax proposal now seems highly unlikely, and the sales tax plan appears to be faltering. Recent polling showed that voters were lukewarm on increasing taxes, even for things like hospitals, nursing homes and other health services.
Rep. Kelli Linville, the top House budget writer, said that key priorities including protecting colleges, schools, and the social safety net, including stipends and health care for unemployable people,
“Everything took cuts, but our priorities are still intact,” said Linville, D-Bellingham. “…We did what we had to do.”
Republicans, who are in the minority in Olympia, say that Democrats missed a key chance to pare government down to key functions, instead relying heavily on a federal bailout and other one-time money.
“I’m really disappointed,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax. “My priorities were real simple: education, public safety and then helping those who need help. And if it didn’t fall into one of those three categories, then we shouldn’t be doing it.”
He and other Republicans have also repeatedly pointed out that state revenues are actually expected to be slightly higher over the next two years than they are now. By the time the books close in late June, the state is expected to have collected about $30.4 billion for the 2007-2009 budget. Over the next two years, state economists think, that will rise to $30.5 billion.
The $9 billion shortfall is based on what it would have cost to keep state services and programs as-is, including hundreds of millions of dollars in expected cost of living increases for workers and teachers and large increases in health care costs. (Those raises were eliminated early in the budget process.) The number also factors in the increased cost of things like rising numbers of schoolchildren and college students.
Many of the changes in the budget won’t take effect until July 1. But lawmakers say the fallout will be felt widely this summer and fall.
“This goes beyond rattling the local Department of Licensing office door and finding it closed,” said Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. “This will be actually stepping over people sleeping on the sidewalk to get to that door.”
“It’s heart-wrenching,” Senate budget chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said. “We’re making decisions we never thought we would.”
Linville also said that she’s worried about future budgets, when billions of federal stimulus dollars presumably won’t be available to cushion the budget again.
“That’s why our work isn’t done,” she said.
The House and Senate have agreed on a budget, with highlights likely to be released late tonight.
“Our two sticking points were higher education and K-12,” said Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham.
No details yet, but word around the capitol is that lawmakers have reached a deal on the budget. Stay tuned for details as they become available.
After days of negotiation, House and Senate lawmakers are very close to agreement on a budget.
“All the big points have been resolved,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina.
There’s still some talk going on over minor things, he said, but things are close.
A small, single-engine plane is circling the state capitol, trailing a huge banner reading “NO HUSKY STADIUM BAILOUT TAX!”
(Click the read-more line for another photo.)
Gov. Chris Gregoire today signed into law House Bill 1596, which declares that the right of a mother to breastfeed her child in public places is a civil right protected by Washington’s anti-discrimination law.
“This new law will eliminate one more obstacle that women are faced with day in and day out,” said Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood. It takes effect in 90 days.
Washington is already one of at least 25 states that have passed laws explicitly declaring that breastfeeding or expressing breast milk does not constitute indecent exposure. In a move intended to prod businesses into making more accomodations for breastfeeding moms, the state also has a law allowing employers to say they’re “infant-friendly” if they allow flexible work schedules and clean facilities for moms.
The new law protects against discrimination by declaring that women can breastfeed a child “in any place of public resort, accomodation, assemblage or amusement.” That includes restaurants, hotels, motels, stores, malls, theaters, concert halls, parks, fairs, libraries, schools, hospitals and government offices.
Complaints would be investigated by the state Human Rights Commission. Based on results involving similar laws in Vermont and Hawaii, the commission estimates that it will field 4-5 complaints a year. It says that Washington has a high percentage of breastfeeding moms, particularly among immigrants and low-income women.
In House and Senate hearings, no one testified against the bill. But proponents said that women continue to be asked to leave public places while breastfeeding. Such hassles, they said, may contribute to a sharp dropoff in breastfeeding at 6 weeks and 6 months.
My colleague Jim Camden has a good story today about the backstory on one of the dullest-sounding bills of the session: Senate Bill 5322, “Creating a five-member option for civil service commissions for sheriffs’ offices.”
The genesis of the bill is anything but dull. Writes Camden:
An encounter that involved a sheriff’s detective flashing a barista at a drive-up coffee stand has led to a new state law that Spokane County will use to expand the volunteer panel that overturned the detective’s firing.
Sheriff’s Detective Joseph Mastel was fired in June 2006 after exposing himself to a barista at the On Alert coffee stand in Airway Heights. He was off duty at the time and said he had a “flirtatious relationship” with the woman, who was about 30 years younger. The woman said she was taken by surprise and felt violated by his actions.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich fired Mastel. But after Mastel received a deferred sentence for an indecent exposure charge from a municipal judge in Airway Heights, he appealed to the three-member Civil Service Commission to get his job back. He told the board he took some responsibility, but not full responsibility, for the incident and was under “extreme stress” on the job and at home when it happened.
To make a long story short, the commission decided to change Mastel’s dismissal to a one-year unpaid suspension. That allowed him to collect some unused sick time and retire.
And here’s a gem from low in the story:
The flashing incident was never specifically mentioned when county officials lobbied for the change, (State Rep. Timm) Ormsby said. Instead, they stressed the need for a more diverse commission.
A proposed billion-dollar sales tax hike barely cleared its first committee Tuesday, 8 votes to 7.
“We are at a time when people need our help,” said Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, urging lawmakers to support his plan. “The most vulnerable need us.”
If the House and Senate also approve, the proposal will appear on ballots in November for a statewide vote.
Republicans blasted the plan, saying Democratic budget writers should be scrubbing the budget more.
Rep. Joe Schmick suggested, for example, cutting state employees pay 2 percent or 3 percent, or by having them pay more than 12 percent of the cost of their health coverage.
“I’m here to tell you that Washington is hurting,” said Schmick, R-Colfax. “And they’re hurting because they’re overtaxed and they’re over-regulated.”
The proposed sales tax increase _ which works out to 3 cents on a $10 purchase _ would partly undue millions of dollars in looming budget cuts to hospitals, nursing homes and other health services.
“We have really gone over this budget,” Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, told Schmick. Sending the sales tax to voters, she said, gives the public a chance to undue some of the most serious cuts that lawmakers had to make.
Pettigrew noted that lawmakers weren’t voting to raise the tax, just to send it to voters to decide.
“It’s part of our effort to maintain our partnership with the public,” he said.
To offset the effect of the tax on the state’s poorest residents, the measure would also give a tax rebate averaging $100 to people who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. This year, a family of four earning up to $43,415 would qualify. (NOTE: The amount of these rebates, however, was reduced from an earlier version of the bill, in order to steer millions of dollars more into the Basic Health Plan, mental health programs, vision/hearing services, and other health programs. The liberal Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s Schmudget blog has an excellent breakdown on the numbers before and after.
Some Republicans argue that the plan isn’t fair.
“You’re going to be taxing middle-income families struggling to get along and giving that money to lower-middle-class families,” said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.
Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, crossed party lines to vote against the plan.
“I believe we are in the crisis of our generation and we are going to be judged on how we respond with real solutions,” he said.
Pettigrew said he agrees that sales tax, which hurts low-income people the most, is not ideal. But he said that lawmakers have few alternatives in the face of devastating cuts.
“When we go back to folks, I want to make sure I can look them in the eye…and say I’ve done everything possible to help you,” he said.
-House and Senate budget writers seem close to a deal, and are shooting to release the final version Wednesday.
“We’re really coming along. We’re exchanging paper. We’re getting close,” said Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton.
-Taxes: A House committee is slated to vote tomorrow on a proposed 3/10-of-a-cent sales tax increase for the next three years. The move would raise about $1.1 billion to help ease budget cuts for hospitals, nursing homes and other health care services.
But lawmakers seem mighty lukewarm on the sales tax plan, and very cool indeed toward a proposed income tax on high earners. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown insists that the income tax plan isn’t dead (“Nothing’s dead ‘til we’re out of here,” she said this afternoon), but it seems increasingly unlikely.
Even the sales tax proposal, which proponents note would cost 3 cents on a $10 puchase, seems like it’s facing an uphill fight in the statehouse. Some lawmakers say the public hasn’t yet realized how substantial the budget cuts are going to be, and the lack of an ensuing public outcry has hurt the impetus to raise revenue and ease such cuts. Many of the cuts won’t take effect until the new fiscal year: July 1. ( Both the sales- and income tax plans would have to be approved by voters in November.)
Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, said he’s opposed to the income tax plan, saying it’s not the right time to launch a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s tax system. And he’s not convinced that lawmakers will back the sales tax plan.
“The impacts will be so staggered and disparate that I think it will take time for the public to feel that impact,” he said.
But they will, he said.
“This goes beyond rattling the local Department of Licensing office door and finding it closed,” said Marr. “This will be actually stepping over people sleeping on the sidewalk to get to that door.”
In a move designed to stave off the closure of dozens of state parks, the state House of Representatives voted Monday night to ask motorists to pay an extra $5 a year per car.
Over Republican objections, House Bill 2339 passed, 56 to 42. The bill now goes to the Senate.
If half the state’s residents pay the fee — which would be voluntary — it would raise about $28 million for parks over the next two years.
“We are now in a budget crisis, and we don’t have the money to pay for our parks,” said Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.
And if ever there was a time to keep parks open, she said, it’s now, when cash-strapped families need a cheap place to relax.
Lawmakers lifted the idea from Montana, where since 2004, motorists have been asked to pay a voluntary $4 fee to pay for state parks. Most do.
Washington tried a mandatory $5-a-day parking fee during a previous budget crunch in 2002. Attendance at state parks dropped by millions, and lawmakers repealed the unpopular fee in 2006.
House Republicans tried to tack on several amendments. One would have instead asked for a $1 donation from everyone visiting a park. Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, tried to add language to re-open parks closed since 2002, including Chief Timothy State Park, Lyons Ferry State Park, and Central Ferry State Park.
A third amendment would have taken $25 million set aside to buy park land and instead used that money to keep existing parks open.
“It’s important to famlies to fund this now, not to leave it up to speculation about who will pay, said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead. He lives two miles from Mount Spokane State Park.
Some lawmakers have also raised concerns about people paying the extra $5, not realizing that it’s optional. Several mentioned a 1991 court case that slapped a cable TV company for a similar opt-in fee. Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Bellingham, argued that the state is acting “as telemarketers, trying to fool the senior citizens of Washington State into giving $5 they did not know they had to give.”
Both sides agree that it would be a bad idea to shut down parks. Facing millions of dollars in cuts, the state Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this year prepared a list of 47 parks slated for closure or transfer to local governments.
“Nobody has emailed in and said, `yeah, that’s right, shut em down.’ Nobody.” said Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City.
Speaking of money for local public projects, Airway Heights is the big winner in a new list of water projects proposed for state and federal stimulus dollars.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Department of Ecology are backing $140 million in projects, with nearly half that coming from federal stimulus dollars.
The Airway Heights project includes improvements to a system for collecting wastewater and getting it to new treatment faiclities. Some of the treated wastewater will be reused — including letting it soak back into the West Plains aquifer.
