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Tracking the session with Rich Roesler

Energy

Most lawmakers want to boost alternative-fuel production, such as biodiesel. Some lawmakers also want more help for low-income people to pay their energy bills.

What’s happening: The “feel-good hit of the session,” as one lawmaker termed this topic weeks ago, is speeding through the statehouse. Gov. Chris Gregoire has already signed into law the bill to help with energy bills. And last week, the House almost unanimously approved a bill to steer $9 million into four Eastern Washington biodiesel plants, including one in Spokane Valley.

Crime

Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, are calling for tougher laws and restrictions on sex offenders. Also on the agenda: stronger penalties for methamphetamine production.

What’s happening: After much jousting, lawmakers have reached agreement on a bill requiring mandatory minimums of 25 years in prison for many of the worst sex offenders. Unsatisfied, however, citizen advocates have launched two initiatives. The tougher of the two would mandate life in prison with no possibility of parole.

WASL

Starting with the class of 2008, high schoolers must pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning to graduate. Although scores continue to improve, many students are still failing. Lawmakers are pushing for alternative testing and more help for struggling students.

What’s happening: Gregoire wants to put $38.5 million into programs to help students pass. Both sides say the key is to uphold standards without holding back students who know the material, but don’t test well. But it looks like lawmakers have settled on their usual fallback: a study.

Spending

After several years of budget deficits, the state now has a $1.4 billion surplus.

What’s happening: Gregoire and top lawmakers are calling for restraint. The governor wants to spend about $500 million and bank the rest for future needs. Both House and Senate budget writers say they agree, in general. Spokane-area groups are seeking state construction money for a long list of projects, but budget writers say that most are long shots.

Gay rights

Since the 1970s, liberal lawmakers have been trying to make it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in employment, housing or financial transactions.

What’s happening: A jubilant Gregoire on Tuesday signed House Bill 2661 into law, saying that future generations will wonder why it took 29 years to pass such a bill. But initiative promoter Tim Eyman immediately filed two ballot measures to veto the new law.

Taxes and fees

Republicans began the year with a call to repeal the estate tax, but the Democratic majority is unlikely to agree. Other long-shot proposals: repeal of recent hikes in liquor and cigarette taxes.

What’s happening: Agricultural tax breaks seem likely. The House, for example, is considering exempting farm machinery parts from state sales tax. Another change that’s getting wide support in this election year: repealing the $5 “day-use fees” that desperate lawmakers authorized three years ago for access to state parks.



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