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Bike Safety Bill Imperiled By Late Tinkering Rep. Duane Sommers Wants To Change Section That Bothers Insurance Industry

A bicycle safety bill named for a Spokane teenager was suddenly in jeopardy Monday even though it already passed both houses.

The reason: Rep. Duane Sommers, R-Spokane, an original sponsor of the Cooper Jones Act, wants to alter a section that angered the insurance industry.

Making the change would leave the measure - which provides money for bicycle safety education - without funding after next year.

More urgently, said supporters from both political parties, the Legislature might not have the time or the inclination to vote again for the bill this year, which they would be asked to do if Sommers makes his change.

That has supporters like Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, seething. “We’re going to risk this whole thing because some lobbyist is upset?” she said Monday. “It’s too late in the game for this.”

The bill, named for the 13-year-old bicycle enthusiast killed last summer after being hit by a car, would require some drivers in serious automobile accidents to retake their drivers’ test. It also provides $100,000 in educational grants.

For now, that money is slated to come from a fund currently collected by the state from the insurance industry. The fund pays for some of the costs of regulating the industry and now is experiencing a surplus.

That financing source was found by Sen. James West, R-Spokane, after some Republicans in the Senate opposed the original idea - an increase in the sales tax paid on bicycles.

At the time, Brown and Sommers both liked West’s idea. Both argued that increased bicycle safety could benefit the insurance industry by reducing accidents.

But on Monday, Sommers said insurance industry officials didn’t like their regulatory money being used for bicycle education because it opened the door for other bills that could do similar things with the money.

Sommers said he now plans to add a sunset clause to the bill, which would guarantee that the yearly $100,000 wouldn’t come from the insurance fund after next year.

“The insurance industry really doesn’t want us to open this stuff up because it hasn’t been used this way in the past,” Sommers said. “In this case, I think they’re right.”

The bill was passed by both houses with some difficulty. Sponsors in the Senate had trouble getting leaders to bring the bill to a vote; in the House, Representatives were reluctant to pass a bill with any money connected. Jones’ parents, David and Martha, made several trips to Olympia to push for the bill; Martha Jones was so frustrated she considered giving up on the political process.

The two couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

Since the bill is not a priority with GOP leaders in either house - and because everyone is eager to finish the session on time Thursday - Brown fears the bill might die in one of the houses. Or, she said, some members might suddenly object to using the insurance money at all.

“You never know what’s going to happen a second time through,” she said.

Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, another sponsor of the bill, has an altogether different fear.

GOP senators were opposed to the original funding mechanism - the bicycle-sales tax - because it amounted to a tax increase. Eliminating future use of the insurance industry money might be a signal to some anti-tax conservatives that future funds will have to come from taxes, Prince said.

Sommers acknowledges that he is taking a gamble.

“Sure, there’s always a risk, but I frankly think with this amendment we’re in even better shape,” he said. “If I thought the risk was high, I wouldn’t even try it.”

Sommers said he’s not worried that it might look like he was being pushed around by the insurance industry.

“The halls are filled with special interest groups and, like any special interest, they (insurance) were persistent,” he said. “In this instance, I happen to agree.”

, DataTimes