The money’s not quite a done deal. The list will be finalized in mid-May after public comments.
Spokane’s University District and the area between Pullman and Moscow, Idaho stand to get millions of dollars in improvements under a bill lawmakers approved Monday.
Senate Bill 5045 now goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire to be signed into law.
The bill allows local governments to designate “revitalization areas.” It essentially recycles some tax dollars: improvements spur economic growth, generating more taxes. And the money pays for the improvements.
The law allows work on public infrastructure like roads, pedestrian bridges, landscaping, sidewalks and utilities.
The bill authorizes 7 demonstration projects:
-A Spokane University District project, to get up to $250,000 a year.
-A Whitman County Pullman/Moscow corridor improvement project, up to $200,000 a year.
-and five others, including projects in University Place, Tacoma, Bremerton, Auburn and Vancouver.
Those dollars could be used to pay off long-term bonds, so the projects can total millions of dollars.
Stuff’s moving quickly, so here’s a quick overview of recent developments, etc:
-The polling came back Friday on a proposed third-of-a-cent sales tax hike, and the numbers prompted an on-again, off-again Saturday, with groups and lawmakers weighing whether to press ahead with a public vote on the plan.
“We weren’t sure (the numbers) were strong enough to go forward,” said Cassie Sauer, who’s part of a coalition of health groups (hospitals, nursing homes, a nurses union, SEIU). She wouldn’t give out numbers, although she said that the number of people supporting a tax increase was higher than those opposed. And the numbers were “through the roof” as far as public disapproval of cuts to pediatric health, hospitals, nursing, etc. But many people are clearly very worried about the economy, she said.
So is the health coalition still willing to back a campaign to win public support for the temporary tax increase, which would add $1.1 billion over three years? “We’re thinking about it,” said Sauer.
-The Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier has posted two video clips, less than three weeks apart, in which a) Rep. Eric Pettigrew is praising the House budget as a responsible document and b) he says that the budget will result in people dying.
-David Goldstein, at horsesass.org, reports that momentum for an income tax on high earners is faltering: “`Next year,’ income tax advocates are being told. `Maybe next year.’ Yeah. Right.”
Goldstein argues that if ever there was a moment of opportunity for such a plan, it’s now. Not next year, when most House lawmakers will be running for re-election. Writes Goldstein:
By “next year,” of course, the powers that be mean “some other year,” which really means “never.”
-The Homeowners’ Bill of Rights has apparently died, for the third year in a row.
-With Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Sen. Chris Marr standing in the House wings Friday, there was some high drama Friday night involving SB 5840, which was intended to ease some of the renewable-power rules for power companies, easing the cost to ratepayers. Environmentalists say the bill largely guts Initiative 937, which set those standards.
In a rare alliance, environmentalist House Democrats joined Republicans to pass an amendment that seems likely to kill the bill: declaring all hydropower renewable, which would largely render I-937 meaningless. From the Olympian’s Brad Shannon:
“We put a poison pill in it,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who voted for the amendment and then voted against the final bill.
TVW’s Niki Sullivan adds this: “It might be working: The Senate rejected the House’s amendments yesterday. It now heads to a conference committee.”
-The Seattle Times’ Jennifer Sullivan has an update on a proposal to privatize some child-welfare services. (The short form: it’s now a pilot project instead of the original sweeping reform.)
-Publicola’s Josh Feit has the blow-by-blow in the continuing tussle between education advocates over whether a bill redefining basic education. And here’s a long statement from House education chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe, who calls the struggle over HB 2261 “one of the most difficult and bittersweet weeks in my time in our Legislature.”
-Lawmakers have agreed to defer $430 million in state pension payments.
-Lastly: lawmakers have, in fact, banned novelty lighters (those that could be mistaken for a toy or that have flashing lights) out of concern that they attract children who end up starting fires with them.
Teachers and their union are profoundly underwhelmed by House Bill 2261, which passed the Senate yesterday with much fanfare. Proponents say the bill is a path to the biggest overhaul in school funding in decades — billions of dollars — but Republicans and the Washington Education Association point out the bill includes no money source. Here’s the WEA’s video take on the situation, with a little help from Tom Cruise.
I’m sitting in the House hearing on a proposed .3 percent sales tax hike, HB 2377.
The proposal, from Rep. Eric Pettigrew, would raise just over $1 billion in three years. Much of that money would be steered into health care: mental health services, hospitals, nursing homes, public health programs and the state’s Basic Health Plan, which provides coverage for thousands of low-income folks. To offset the hit to low-income families, it would also send millions of dollars in state tax rebates back to people who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.
The plan would only take effect if voters approve it in November.
The crowded hearing room is full of health care providers, officials and lobbyists representing nurses, hospitals, adult day health programs, public health, etc. They all support the plan as a critical lifeline.
A hospital official said that if the bill passes, hospitals will still see a state budget cut of $110 million over the next two years. Without it, that will be $350 million.
Dianse Sosne, with SEIU 1199 NW, said that proposed budget cuts would tear the state’s health safety net apart. That means mothers, babies, and elderly people ending up in emergency rooms, she said, and more mental health patients ending up in jails, prisons, under bridges and on the streets.
“And ultimately those costs will fall on taxpayers,” she said.
Among the few voices opposing the plan: anti-tax initiative promoter Tim Eyman.
Eyman blasted the proposal, saying that legislative budget writers are protecting non-essential state programs while asking voters to approve a billion-dollar tax hike to stave off cuts to people needing health care.
“Have you no shame?” he said.
“You are fooling no one,” he told lawmakers. “…The best thing you can do for the poor and the middle class is to stop taxing them to death.”
Pettigrew and many of the advocates will hold a press conference about the proposal later this morning.
The House will hold its first hearing Friday morning on a proposal to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for health care by boosting the sales tax about a third of a cent for three years. But as Olympia struggles to agree on a major tax plan to send to voters in November, they’re also talking about a lot of small things that will never appear on any ballot — but that are still likely to cost you.
Click the link below to read the story.
Photo: Colleen Beimer, from Bonney Lake, cries while holding a picture of her grandchildren. Richard Roesler - The Spokesman Review
Lawmakers, parents and a local prosecutor on Thursday blasted state child-protection officials, saying the state is too quick to remove children from their families.
“The system is broken. The children are forgotten,” said Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen. He said he found “a culture of deceit and deception” among Child Protective Services workers in Colville.
The standing-room-only crowd, numbering about 100, was full of parents and grandparents, some holding photographs of children.
Thursday’s meeting was called by state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who’s been highly critical of state officials for months in a case involving grandparents’ efforts to get custody of their 3-year-old granddaughter.
“Lies are put on desks,” Roach said on the Senate floor later in the day. “Children are being hurt.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services said officials take such allegations very seriously.
“If someone believes that any of our staff have been dishonest, falsified documents or have retaliated against families, we ask that people report this to the Children’s Administration or Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman,” said Sherry Hill.
“The first priority of the Children’s Administration is the safety of children,” she said. “Our goal is to keep children in their home as long as they are safe.”
Of the child abuse and neglect cases investigated, she said, fewer than 20 percent result in the children being placed in foster care. And when that does happen, Hill said, “we then work toward reunification with the family if that is possible.”
“Does it cover toilet paper?”
-Sen. Jerome Delvin, expressing misgivings about Senate Bill 2287, which would mandate that state government use recycled paper whenever possible.
(Answer, from bill Sen. Jim Hargrove, whose district includes a major recycling mill: “No, this is actually print paper.”)
The bill passed, 47 yes to 1 no. Delvin voted no.
The Senate has begun debating SB 2261, which would redefine basic education, setting Washington on course to steer more money into education over nearly a decade.
Democrats say it’s a long-needed overhaul to a funding system that largely dates back to the 1970s. Republicans say it’s a blank check, with no indication of how the state will pay the billions of dollars that the changes will entail.
“Nobody can tell us how much this bill will cost,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Conservative religious groups are preparing a voter referendum to overturn a bill granting same-sex partners most of the rights and responsibilities of spouses.
Senate Bill 5688 passed the legislature yesterday and is headed to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is expected to sign it into law.
Proponents say it’s a simple matter of fairness, that same-sex couples and their children deserve the same sort of protections and rights that married couples have. Opponents argue that the bill, after a trip through court, will lead to same-sex marriage.
This afternoon, Faith & Freedom’s Gary Randall emailed a note to supporters:
While the lawmakers were voting in favor of homosexual marriage in the Capitol, I and several other leaders in the faith community were meeting a few blocks away, finalizing details before filing a referendum to overturn this legislation.
…Their next step will be an easy one them. Litigate, correctly claiming there is no legal difference, then claim discrimination and it’s a done deal.
They will have successfully done an end-run on the State Supreme Court ruling which upheld DOMA and will have dismantled the Defense of Marriage Act.
If same-sex marriage becomes reality in Washington (as it has in four other states), he argues, Washington “will become a national attraction for homosexuals” from other states and countries.
More from the e-mail:
We know we will be outspent probably 6 to 1 or more on this referendum campaign, however we are equally confident, people of faith and conservatives will do all they can do to help us.
Proponents of the bill have repeatedly said they expect a referendum, and are prepared to take the debate to the public.
In a bill closely watched by schools advocates, the state Senate plans to vote on — and presumably pass — an amended version of HB 2261 this afternoon.
“We’re working with the governor and members of the House to agree on a bill to responsibly reform and retool our educational system,” Senate education committee chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe said in a statement about the proposal. “It’s critical that these reforms are meaningful and phased in over time to actually achieve and maintain progress. But we cannot disregard our current economic climate, particularly as we make drastic cuts to our schools, colleges and universities and eliminate health care coverage for tens of thousands of people.”
I wrote about some of the political tension around this bill in this morning’s paper. The short version: the state PTA and others are pushing to redefine basic education (which the state must pay for), while the state teacher’s union says the real battle should be trying to stave off a billion in cuts right now.
Here are some highlights from the Senate version of the plan:
-Redefines basic education: increases instructional hours from 1000 to 1080 a year, phased in over years. “Opportunity to complete 24 credits” for high school graduation. New transportation funding formula phased in, beginning in 2013.
-More: definition will include all-day kindergarten, phased in at highest-poverty schools first. Also, money for gifted students. It also starts down the path toward expanding early learning for at-risk kids.
-Prototype school: The amended bill will create a standard “core allocation” to base school funding on, including enhancements for gifted students, advanced placement and spelling out staffing levels in law. It would take effect in 2011.
-Timeline: The new definition of basic ed would be fully in efffect by 2018.
-Accountability: the state board of education would have to set up “a system to identify schools for recognition and additional support.”
-Teacher certification: the state Professional Educator Standards Board would have to “adopt performance standards for effective teaching and recommend other modifications for educator certification.”
And here’s the key part, especially in the eyes of the Washington Education Association:
-“Revenue: Not addressed.”
In tomorrow’s paper:
In an 11th-hour push, education advocates in Olympia are calling on lawmakers and the governor to update the decades-old rule that spells out what the state should pay for in public schools.
“We’ve studied this long enough,” said state school superintendent Randy Dorn.
Dorn, along with members of the state board of education, parent teacher association and League of Education Voters, wants lawmakers to redefine “basic education.” That’s the basic learning that the state is supposed to pay for, with schools left to add extras from their local tax levies.
The definition of basic education hasn’t changed since the 1970s, he and others say. It doesn’t factor in things that have become increasingly important, like technology and school security.
“We are not a Third World country, yet we are not even paying the full cost of taking the bus” to school, said Mary Jean Ryan, chairwoman of the state board of education.
“We’ve been leaning on, leaning on, leaning on local levies,” said Dorn. “They’re maxed out.”
House Bill 2261 would expand the definition of basic education to include things like all-day kindergarten, more early learning programs, raising the high school graduation requirement to 24 credits and adding staffers, including librarians, counselors and nurses.
The changes would almost certainly mean raising more tax dollars. An early version of the proposal came with a price tag of at least $3 billion.
Proponents argue that better education means a stronger economy and fewer social service costs later.
“This is urgent, it’s compelling, and it has to happen now,” said Tacoma parent Cheryl Jones.
Conspicuously absent from Wednesday’s chorus, however, was a major player in state politics: the teachers’ union. In an unusual public split among education advocates, the Washington Education Association has focused instead on trying to stave off major budget cuts.
“We have adults who are pointing to this bill and saying this is something good for kids,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the union. “At the same time, we’re cutting a billion dollars from those kids and the education that they’re getting.”
Instead of more promises of money in the future, he said, lawmakers need to be finding ways
House Democrats have put together a bill to boost the state sales tax by 3/10 of 1 percent.
An unprecedented shortfall in state general fund revenues has threatened the state’s ability to fund vital health services and has harmed working families. For this reason, the legislature is asking the voters to approve temporary tax increases in order to fund health care and to support working families during this time of revenue shortfalls.
The bill would only take effect if approved by voters in November.
It would set up a new “health care trust account” in the state treasury. Most of the money raised from the increase in sales tax would go into that fund to pay for the state’s health coverage for poor families, public health services, health care, mental health care, hospitals and nursing homes.
A little less than a quarter of the money (21.6 percent) would be used to pay for a tax exemption for low income families. The refunds are patterned on the federal Earned income Tax Credit program. The program would pay out $32 million in its first year and $73 million the second, or more if needed to meet the payments.
The extra sales tax would be temporary, expiring Dec. 31, 2012.
Where the money would go (over 2 years):
-$167 million to the Basic Health Plan, coverage for low-income families,
-$77 million for long-term care and nursing homes
-$75 million for hospitals
-$24 million for mental health care for children
-$19 million for the Healthy Options health care program
-$3 million to go to local health agencies for “core public health functions of statewide significance”
The tax increase — if approved by voters — would take effect Dec. 15th.
After long debate, the state House of Representatives this afternoon approved an “everything but marriage” bill granting same-sex domestic partners most of the rights and responsibilities of spouses.
The bill passed, 62-35. It now goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is expected to sign it into law.
The vote was largely along party lines. Democrats argued that the bill is a simple matter of fairness for same-sex couples, in things like getting benefits when a partner is killed on the job.
“The principal we’re talking about is equal rights under the law. It’s that simple,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.
Republicans and one conservative Democrat argued against the change, with many saying the bill is a legal path to full same-sex marriage in Washington.
“Everybody knows that this is what this debate is about,” said Rep. Dan Roach, R-Sumner. He and other opponents of the bill urged the House to instead send the matter to voters.
“Those that are proponents of this bill know that a referendum will not pass,” he said. “The people are not ready for that.”
There were no torches, but there were some pitchforks.
Thousands of people descended on the state capitol today for a demonstration blasting taxes and government spending.
“We’re here to remind lawmakers that they work for us,” said Lynn Harsh, with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which organized the Olympia rally. Other rallies are taking place today in Spokane, Seattle and other cities across the state.
One speaker after another blasted state and local government as free-spending.
“Governor, if you’re home, we cannot survive this debt,” said conservative radio talk show host Kirby Wilbur.
Many criticized the Obama administration and the federal stimulus spending.
“They want us to hold our noses and take a little socialism, like a child taking a bitter pill,” said Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake. But she said a little socialism is like being a little bit pregnant: “Sooner of later, you’re going to give birth to a full-blown Marxist.”
The crowd cheered, several times breaking out into chants of “no more pork!”
The state patrol, which had a plane overhead, estimated the crowd at 4,000 to 5,000.
UPDATE: Signs at the rally included things like “Don’t tread on my money”, “Born free, taxed to death”, and “Obamanomics: Trickle-up poverty.”
There was also one guy holding a large sign asking “Is it time to water the tree of liberty?” — a clear reference to Thomas Jefferson’s statement “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from
time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
The Olympian’s Brad Shannon asked Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown for comment on the demonstration. Here’s what she had to say:
“My reaction is that at the federal level, what my mom would say is, it’s like closing the barn door after the horse is already out. In other words, I think that the Bush administration dramatically expanded our national debt and created the conditions for these bailouts. I think they are laying blame in the wrong places, blaming the Obama administration for the fiscal mess the country is in right now.”
Brown said that at the state level, Washington faces a “very serious recession and we’re responding it to it responsibly with a balanced budget. It’s a really serious setback for public schools, for higher education, for human services in Washington. So I completely disagree with their argument that it is a spending problem.’’
(This admittedly falls into the category of better-late-than-never news, but I suspect that proponents would say the same thing of the bill itself.)
Gov. Chris Gregoire has signed into law a bill — closely watched in Spokane — to extend the statute of limitations for some sex crimes against children. Instead of having to prosecute things like first-degree rape of a child under 14 by the time the victim turns 21 or 24, for example, law enforcement could go after the perpetrator up until the time that same victim turns 28.
For years, former local prosecutor Don Brockett has been beating the drum for complete elimination of the statute of limitations in major child sex crimes. Some things, the reasoning goes, are so horrific and life-changing that the offender should spent the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, worried about a police knock on the door.
Local lawmakers, including state Sen. Chris Marr and former state Rep. John Ahern, tried to make that change in recent years, only to run into resistance from lawmakers and some victims advocates and prosecutors. It does no good, opponents argued, to wrongly give victims false hope of prosecuting a case decades after the fact, as documents are lost and memories fade. And defense attorneys argued that it would be extremely difficult to defend an innocent person in such cases.
“Who could imagine that protecting today’s kids from pedophiles by
giving yesterday’s victims a chance to grow up and realize the harm and
speak up would be controversial? But it was,” Spokane attorney Beth Bollinger wrote on her blog tracking progress of the bill all session.
Brockett (whom I couldn’t immediately reach) is clearly happy with the change, which makes it harder for rapists and molesters to run out the clock and avoid prosecution. But Brockett has long advocated no statute of limitations at all for a wide array of sex crimes involving children.
“You can be sure their molesters are keeping track of that time, knowing they will be able to continue to molest more children with the assurance they will not have the responsibility for their crimes and will not be recognized in the communities in which they live,” Brockett wrote today.
In February, Bollinger went to Olympia to testify on behalf of the change. Abuse victims feel shame and isolation, she and other advocates told the Senate Judiciary Committee, and even 28 is a pretty early age for someone to step forward and reveal past abuse.
After some starts and stops, the bill passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law last week by Gov. Gregoire. It takes effect July 26.
Bollinger wrote on her blog:
I ended up not going to the bill’s signing ceremony. Don didn’t go, and I just decided it would be a lot of driving for just a few minutes. It would have been fun but, in a way, it was unnecessary. The most important thing already had happened. The bill had become law.
Those little lead weights clipped onto your tires may soon may go the way of lead type, lead toy soldiers and lead paint.
Washington’s state Senate on Tuesday voted to ban the installation of lead tire weights by 2011. Tire dealers will be required to use alternatives like zinc or a steel alloy.
The amended bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to approve it. It then goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire to be signed into law.
“The Asian and European car makers have used alternative wheel weights for years now,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, the prime sponsor of HB 1033. “We are just catching up to them.”
Lead is highly toxic, Campbell says, and it only makes sense to use less hazardous alternatives. It has been linked to brain damage and other nervous system damage, particularly in young children.
The weights, which have long been used to balance tires and prevent shimmying at high speeds, can come loose and be flung by the roadside. The state Department of Ecology estimates that 5 percent of wheel weights come loose. That would mean that vehicle wheels are dropping 20 tons of lead on roadways and parking lots each year.
Worsening matters, Campbell says, the weights can be pulverized by passing cars, making it even easier for the soft metal to leach into rain runoff and soil.
Eighteen lawmakers, mostly Republicans, voted no.
“This bill seems to be a solution in search of a problem,” said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. “If you stop and look and think, where does lead come from? It comes from the soil. So it gets ground up, it goes back in the soil. I see no problem here.”
Some tire dealers are already phasing out lead weights. Les Schwab announced last summer that it was switching to steel weights at all 400-plus shops in eight states, including Washington and Idaho. As part of a legal settlement in a case brought by environmental groups, several major manufacturers have agreed to stop using lead weights in California by the end of this year.
Campbell’s bill would apply to weights installed on new tires or changed during routine tire maintenance. Businesses, rather than vehicle owners, will be responsible for replacing the old weights with safer equivalents. There are exceptions for large-diameter tires and vehicles with gross weights over 14,000 pounds.
Tire businesses that illegally install lead weights could be fined up to $500.
“We think that there will be pretty good compliance with this,” said Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island.
Campbell said the steel weights are usually a non-rusting alloy.
“But even if rust occurred, it would not be significant in the lifetime of the weight,” he said. “It also would not be a bio-toxin like lead.”
State Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, will hold a telephone town-hall-style meeting tonight from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Lawmakers, particularly those in large Eastern Washington districts (paging Sen. Schoesler) are increasingly using these group phone calls to interact with constituents.
Want to listen in or ask Parker a question? Dial 1-877-229-8493, and dial this code: 14766. It’s a toll-free call.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown has been issuing a Harper’s-like index of statistics over the past few days. Today’s looks at taxes. Here’s an excerpt — and the last line is the key one:
-Number of states where households pay more in state and local property taxes than in Washington: 24
-Number of states where businesses pay more in total business taxes than in Washington: 38
-Total state revenues accounted for by the sales tax: 56 percent
-National average: 24.6 percent
-Number of states whose state and local sales taxes are lower than in Washington: 40
-Percentage that households earning less than $20,000 per year pay in state and local taxes relative to their income: 17.5
-Percentage that households earning up to $143,000 per year pay in state and local taxes relative to their income: 7.4
-Percentage that households earning over $992,000 per year pay in state and local taxes relative to their income: 3.1
-Number of states with a more unfair tax system for lower and middle class taxpayers: 0.
For weeks now, Sen. Ken Jacobsen has been trying to revamp the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The backstory, from an earlier blog post I wrote:
Commercial fisherman say the board is tilted too far in favor of sport/recreational anglers. The latter say that the board is simply making the hard decisions necessary to preserve the region’s fish runs, and that rod-and-reel anglers are inherently more selective than folks who scoop up fish with nets.
Jacobsen wants to reduce the number of commissioners, shorten their terms, assign them by geographic region and — this is the most important one — remove their ability to hire and fire the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. As he put it in a moment of candor before a House committee last month, Jacobsen’s bill would “neuter ‘em.”
Jacobsen’s proposal sailed through the state Senate, where Majority Leader Lisa Brown said that she felt there were legitimate questions over how the commission was doing. Rep. Brian Blake tried to tone it down a bit while still preserving the intent of Jacobsen’s bill. But Blake’s amended version collapsed at the last minute when Rep. John McCoy proposed taking away the commission’s authority over many fish and all hunting. (The department and, ultimately, the governor would have taken over that role directly.)
Then Jacobsen managed to quietly graft his plan onto another bill, House Bill 1778, that was moving swiftly toward passage.
That’s the bill that came up in the Senate today. On the Senate floor, Jacobsen was cueing up his arguments for final passage of the bill when Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield stood up and objected.
In the legislature, bills must contain basically what is described in the bill title. (This rule is what prevents lawmakers from trying to camouflage controversial legislation with motherhood-and-apple-pie titles, although there are still an awful lot of very vague bill titles out there.)
Zarelli protested, saying that an overhaul of the commission didn’t remain in a bill that was supposed to be about things like allowing anglers who pay extra to fish with two poles. Jacobsen’s amendment, he said, “goes far beyond dealing with enforcement and licensing issues.”
The bill was tabled. The attorneys huddled. And Senate President eventually agreed with Zarelli. The provisions to change the commission, Owen said, “go well beyond the original” subject of the bill.
Zarelli’s challenge was “not a surprise,” Jacobsen said in an email afterward. But it looks like the death of the proposal, at least for this year.
“I am not aware of any vehicle that I can use” to revive the proposal, he said.
In a startling moment on the Senate floor, a bill to allow child care workers to collectively bargain with the state was largely gutted Monday night after lawmakers instead turned the bill largely into a study.
“Was it a surprise? Yeah,” said Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, who’d sponsored an earlier version of the plan.
House Bill 1329 would allow child care providers and workers to unionize and collectively bargain the state-paid fees for children whose care is subsidized. It is strongly supported by the Service Employees International Union, which says that higher rates are key to professionalizing an industry plagued by low pay, high turnover and a lack of training and career opportunities.
Many lawmakers agree that the state rates are too low. Some, like Marr, say that the answer is to let the workers join together and — with the added clout of a union — push the legislature for better rates.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said an organized workforce would mean better conditions for both caregivers and children. They’ll be “on a stronger footing” when lobbying lawmakers for better rates. At a time when many other people — nurses, teachers, garbage collectors, bus drivers — have joined together to bargain collectively, she said, it’s high time for the people who care for the youngest, most vulnerable Washingtonians do the same.
Others, like Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, say the best answer is simply for Olympia to do the right thing and raise the rates. Critics were also uncomfortable with a provision of the bill that would have taken union dues directly out of the state’s subsidy payments, instead of directly from workers.
“We don’t need to basically hire a union to do this for us,” said Hatfield.
The bill seemed cleared for takeoff, with Democrats and Republicans teaming up on an earlier amendment that watered down the bill to address critics’ concerns. The amendment made the bill apply only to child care centers that opted into it. It also limited the scope of bargaining. Instead of an overhaul, it was a much-narrower “demonstration project.”
Then Hatfield proposed his amendment, which stripped out large sections of the bill. It mainly left a study, to be completed by August 2010.
In a surprise move, a dozen mostly-conservative Democrats joined with every Republican lawmaker to pass Hatfield’s proposal. The much-watered-down bill passed minutes later with virtually no more discussion.
The vote was yet another blow to organized labor this session. Unions, including SEIU, have tried for months to convince seemingly-reluctant lawmakers to push ahead with a tax increase to offset budget cuts. And labor’s top priority this session, a bill to bar employers from requiring attendance at anti-unionization meetings, was torpedoed by top lawmakers in a tussle over a union official’s threat to withhold campaign support.
The child care bill now goes back to the House, which passed the bill in its full, original version. If the legislation survives, Marr predicted, it will likely be in a “very scoped-down, narrow form.”
This has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, and yet I’m quite confident it will be my best-read post of several today:
Plagued by ground squirrels at Spokane’s Finch Arboretum, the city’s parks and recreation folks have strapped on their Rodenator Pro, a device that pumps propane and air into a tunnel, then triggers an explosion that apparently knocks rodents dead and sends dirt flying.
But this video really says it all, particularly starting at about the 90-second mark when Ed’s heartfelt passion for anti-rodent combat really comes to the fore.
NOTE: The permalink URL for this post is automatically generated. Yes, it’s been pointed out to me already. Stop.
Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, this morning introduced HB 2344, which would do away with the existing 7 percent limit on tuition increases at the state’s four-year colleges.
Under the bill, lawmakers would set tuition levels every two years when they write the budget.
Haigh suggests that higher tuition is better than the $700 million in higher ed budget cuts proposed in the House budget. College officials have said that that would mean thousands of layoffs and would force many students to stay in school for a semester or a year more in order to get into classes needed to graduate.
“We cannot afford to choose between quality and access,” she said in a statement. “The demand for higher education is higher than ever, and the need for a highly educated workforce is growing. We are not doing right by students when we close the door to a college dream, and we are not doing right by our state when we cut the flow of educated workers into our workforce.”
(Side note: Committee staffer Debbie Driver’s bill report, by the way, has an excellent breakdown of tuition increase limits over the past 8 years in Washington. The short form: they’ve fluctuated wildly, from 3.6 percent (2000-2001) to 16 percent for the biggest schools during the last state budget crisis in 2002-2003.)
As if in response, the Economic Opportunity Institute also happened to issue this policy brief this morning. Written by Gabriel Nishimura, it blasts lawmakers idea of a high-tuition, high-financial-aid model for the state’s colleges. Among the findings:
-sticker shock from high tuition drives away low-income and minority students,
-top students are more likely to go to private colleges instead,
-quality drops as schools shift around money to try to compensate for the high tuition costs,
-and the financial aid is heavy on loans that students are saddled with upon graduation.
There’s a lot of good data in the report. Among the facts cited: the average University of Washington undergraduate today walks away with a degree and $16,481 in debt.
A new poll re: possible tax increases to support state parks comes back with these results:
-$5 fee to park at parks and trails? 55 percent support, 43 percent don’t.
-an (unspecificed) tax on motor homes and campers? 52 percent support, 43 percent don’t.
-A 1-cent-per-$1,000-value property tax increase (i.e. $2.50 on a $250k home)? 46 percent support, 50 percent don’t.
-A $5-a-year increase in vehicle license tabs? (No mention made of the fact that this would be a voluntary charge, which is what lawmakers are talking about): 40 percent support, 56 percent don’t.
The poll was commissioned by Citizens for Parks and Recreation. Below is coordinator Jim King’s explanation of where the proposed tax ideas came from and why the car-tab one didn’t include the “opt-out” provision.
But first, how much money would these things raise, anyway? From King:
-The day use/parking fees were raising about $8 million per biennium when they were discontinued in 2006.
-The RV tax would raise just under $40 million per biennium.
-The one cent per thousand dollars of assessed valuation property tax would raise about $18 million per biennium.
-The $5 license tab fee raises about $5.6 million per biennium for every ten percent of vehicle owners who choose to pay- $28 million per biennium if 50% pay, $22.4 million if 40% choose to pay, etc.
And from his letter:
To all persons interested in our State Parks:
Attached are the results from polling done a week ago, looking for some data on various state parks funding options that have been considered in recent years. The day-use, or parking, fee was in place from 2003 into 2006; the RV tax was considered in 2003 as a recommendation of the State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Funding Task Force that met during the 2002 interim; the “penny for parks” proposal has been advanced by Senator Mary Margaret Haugen and others in recent years; and the $5 car tabs is currently the leading option under consideration for filling some of the gap in State Parks funding.
We specifically did not ask whether people supported or opposed the “opt-out” car tab proposal, but instead tried to measure support for paying a $5 car tab, because what is important in that discussion is not whether people would support or oppose an ability to “opt-out” but whether or not people would be willing to pay the additional $5 car tab.
UPDATE: Jason Mercier, at the Washington Policy Center, forwarded this set of recommendations from the last time the state was trying to figure out how to keep parks open in the face of a big budget shortfall.
The report urges daily fees, and would vary the cost by how nice/popular the park is. It’s silly, the report suggests, to have a carload of six pay the same price at a popular park on Labor Day weekend as some loner pays to trudge through the rain at a tiny, little-used park in April.
What about low-income families? The report suggests corporate sponsorships, coupons from local businesses, free access for children who qualify for free school lunches, and discounted days.
“With these complementary actions, Parks and Recreation Commissioners and State Legislators secure the future of Washington’s state parks, while keeping faith with park users and other taxpayers,” wrote report author Jeff Hanson.
Alan Parmelee, an inmate at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, has filed a large records request for “any and all records in any format, from any agency and/or person, relating to the prospective and subsequent passing, directly or indirectly, of HB 1181 and SB 5130.”
The bills he cites are bills aimed at limiting excessive records requests by prison inmates.
“I think it’s fitting that the very person who prompted the law in the first place will be the legal test case to try it out,” Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said in a press release this morning. Carrell sponsored the Senate version, which would allo courts to limit requests if they seem aimed at harassing or intimidating state officials.
Attorney General Rob McKenna has urged lawmakers to pass such a law, saying that some inmates have made a “cottage industry” out of filing massive records requests, then seeking cash penalties when the records are late or a record is wrongly denied.
For more on Parmelee, see this Seattle Weekly profile from last summer.
Washington’s Secretary of State’s office has been pretty innovative in bring yellowed-paper archives out of their boxes in cool storage and into the digital age. The state’s Digital Archives has scanned in — and hand-indexed — years of territorial newspapers, old marriage and other personal records, and photographs, among many other things.
A new feature: a searchable online database to find records of World War I veterans. The paperworks lists training, battles, wounds, birthplaces, and race (Welcome to 1919: “Race: White or colored”, with that capitalization.)
The information cards don’t provide many details, but they give a glimpse into a life. Here, for example, is the March 12, 1920 record for a Pfc. Alexander D. Munro, a Spokane man who was born in British Columbia and enlisted at age 32 for a tour that saw him overseas in the final months of the war. He served in the “QMC,” which I’m guessing was the Quartermaster’s Corps — the Army’s supply arm — and was overseas from July 1918 to April 1919.
Here’s the link to search for someone by name. (Scroll down to bottom of the page and you’ll see where to type in the info.)
Sen. Tim Sheldon, who’s also a county commissioner in rural Mason County, told the local weekly that he felt that his well-armed constituents would dampen the effect of proposed budget cuts at the county sheriff’s office.
“There is no bag limit. There’s always an open season on criminals in Mason County,” Sheldon told the Shelton-Mason County Journal. “I think that the Mason County citizens are very well aware of how to protect themselves in a situation that might need a response.
In follow-up remarks to a reporter from The Olympian, he described locals’ response to any home invasion attempts as “a hot Mason County lead enema.” Sheldon told The Olympian’s Brad Shannon that his remarks shouldn’t be construed as urging people to take the law into their own hands.
This morning, Sen. Karen Keiser and Sens. Brown, Prentice and Tom introduced Senate Bill 6158, which would delay for three years a planned $250-a-week stipend for workers who take time off to bond with a new child.
These payments, which were championed by Brown and other Senate Democrats but which weren’t linked to a steady source of cash, were supposed to begin in six months.
Hat tip: EFF.
…which this morning hit its 100th question. The site has also logged nearly 4,000 votes for best question.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular question asks for more details about a possible state income tax being floated by Senate Democrats:
-Peter W., Kirkland, WA
Another topic of great interest: not cutting the state’s General Assistance (for the) Unemployable program, which provides a $339-a-month stipend and health care to people judged unable to work, often due to mental illness. The program is supposed to be temporary aid or a stepping-stone to the long-term, federally funded social safety net. Republicans say that people are staying on the program too long, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Supporters say it’s a critical lifeline that helps keep people able to see a doctor and not living on the street.
And education. Lots of comments here, mostly urging lawmakers to put more money into schools. From CH98074 in Sammamish:
As for the less-popular questions, many involve ideas: legalizing prostitution, taxing Indian casinos, putting the bulk of the state colleges’ curricula online, etc. Here are some ideas from Eric L., from Bainbridge Island:
“Legalize sin and tax it! It works for gambling, so let’s try prostitution. Legal in parts of Nevada, so let’s give it a try. It will also eliminate crime, improve public health. Remember Prohibition? Let’s tax this stuff.”
Remarkably emotional floor speeches today on the House floor at lawmakers debate changes in unemployment insurance. Rep. Hasegawa was just moved to tears, recollecting what it was like when he had to collect unemployment, and how an extra $10 or $12 mattered so much.
With equal passion, Republicans have been saying that the bill will hurt businesses and cost jobs. Over and over, they’ve talked about businesses struggling to keep their doors open. Rep. Matt Shea, if I heard correctly, suggested that family members of his were prepared to move a business out of state largely on how this vote (SB 5963) goes.
The bill would reduce unemployment insurance taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars a year while also boosting benefits and making it easier for them to qualify for benefits. A House press release described the employer-paid trust fund as “a healthy and robust unemployment insurance trust fund flush with cash.”
UPDATE: And it passes, but not until after lots more emotional debate. A sampling:
-“The last person to leave Olympia caring about businesses, please turn off the lights.”
-House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.
-And Speaker pro tem Jeff Morris made it clear that Republicans, in talking about federal stimulus dollars, had better stop referring to President Obama as “Obama Claus.” Any further reference using anything except the president’s real name, he said, “will not be tolerated.”
Taxable retail sales statewide declined nearly 11 percent during the 4th quarter of 2008, the state Department of Revenue said today. What’s dropping: construction was down 12 percent, cars and car parts were down 27 percent, hotels and restaurants were down 5 percent and building materials/garden equipment/supplies dropped 14 percent compared to the 4th quarter of 2007.
The good news, if there’s some to be found here, is that the Spokane area has dropped far less than every other population center in the state.
First, taxable retail sales by county (numbers rounded):
-King: -13 percent
-Pierce: -12 percent
-Snohomish: -16 percent
-Clark: -14 percent
-Spokane: -7 percent.
Seattle: -7 percent
Bellevue: -14 percent
Tacoma: -13 percent
-Everett: -16 percent
-Spokane: -3 percent.
Meeting with reporters today, House Speaker Frank Chopp said that a proposed third-of-a-cent sales tax increase to reduce cuts to hospitals, nursing homes and health care programs is “better than 50/50 to be on the ballot” in November.
He sounded less enthusiastic about a “high-earners” state income tax being discussed in the Senate, noting that the governor has already criticized the idea as offering little help for Washington’s current two-year budget problems.
Could the sales tax plan include money for education? “At this point there doesn’t appear to be a strong consensus” on that, he said, although he said meetings are still taking place.
Bond issue for fixing schools?
Chopp did, however, indicate that he supports the idea of asking voters to pay for bonds to fix up schools. Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she’d support about a $1 billion bond issue for that; Rep. Hans Dunshee is pushing for a bigger $3 billion package, saying it means jobs and modern, more energy-efficient buildings.
“I’m very pleased with that basic approach,” Chopp said, although he said that lawmakers are still meeting to figure out how to pay for those bonds.
14 percent college tuition hike?
Chopp also indicated that he’s supportive of Gregoire’s proposal to allow colleges to hike tuition up to 14 percent a year over the next two years (because of compounding, this works out to nearly a 30 percent increase over two years).
With the additional federal financial aid and tax credits available this year, he said, that sort of increase seems like “a good balance” to avoid deep cuts at colleges.
Levy lid lift for schools?
Chopp also said that “there’s real strong support for” Gregoire’s proposal to let school districts impose $62 million in local property taxes that voters have already approved, but that cannot be collected because of a state “lid” on levies.
When Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed 14 percent tuition hikes over the next two years, I and most of the other reporters in the room reported that as a total 28 percent hike.
“Totally incorrect,” writes alert reader Pamela Dixson. She points out, quite correctly, that the second year’s 14 percent would compound on the first year’s, making the increase even higher than it seems.
Net effect, courtesy of the calculator function on my Mac: It’s nearly a 30 percent tuition hike over two years.
Which brings me to something that I meant to post yesterday: Washington State University has joined UW in publicly backing the idea of 14-percent-a-year tuition hikes.
WSU resident undergraduates currently pay $6,218 per year. The WSU Board of Regents would have the authority to raise tuition up to $870 per year. That would be an additional burden on students and their families. But the governor pointed out that it is far less of a burden than the cost of a student paying up to $10,000 in additional tuition, housing and other living costs to attend school for an additional semester. Student may need to attend an extra term because classes necessary to graduate have been cut. The governor noted that WSU has the “Cougar Commitment” that covers all tuition costs for students that qualify for the state need grant. Families with incomes of $52,600 to $96,000 per year receive additional benefits through the new benefits of the Hope tax credit. The Hope tax credit began as a $1,800 deduction for two years. The federal credit has now been expanded to up to $2,500 per year for four years.
Students, not surprisingly, are unhappy with this idea:
This economy has affected students and their families’ ability to afford higher education in a variety of ways beyond increases in tuition. Family budgets are getting tighter due to layoffs and cut hours reducing parents’ ability to contribute to their children’s education. Students who rely on summer employment to offset the need for loans are going to find fewer opportunities for employment and will be competing against a larger pool of job seekers. Those soon to graduate face horrible job prospects and large amounts of debt equivalent to an educational mortgage.
A study of how Washington stacks up in the view of companies like Boeing has been leaked to Leehamnews, an aerospace blog. Here’s a copy.
The governor has called a 2:45 p.m. press conference to discuss the findings “as well as proposed aerospace legislation” presumably aimed at keeping the company building planes here.
Among the conclusions:
-Washington has not been a player in recent site selection decisions by aerospace companies.
-While Washington offers many advantages to aerospace companies, its disadvantages outweigh the advantages in attracting and retaining aerospace companies relative to other states
Washington exhibits a number of advantages, including current aerospace base/footprint, availability of skilled labor force, competitive tax environment, access to leading R&D and quality of life
Competitive disadvantages include wage rates, labor relations, training, cost of living, and real estate/utility costs.
Washington should proactively address the gaps, including enacting appropriate legislation
Short term opportunities exist in unemployment insurance tax, training, research and development funding and building a government entity dedicated to the aerospace industry
Longer-term opportunities potentially include taxes, workers compensation and transportation/infrastructure.
As I mentioned yesterday, Senate Democrats have set up a website to take budget-related questions from the public.
So far (11 questons from 23 people), the questions range from friendly:
“When is the legislature going to wake up and realize we have a revenue collection shortfall problem that cannot be resolved by regressive taxation structures that affect one class of resident more than another, as a sales tax does?” writes Daniel K. from Redmond.
“Lisa, Now that the Labor Council has been cleared of ANY wrongdoing by both the Washington State Patrol and PDC, will you finally keep your word and allow for a vote on the Worker Privacy Act?” writes “Honestly” in Spokane.
“Reading your revenue income budget data it conflicts with OFM data (17 Dec 2008) ‘table 1’ at http://www.ofm.wa.gov/budget09/summary/table01.pdf (Adobe PDF doc) -as a result, where do you get your revenue shortfall data for past and current years?” writes John Sherman from Tacoma.
A quick wrap-up on a busy day:
Washington: Average tax burden per person: $2,553. Thanks to California, the West Coast has a reputation for heavily taxing businesses. Washington, however, likes to spread the burden around, making it the leading Western state for taxes. There are low property taxes in the state, and no personal income tax, but just try and buy something. Sales taxes—which come out to $2,181 per person—account for 85% of personal taxes paid.
-The Olympian’s Adam Wilson writes about the fate of Initiative 1029, approved by voters last fall. The SEIU-backed ballot measure mandates more paid training for new home health care workers. Since the state pays for much of that care for low-income senior citizens and the disabled, the proposal arrived on Olympia’s doorstep with a $30 milliion price tag.
Budget writers have included a little money in their budget proposals for the next two years, but nowhere near what SEIU and home care workers expected.
“They’re not going to change the requirements, and they’re not going to pay for it. Our view … is it’s a huge crisis, it’s a huge train wreck,” said Glickman. The new training standards would be in place, and there would be no avenue for workers to meet them, SEIU’s Adam Glickman told Wilson.
-Pollster Bob Moore’s firm, Moore Information, recently asked 500 Washington voters whether they’d support an increase in the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent “to ensure that education and other important state programs have adequate funding.”
The results are not promising for lawmakers considering doing a smaller sales tax increase — about a third of a cent — to offset budget cuts to health care. Some specifics:
-56 percent opposed it, 39 percent favored it. The margin — surprise — was closest in Seattle (48 percent yes, 43 percent no) and widest in Eastern Washington (28 percent yes, 65 percent no).
Opposition was stronger with those over age 35 (59 percent no statewide), Republicans (75 opposed, to Democrats’ 36 percent) and independents (67 percent no). (The party distribution was 40 percent Republican, 46 percent Democrat, 14 percent independent).
-And then there’s this, with a hat tip to Horse’s Ass: In a national CBS News/New York Times poll,(see pages 5 and 18) almost three quarters of Americans said that it’s a good idea to raise taxs on people earning more than $250k a year. Two thirds said the tax code should be changed to shift some of the burden from middle class taxpayers onto upper income people.
State lawmakers are talking about a 1-3 percent state income tax on people making more than $250,000 a year.
David Spring, a teacher and former legislative candidate, is trying to convince lawmakers to embrace a tax plan that he says would add billions of dollars for schools and state services while touching only the wealthiest 5 percent of Washingtonians.
“We don’t need to be raising the sales tax. We don’t even need an income tax,” he said. “We just need to close this tax loophole.”
Spring, 58, wants to repeal a 1997 state tax exemption for intangible property, saying that accountants are increasingly categorizing things as intangibles, shortchanging the state coffers. He’s trying to convince lawmakers to do away with part of the tax break. He estimates that it would raise $2 billion to $4 billion a year. He’s calling for most of that money to go to schools.
Under Spring’s plan, intangible property (things like stocks, bonds and cash) would be subject to a 1 percent tax. Any retirement funds would be exempt, as would the first $100,000 in personal intangible property per person.
“It is morally wrong to place tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires above the interests of our schoolchildren,” he said, adding that 95 out of 100 state residents would be untouched by the tax.
Some lawmakers are reportedly interested, and Spring’s apparently been making the rounds for weeks, talking with numerous legislators, a staffer for the governor and people from unions and other groups. So far, no one’s introduced a bill.
The matter should go to voters, Spring says, as a referendum from the legislature. Even if lawmakers take a pass on the idea, he’s hoping to put it on the ballot in November.
Months ago, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown talked about opening a dialogue with the public about how to bridge a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall over the next two years. She has faith in the voters, she’s repeatedly said, and feels that when they’re shown a problem with local impacts — like a school levy — they’re willing to spend the money that it takes to fix things.
And so, Brown today launched an “online town hall” to solicit input. From the intro:
We face an unprecedented budget problem in our state, and I believe having an ongoing conversation with you is only fair. With your input, lawmakers like me can put the best solutions forward and turn our situation around.
The online town hall will allow you to ask questions about the state’s budget situation, and vote on the questions others have already submitted that you think are most important. Each day, I’ll answer the most popular questions on this blog, and in video that I’ll post online next week.
This marks the latest foray by lawmakers — particularly Senate Democrats — into alternative ways of getting the word out to the public. After years of issuing press releases and calling news conferences for a shrinking (and skeptical) press corps, a handful of influential lawmakers are instead dribbling out news in monologues on their legislative blogs or in interviews on TVW, the state-subsidized public affairs network. Want to know about the sales tax proposal? Check Brown’s blog. Would Sen. Adam Kline vote for it? See his blog. Want to find out how much Brown’s income tax plan would collect? See her appearance on TVW tonight.
A coalition representing hospitals, nurses, health-care workers and Group Health Cooperative has launched TV ads in Seattle and Tacoma, urging people to call lawmakers and protest budget cuts.
“What Olympia is proposing should alarm families across Washington State,” said Cassie Sauer, vice president of the state hospital association. “…The public is aware that our state is facing a budget crunch, but they need to know just how deep the cuts go and how severely families will be impacted across our state.”
Prposed cuts would mean at least 45,000 people losing state-run health insurance, less money for nursing homes, fewer state-paid hours for home care workers, and fewer workers at hospitals and clinics, says the group. They project that 5,000 health care workers would be laid off.
“This is just wrong and there has to be a better way,” said Adam Glickman, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775.
The better way, presumably, is a tax package to raise money to offset the cuts. The ad makes no mention of taxes, instead urging people to call lawmakers and the governor and protest the proposed budget cuts.
That’s what Brown says in an interview to be aired tonight at 7 and 10 p.m. on TVW, according to Niki Sullivan. The tax would be on earnings above $250,000.
Sen. Lisa Brown, responding to a report that Senate Democrats “are backing off the idea of a state income tax” on the wealthy, says the idea is still in play.
“I’ve always been realistic about the fact that it’s a short time frame for putting a big new idea out there,” Brown said. “But I’ve been really pleased with the fact that people are taking it seriously and having good conversations about it. I’ve gotten calls and e-mails, both positive and negative, from all over the state.”
“…I still think it’s possible. I’m not going to say it’s likely, because…the governor’s made a pretty strong statement. It’s never easy when you’re talking about something like this.”
The idea hasn’t lost any steam in the past few days, she said.
She also talked about a competing proposal — also mentioned in the above link — to temporarily raise the state sales tax and steer the money into things like nursing homes, hospitals, mental health. That plan could only pass the Senate, she predicted, if it included a state tax credit for low-income families to offset the higher cost of the sales tax.
Separately, the top Republican in the House today essentially dismissed the income tax proposal as a bluff. Speaking with reporters this morning, House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, talking with reporters said Democrats are putting the proposal out there to:
“Scare the crap out of people…It’s all smoke an mirrors. It’s gamesmanship. This whole thing is gamesmanship. You cut the most vulnerable. You cut the most attrocious things you can do. You send them to the voters. You show them pictures of people in basic states of panic. You tell them they have to give you more money. And then you take that money and you give it to the Arts Commission.”
“Or to ice skating,” added Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. (Audio attached above.)
-Publicola’s Josh Feit, who’s been riding herd all session on a bill to rewrite environmentalists’ Initiative 937 (he hates it), has the Easter-eve story of how Sen. Chris Marr’s controversial bill died and was resurrected in a surprise move in the House.
-NPI’s Andrew Villeneuve writes that the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights is advancing. Short form of the arguments:
-Homeowners with appalling structural and leak problems say they have little recourse when the most expensive purchase of their lives turns out to be defective
-Struggling home builders argue that there are plenty of ways to sue them now, and that essentially mandating a new-home warranty in state law is both unnecessary and very expensive for both builders and home buyers.
-The TNT’s Peter Callaghan weighs in with some history on income tax proposals and a prediction:
Wealthy people, it seems, are fair game because so many of us are
sure they’re to blame for the financial turmoil. It’s tax policy as
It won’t pass, but it will appear on GOP campaign brochures next election. And it might cost a few Democrats their seats, but probably not.
And in the scheme of things, income-tax talk is just that – a verbal distraction until lawmakers come up with the actual solutions.
As in this press release:
At the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, Mike Reitz comes up with an interesting scenario if an income tax bill is follows the format (if not the details) of the trial balloon offered by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles.
In what I assume is an effort to get around Washington’s constitutional ban on taxing people differently, the bill would levy a 1 percent state income tax on everyone…but allow you to deduct the first $500,000. Net effect: a tax on the wealthy.
All sides expect such a bill to face a court challenge. And Reitz raises this possibility:
If a court struck down the section of the bill listing the standard deductions, the rest of the bill could still survive — which would require anyone with federal taxable income to pay the state’s 1% income tax.
David Goldstein, from the political blog Horses Ass, adds his voice to the call for an income tax on the wealthy — and says it’s time for House Speaker Frank Chopp to get behind the idea:
I know Chopp understands the issue. I know he knows all about Washington’s structural revenue deficit, and I know he’s personally appalled at having the most regressive tax system in the nation. And I know he knows that our current tax structure simply isn’t sustainable over the long run.
I know this, because I’ve privately had this conversation with Chopp, on more than one occasion. The question now is whether Speaker Chopp is willing to join Sen. Brown in taking this conversation public?
He followed that up with a lengthy post on the state’s sales tax-dependent tax system and the percentages paid by the poor and the rich. It’s worth the click, as are the 40+ comments it drew.
From my weekly column in tomorrow’s paper:
OLYMPIA _ With less than three weeks to go in the legislative session, Democrats seem near-unanimous in being unhappy with the cuts in the budgets they’re proposing.
But now, as the clocks ticks down, they’re struggling to reach agreement on what new taxes _ if any _ to ask voters to approve in November.
Some lawmakers like the idea of a third-of-a-cent sales tax increase, probably coupled with an Earned Income Tax Credit-type state program* to ease the burden on low-income families. The money would be steered into nursing homes, health care, adult family care, mental health and other programs.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and some other lawmakers have been floating the idea of boosting the economy with a billion-dollar bond issue. The borrowed money would pay for fixing up schools. But how to pay off the debt? Still unclear.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, meanwhile, continues to make the case for a “high earners income tax.” A worker’s first $250,000 a year would be exempt. Above that, the worker would pay a yet-to-be-determined percentage as a state income tax.
“Our sales-tax-based tax system is the least fair tax system in the country,” Brown wrote recently on her Senate blog, where she’s aiming for a heart-to-heart with voters and policymakers. The tax structure here hammers lower- and middle-class families, she wrote, forcing them to pay far more than their fair share for things like schools and colleges.
She’d steer the dollars into schools and higher education, and use some to reduce property- and business taxes.
Brown’s caught flak, both from local taxpayers and the press. The Seattle Times dismissed the idea as “fairy dust.” An Everett Herald columnist dubbed her “Tax ‘em Brown.” Readers accused Brown,who’s considering a run for governor, of trying to curry favor with Seattle liberals. Other readers called her an idiot, a “lying political do-gooder” and a scumbag.
Brown says she’s not afraid of a debate. She argues that 7 other states are considering a high-earners tax. She points out that people could deduct their state income tax from their federal dollars, “keeping their tax dollars here at home.” And she dismisses the idea that Washington’s millionaires will indignantly flee the state.
After all, Brown says, where would they go?
“If these families decided to go to Idaho, they’d have the privilege of paying 7.8 percent of their income in state taxes,” she writes. “In Hawaii, they’d pay 8.25 percent. In Oregon, they’d pay 9 percent.” And so on.
Perhaps Alaska, which has no income tax?
“I doubt it,” wrote Brown. Washington’s a good place to live, work and raise a family, she said _ and paying for good schools, safe neighborhoods and so forth “will help keep it that way.”
So there’s the argument. But so far, it’s looking like a pretty lonely campaign. House Speaker Frank Chopp sounded mighty lukewarm recently, telling reporters “I’m for whatever the public will support in terms of this, and they might be open to that.”
And Gov. Chris Gregoire clearly thinks the idea is a non-starter, at least in terms of solving the state’s current budget mess. In her last campaign, she said Tuesday, “I saw no appetite whatsoever for a state income tax.”
She’s not convinced that a tax on the wealthy would change that, she said.
For one thing, Gregoire said, people “think that tomorrow it’s possible that will be them” making $250,000 a year, she said. “And I like to have them have that hope.”
Secondly, she said, “people believe that it’s a crack in the door to a bigger agenda.”
But her chief objection, she says, is a practical one. Given the almost-certain court fight that would result even if voters approve an income tax in November, it’s unlikely that the state would see the money in time to help out with this two-year budget crisis.
“We’ll be well past this recession by the time that all gets done,” she said.
*The Olympian’s Adam Wilson highlights a possible flaw in the offset-a-sales-tax-hike-with-a-tax-credit argument: The state has no computer system set up to pay out the tax credits that are envisioned. As Wilson writes on his blog, the earliest start date for those payments would be January 2011
Also this morning, Gov. Chris Gregoire said that 75 school districts across the state have millions of dollars in voter-approved levies that they cannot collect, because they’re butting up against a law that puts a “lid” on such levies.
Gregoire’s proposal: why not lift that lid temporarily, which would mean that they can collect $62 million more in property taxes to help with the current budget crisis? It would mean critical relief to keep programs intact and offset difficult cuts, she said.
The voters have already voted to pay these levies,” she said. “We should lift the artificial cap and let the money go forward, maintaining education for our students.”
How much money would this mean for school districts? Here are some examples:
-Spokane: $1.4 million
-Seattle: $14 million
-Tacoma: $1.7 million
-West Valley (Spokane): $696,000
-Olympia: $3.3 million
-Richland: $1.2 million
Saying that Washington cannot allow the sort of deep budget cuts proposed by lawmakers for higher education, Gov. Chris Gregoire this morning met with the state’s top lawmakers and proposed letting the state’s four-year schools boost tuition by 14 percent a year over the next two years. Community and technical colleges would be allowed to hike tuition by 7 percent a year.
Gregoire said that increased federal Pell Grants and federal tax breaks would largely offset the increase. And she said the state will need a well-educated workforce as it emerges from the recession.
The change would save jobs and head off at least some of the expected loss of 10,000 slots for incoming students over the next two years.
Tuition at Washington State University, she said is about $6,700 a year. At community colleges, it averages $2,700 a year. And even raising the four-years’ tuition up to 28 percent over the next two years, Gregoire says, is likely to be cheaper for students than going to school for another semester or another year in order to get into classes that were full due to budget cuts.
“This is to get you the ability to get out of that institution on time,” she said. “If we don’t do that, you’ll pay a lot more” to stay in school longer.
She also says that state tuitions — which are subsidized by taxpayers, although less so than in the past — would still be a great deal compared to peer institutions.
“We’re giving them a bargain,” she said. “We shouldn’t apologize for tuition in Washington State.”
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said that lawmakers will consider the idea as part of legislative negotiations, but she was clearly lukewarm on the plan. Lawmakers are particularly worried about the long-term costs that would result, since the state’s prepaid-tuition plan is pegged to the cost of tuition at the UW. Raise tuition there, and the state must pay out more later for the students in that program, called Guaranteed Education Tuition. Also, higher tuition is likely to mean more state costs for financial aid, Brown said.
Gregoire’s budget director, Victor Moore, said that the GET fund costs could be built into subsequent price increases for people buying credits.
Today, full page ad in the Olympian: 31 mostly out-of-state economists sign a Washington Policy Center ad urging lawmakers not to raise taxes because it “will thwart the state’s economic recovery. Leaving earnings in the hands of individuals and businesses is the best way to help grow the private sector, create jobs and lead to higher levels of consumption”
Today, letter from 27 religious leaders across the state: “We call upon you, as we call upon the members of our faith communities, to join us in an effort to raise revenues, recognizing that we live in a state with wealth and resources.”
Rep. Hans Dunshee has proposed House Bill 2334, which would raise $3 billion for construction/renovation work on public buildings around the state. Voters would have to approve it first. The money would mostly go toward work on schools, from K-12 to the state’s universities. It would pay for things like energy efficiency project, updating, etc.
(I posted a partial list, including locals, of which schools and colleges would benefit, and how many dollars they’d see. Click on the read-more link below for that list.)
How to pay for $3 billion in work? By issuing 20-year bonds, partly paid off by the $80 million in projected energy savings a year. (Of that, $40 million would go toward the debt, local schools/colleges/etc. would keep the rest.)
Still, that’s only a small part of the $210 million a year in debt payments. Where would the rest come from? Maybe the operating budget, or maybe a new tax, Dunshee said. That part’s still undetermined.
“We’re going to fix schools, we’re going to create jobs, and hopefully get the economy turned around a bit with this,” said Dunshee, D-Snohomish.
Moments after Dunshee’s announcement, however, state treasurer Jim McIntire sent out a press release saying that Dunshee’s plan is too costly.
“The $3 billion of added debt called for in HB 2334 is too much,” McIntire said in a press release a few minutes ago. “It would threaten our credit rating and would affect the rest of our investments in transportation and public infrastructure.”
If the point is jobs, McIntire said, the plan should be scaled back. If the goal is longer-term construction on needed projects, he said, his office can help.
Lawmakers on Friday released the details of their proposed two-year operating budget and a quick scan of the 515-page document suggests that they did, in fact, use scalpels instead of hatchets. In addition to the major changes for schools, colleges, social services and health care, lawmakers ended up trimming spending on things like the governor’s bodyguards, classes on robots, and the flower plantings around the state capitol.
“No one was spared the pain,” said House budget writer Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham. The bodyguard budget was reduced by $190,000. The flowers were cut $42,000. And the robot class will be ended, saving $300,000.
Gone also is a “teak surfing” awareness program to tell people that it’s foolish to hang onto the back of a speeding motorboat. It will be replaced by a sticker warning would-be teak surfers about carbon monoxide.
Some things were added. Lawmakers set aside $642,000, for example, to open the Eastern Washington Veterans’ Cemetery on Memorial Day 2010.
Here’s a look at where some of the chips fell. Except where noted, the numbers are compared to the previous state budget. Follow the link below for a breakdown for K-12 schools, Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, health care, law enforcement, community colleges and other things.
It wasn’t a quite a grilling. More like a light sauteeing.
Whatever the verb, it quickly became apparent this morning that members of the Senate natural resources committee are not happy with the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The hearing was to confirm commission chairwoman Miranda Wecker, an attorney and fishing specialist. But most of the hearing was devoted not to Wecker’s professional credentials, but to Senators’ irritation with the commission.
Sen. Jim Hargrove said the commission’s been overstepping its bounds, deciding policy without consulting with lawmakers. Then, when complaints roll into the statehouse, he said, lawmakers feel blindsided.
The Fish and Wildlife commissioners are “not total free agents to set policy,” said Hargrove. “…That’s for us to decide here.”
Hargrove and other lawmakers also suggested that the commission is basing its decisions on a “disproportionate” amount of comments from sports anglers compared to commercial fishermen.
Wecker defended the commission, saying that it’s striving to ensure accountability of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. She said she’d welcome more communication, and that the commission is striving to do its best to ensure accountability in the agency and to protect the state’s natural resources.
The senators didn’t vote on confirming Wecker, but
From our print story:
For years in Washington’s capital, state income tax proposals have been viewed much like those periodic bills to declare Eastern Washington a 51st state. They’re attention-getters aimed at spurring a discussion. No one expects them to actually pass.
This year’s different.
After years of a few lawmakers flirting with the idea of a state income tax, key lawmakers now say they’re seriously considering it as a way to help the cash-strapped state budget in the long term.
A possible state income tax on people earning $500,000 or more a year, “would mean that 19 out of 20 people in Washington state would not be affected at all,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “…We don’t want people who are middle class families or struggling even more than that to pay more in taxes.”
The percentage of such a tax — or even whether lawmakers will push ahead with it — has yet to be determined, Brown said. And it’s not a sure thing that lawmakers will actually push ahead with the plan. House Speaker Frank Chopp said today that he wants to see polling data to see if voters agree with the concept.
“The key is what would the public support,” said Chopp. But he noted that voters in 2006 strongly rejected a measure that would have repealed Washington’s estate tax, which applies only to estates worth $2 million or more.
“I’m for whatever the public will support in terms of this,” said Chopp. “And they might be open to that.”
A Senate bill proposing a 1 percent income tax on high earners has been introduced in the Senate, but Brown said that “was coincidental” to broader discussion, presumably of a higher percentage tax.
The measure would go to voters, in November at the earliest. And given the lag time between the vote, such a tax taking effect, and expected court challenges, Brown said that such a tax would not be much short-term help for looming state budget cuts.
She said the income tax would not be part of a broader overhaul of the state’s tax system. Brown and others have criticized the state’s unique business and occupation tax and Washington high reliance on sales tax. But lawmakers aren’t anywhere near consensus on broader reforms, she said.
Republicans argue that an income tax would be akin to political suicide.
“I hope they do a food tax along with it,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, citing an unpopular tax that voters quickly vetoed years ago.
Hewitt thinks voters “absolutely” would not approve a state income tax. And he argues that it’s a mistake to aim it at the wealthy.
“The people that they’re going after are the people that put money back into the economy, that create jobs,” he said. “That’s exactly what we need.”
He also predicts that any high-income tax would soon be lowered to collect more money.
Brown said she has no illusions that it would be difficult to get voters to approve a new tax. But she said it’s a simple matter of fairness: people who earn more should contribute more. A millionaire in Idaho would pay a 7.8 percent state tax — and deduct it from federal taxes — she said. In Oregon, it would be 9 percent.
“If they live in Washington State, they don’t pay anything,” Brown said. “I think that’s unfair.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire has repeatedly said this week that she doesn’t support the idea of a state income tax. She said it would face likely court challenges and probably wouldn’t bring in money to help with the state’s two-year budget woes.
Brown said polling suggests “there is some openness” to the idea of a high-incomes tax among voters.
“I believe an honest conversation about what’s fair, what’s a fair amount for people to pay for a good quality of life in Washington State…I think that’s a conversation that nobody should shy away from having,” she said.
NOTE: Like the post below, I’ve rewritten this post several times.
By now, Republican campaign “operatives” across the state have undoubtedly already clipped and scanned in this headline from a story that moved on the AP wire last night: “Democrats Propose Income Tax Bill.”
As the story notes — repeatedly — Democrats so far seem to be floating the idea more than backing it. Now, however, the idea seems to be gaining some steam.
Here’s the (first?) bill, which would impose a 1 percent state income tax but allow you to deduct your first $500,000 a year in earnings. In other words, the only people who would pay would be those earning $500,000 a year (our couples earning $1 million.)
Look at Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown’s much-talked-about recent blog posts. Bold headlines — “Yes, this post is about taxes” — and laying out the case that Washington’s tax system most hurts those with the least.
But in those posts, Brown stopped short of actually proposing a state income tax, asking only “Should we do something similar” to New York’s proposed high-incomes tax and asking “would an income tax be found unconstitutional today?”
The Seattle Times reports this morning that Brown is, in fact, working on an income tax plan. The bill above would raise only about $50 million a year. Brown’s proposal would presumably be larger.
And the state’s most prominent Democrat — Gov. Chris Gregoire — is opposed. Asked about this at a press conference earlier this week, Gregoire said that a state income tax wouldn’t be the answer to Washington’s budget woes. “Look at Oregon,” she said. (Oregon relies on an income tax and no sales tax, the opposite of Washington’s tax structure.)
Gregoire followed that with more cold water today:
“…As I have stated before, I do not support a state income tax. The new proposal will undoubtedly raise constitutional and legal challenges and probably wouldn’t bring in new revenue in time to address the economic crisis we face.
“I too wrote a budget, and I am keenly aware of the painful choices we must make. I see clearly the faces of Washingtonians hurt by budget cuts. I am looking for wise choices to protect our vulnerable, especially our children, and to make sure we fund K-12 and higher education at appropriate levels so that we come out of this recession stronger…I look forward to continue working with legislative leaders from both parties to craft a sustainable budget for the next two years.”
NOTE: I keep rewriting this post as things change…RR
If you happened to be watching TVW yesterday afternoon, you may well have been left wondering what they’re putting in the House coffeepot these days.
What the hell was that?
(Tech note: To replay this segment, refresh this page on your browser first. The video, if you don’t have the 29 seconds to spare, shows state Rep. Joel Kretz saying that he doesn’t know much about a bill, but he wanted it sent to a committee. “I was hopeful that, if nothing else, I could take credit for the bill,” he said.)
Here’s the backstory: This was House Republicans’ way of protesting the fact that Senate Democrats have spiked what would have been freshman Rep. Kevin Parker’s only successful bill this year: a modest proposal to simply allow the state veterans’ administration take custody of veterans’ cremated remains that have been sitting, abandoned, for years at funeral homes across the state. Parker, R-Spokane, was so eager to introduce the bill that he handed it in weeks before he was even sworn in.
Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, apparently liking the idea, introduced a nearly-identical bill, SB 5481, weeks later. Not surprisingly, the majority-holding Democrats decided that they liked their guy’s bill more. Despite some frantic last-minute lobbying by Parker, they killed his bill.
This greatly annoyed Republicans, who felt Parker had been robbed of a popular bill he’d worked hard on. Hence Kretz’s tongue-in-cheek motion yesterday to try to put his name on one of the Democrats’ bills. (It was quickly overruled.)
In the end, Parker proved gracious. He gave a short floor speech, calling Marr’s version “a wonderful bill” and urging everyone to vote for it. And they did, unanimously.
(If this second segment doesn’t load, trying hitting refresh on your browser.)
Case closed? Not quite. The man whom Parker ousted in November, former state Rep. Don Barlow, called this morning to remind me that it was Barlow, in fact, who came up with this idea. (Parker had also mentioned this.)
Barlow says the problem is real, that a surprising amount of veterans’ ashes are sitting on shelves at many funeral homes, who are afraid to do anything with them for fear of a future lawsuit.
“We need to do something about those guys,” said Barlow, a Democrat. “I’m glad to see that bill’s in there.”
I missed this in the Senate budget earlier this week, but others sure didn’t:
45. Star USA Skating Spokane - Funding is provided to Star USA to assist hosting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, scheduled for Jan. 14-24, 2010.
How much funding? A couple hundred grand.
That’s quite a bit less than the $600,000 that the group was hoping for (see page 13) on the eve of the legislative session last December. But it’s still raised some eyebrows among budget hawks, at a time when the state is proposing laying off thousands of people and slashing university budgets, health care for the poor, and support for things as basic as the state’s poison control center.
From Northwest Public Radio: So what do lawmakers fund? One item in the Senate budget – but not the House – is 200-thousand dollars for the US Figure Skating Championships in Spokane next year. That was a special request of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown – a Democrat from Spokane.
From the Washington Policy Center: Here are some examples of those priorities that apparently are recession proof…
From the Tacoma News-Tribune: Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown is from Spokane. (It’s just a coincidence, I’m sure.)…I point this out only because, in a sea of $4 billion in “hard” spending cuts, isn’t it interesting to see what new things are being paid for?
On the heels of a very similar post I wrote yesterday re: Washington State University’s budget cuts, here’s a closer look at the legislature’s proposals for Eastern Washington University.
The short form: It’s not as bad as it sounds.
“We are looking at an 18.5 to 22 percent reduction in funding,” EWU President Rodolfo Arévalo told the Spokesman-Review’s Kevin Graman yesterday.
Arevalo’s right, in terms of the state’s proposed contribution to the university’s budget. But fortunately for Eastern staffers and students, that’s not the whole picture.
Eastern’s current two-year budget is about $239 million. The state estimates that keeping the same programs, payroll, services etc. for the next two years would cost about $249 million. Salaries tend to rise, as do health care costs. Stuff costs more.
Eastern gets about half its money from the state treasury. And it’s true that lawmakers want to dramatically shrink their contribution to colleges during the current budget crisis. If this was a normal year, the state would pay $124 million to maintain current programs at Eastern. Instead, the Senate is proposing shaving $28 million from that.
And lawmakers are also assuming some pretty dramatic savings at Eastern: an 11 percent cut in administration, a 12 percent cut in non-instructional costs like libraries, groundskeeping, etc. (Those two cuts total about $10 million.)
But here’s some better news, at least for staffers: state budget writers say that a 7 percent tuition increase over the next two years would add nearly $9 million more to the college’s budget. For students, this works out to $306 a year more.
A little more good news: the federal government is expected to send Eastern another nearly $6 million in stimulus dollars.
Net result: Even after the Senate’s 18.5 percent cut in state support, Eastern’s total budget would be $235 million, instead of the $249 million maintenance-level budget.
To look at it another way, the budget for the next two years would be $4 million — or 1.6 percent — less than the last budget was.
As for students: yeah, 7 percent to 10 percent is a pretty big tuition hike. Some college officials argue that the boost would be offset by increases — particularly at the federal level — in financial aid, as well as federal tax breaks. Here’s a chart compiled by the University of Washington’s budget folks which maintains that for students from families with an income of $160,000 or less wouldn’t pay anything more even under a 14 percent tuition hike at UW (which means $875 more a year).
If you want to run the Eastern budget numbers yourself, here’s the Senate plan (see page 179). And here’s the House version (see page 186), which takes a deeper bite but would boost tuition 10 percent to offset it, with a virtually identical net result.
The House version, released this afternoon, is leaner — $2.9 billion — and doesn’t include a lot of the new construction at state colleges that the Senate plan does. Instead, it focuses largely on repairs and maintenance.
“My father always used to say it’s better to fix what you have than buy a new one,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee (pictured), D-Snohomish.
Like the Senate plan, it would invest heavily in K-12 school construction and repairs. It includes more than $200 million for weatherization, habitat restoration, water and sewers, etc.
The House plan, includes much of what’s in the Senate plan. It also adds some things. Among them:
-$231,000 to expand the facilities of the East Central Community Organization in Spokane.
-$1.3 million for a Family Services Center.
-$1.8 million to expand the Northeast Community Center.
It also includes well over a million dollars in work on the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, mostly repairs and preservation work. It also has substantial work (more than $2 million) at Eastern State Hospital, and another million for nearby Lakeland Village.
Among the few new higher-ed projects on the House list: $6 million toward an animal diagnostic lab in Pullman. Most of the building is paid for with $25 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dunshee said, and the state didn’t want to lose out on that grant.
The House budget would NOT, however, pay for the Patterson Hall work at Eastern Washington University or other major projects at WSU or Spokane’s community colleges.
Lawmakers will spend the next few weeks hashing out the differences and agreeing on a final plan.
-$28 million to renovate and expand Eastern Washington University’s Patterson Hall.
-$32 million for a new technical education building at Spokane Community College.
-$29 million fora new life sciences and chemistry building at Spokane Fall Community College.
-$39 million for a new electronics engineering building at WSU’s Vancouver campus.
-$7.4 million for WSU’s Biomedical Sciences facility in Pullman.
-$4.3 million for work on a WSU biomedical and health sciences building at Spokane’s Riverpoint campus.
-$9.7 million to renovate Spokane Community Colleges’ Building 7.
-$13.8 million to renovate Music Building 15 at Spokane Falls Community College.
-$223,000 for an expansion in KSPS public broadcasting.
-$400,000 for the Emmanuel Family Life Center in Spokane.
-$79,000 for the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program for a Riverwalk Point community building.
-a total of $4.3 million ($3.5 million plus $800,000) for the YMCA/YWCA facility in central Spokane.
-$1 million for work on the Airway Heights Water Treatment Plant.
-$6.5 million for the Fish and Wildlife Department for a project (land purchase?) on the west branch of the Little Spokane River. (It’s unclear in the budget summary I’m combing through.)
-$40,000 for lighting at Colfax’s McDonald Park.
-$7,000 for “aquisition and development” of land for Liberty Lake’s Rocky Hill Park.
-$198,000 for a Centennial Trail realignment at Gateway Park.
-$500,000 to restore historic features of Spokane’s county courthouse.
-$350,000 to replace elevators in Spokane’s Masonic Temple building.
CORRECTION: Earlier, I accidentally posted an incorrect figure re: Mt. Spokane State Park in an earlier version of this post.
Mt. Spokane would get $144,000 to help relocated a maintenance facility and buy some land, NOT the much larger figure that happened to be for the project listed right above it. Mea culpa.
The Senate has released its $3.3 billion two year capital budget. It’s $700 million less than the governor’s proposal in December, and about $1.3 billion (29 percent) less than the last two-year budget.
-K-12 construction assistance programs would be fully funded,
-Higher ed would get just over $1 billion for projects. Every major school would get a major project.
-$734 million would be transferred to the operating budget.
-McNeil Island prison would be closed.
-New school district skills centers wouldn’t be funded.
-the Heritage Center, a new home for the state archives and the state library and visitors’ center for the capitol, would be ‘put on hold” until the state can figure out a way “to make sure the center can be self-sustaining…the fees that would have funded this project have plummeted along with the economy.”
-Univ of WA would get $199 million, including a certificate of participation to build a molecular engineering building: $53 million.
-Washington State University would get $116 million, and a certificate of participation to build infrastructure for the Global Animal Health Building ($10 million). Also: $95 million for the biomedical sciences facility.
Local stuff: includes $400k for the Emmanuel Family Life Center, $79K for a community building for SNAP, $3.5 million for a central Spokane YMCA/YWCA.
TVW’s Niki Sullivan reports that Terry Teale, executive director of the Council of Presidents (meaning college presidents), asked the Senate budget committee yesterday to let the state’s college hike tuition by 14 percent a year.
The Senate has proposed a 7 percent increase a year, which is the current maximum. The House would raise that to 10 percent a year. Neither, so far, is suggesting 14 percent.
Teale argues that the increase would actually cost less than forcing students to tack on an extra quarter or semester to get into classes that are too crowded due to budget cuts.
Meanwhile, the University of Washington’s planning and budget office has put together an analysis of the effect of 14 percent tuition increases on the net costs paid by students. (At UW, a 14 percent increase would mean $875 more a year.)
The short form: “Because of increased financial aid and increased federal tax credits, students with a family income below $160,000 would see no increase in net costs.”
But here’s why a huge tuition increase would be hard for lawmakers: parents have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition plan, which lets you prepay now — plus a significant surcharge — for college credits your kid will use years from now.
In other words, if the state hikes tuition 28 percent over the next two years, it’s akin to increasing the value of all those prepaid credits the same amount. This is especially true considering the fact that you don’t have to just use the credits in Washington; you can take the value of the account and use it at virtually any college.
One senator mentioned this in yesterday’s hearing, according to Sullivan:
But Sen. Rodney Tom told the higher education advocates that the math didn’t work out for the state — specifically, it requires the state to raise the liability on the GET (tuition guarantee) program by more than $100 million.
Both the Senate and House will today release their capital (i.e. construction) budget proposals for the next two years. That means millions of dollars for local schools, university buildings, community centers and other projects.
I’ll start posting specifics and links soon.