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Democrats turn wish list into reality

MONDAY, APRIL 23, 2007

OLYMPIA – It was a blue year.

Even before the gavel fell Sunday on Washington’s 2007 legislative session, Olympia’s largest Democratic majority in decades basked in a series of long-wanted wins:

“After six years of trying, they laid the framework for a $250-a-week stipend for parents who take time off from work to bond with a new child.

“After seven years of attempts, they banned handheld cell phone use while driving.

“After five years, they banned abstinence-only sex education.

“After 13 years of trying, they advanced a plan to make it easier for school districts to pass tax levies.

“And they passed a bill that even a year or two ago probably would have been unthinkable: granting some spousal rights to same-sex couples.

Led by Democrats Lisa Brown, Frank Chopp and Gov. Chris Gregoire, lawmakers also added tens of thousands more children to state-run health coverage. They steered billions of dollars into construction for schools, colleges and community projects – although not as much into basic education as local school officials had hoped. Helped greatly by a $2.2 billion surplus, lawmakers also socked away $724 million for the future.

“It’s been a very active session, with really involved, major pieces of legislation,” said Brown, the Spokane Democrat who is majority leader in the Senate. Generally, she said, lawmakers stuck to their promised focus on education, health care and the economy.

The Republican minority, meanwhile, eked out a few wins, despite being outnumbered 62 to 36 in the House and 32 to 17 in the Senate. But their situation and clout was perhaps best summarized by a sign someone taped up on their caucus room door in the Senate. It showed the famous photo of one Chinese man standing in front of four rumbling tanks. Written on the paper: “Headquarters of the Resistance.”

At one point, House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt said, he tried to boost morale by taking some of his caucus members to see the movie “300,” about the struggle of that many Spartan soldiers to hold off thousands of Persian troops.

“We were able to relate a little bit with the Spartans,” said DeBolt, R-Chehalis.

Republicans did score one key victory, even if it didn’t have their names on it. After Republican lawmakers pushed for years for a hard-to-tap state “rainy-day fund,” Gregoire and the Senate adopted the idea and pushed for it against the objections of House budget writer Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, who called the idea of lawmakers trying to build a lockbox from themselves “foolish, thoughtless, highly political and a huge mistake.” In a rare loss for Sommers, lawmakers approved the change, which will require ratification from voters statewide in November.

“It’s probably the most fiscally responsible thing the Legislature has done in decades,” said Brown.

For top Democrats, 2007’s legislative “supermajorities” also brought an internal struggle not to overplay their hand. Brown, Chopp and Gregoire spent much of the session trying to advance bold changes without sparking a voter backlash.

House Speaker Chopp, in particular, caught flak from some liberals – including several in the Senate – for sticking to his months-old vow to avoid “distractions.” A gun-control bill was quickly quashed, as was a proposal to allow same-sex marriage. There were no major tax increases. And Senate Democrats decided against asking Congress to consider impeaching President Bush.

“The question is: At what point do you stop avoiding risks to protect your massive majority and actually start using your massive majority?” asked an article about Chopp in Seattle’s the Stranger newspaper last month.

Republicans also blamed Chopp for undercutting their attempts to reduce the cost of health insurance and not backing bills that would have limited property tax increases to 1 percent a year.

“It’s a one-man Legislature,” said DeBolt. “If you have the votes and the gavel, you make the rules. And he (Chopp) makes the rules.”

Chopp said Saturday he has no second thoughts.

“We’re doing a very progressive agenda,” he said, “but an agenda that the average person can relate to.”

House Democrats – including those from Spokane’s liberal 3rd district – defended their leader.

“The worst thing you can do is be leading and look back and there’s nobody behind you,” said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane.

On many bills – and often to the irritation of the Senate – that meant that reforms proposed in January had turned into far-more-modest proposals by April. Many ended up as just studies.

Major health-insurance changes, after resistance from business groups, shrank to a pilot project covering some small businesses. Citing the expense, lawmakers delayed for two years a requirement – supposed to take effect in December – that nightclubs install sprinkler systems. And the so-called “Wal-Mart bill,” which would penalize large companies with many employees on state-paid medical assistance, died in favor of more study.

There was some last-minute brinkmanship between Senate and House Democrats, as broader Senate reforms were whittled down by Chopp and House Democrats. One of Brown’s priorities, a bill to stop a large expansion of gravel mining on an island in Puget Sound, died. So did a Senate-backed plan to require much-stronger warranties on new homes.

Hours before the session ended Sunday, the Senate finally blinked in a standoff over the family-leave stipend. The Senate wanted to pay for the program with a 2-cents-per-hour tax on workers, and wanted the stipend for people caring for ailing parents or relatives, not just babies. Chopp and House Democrats dug in their heels, however. Instead of a tax, the program now borrows up to $18 million, with a task force formed to recommend long-term funding.

Brown – who had donned a Rosie-the-riveter-style “Moms Rising” temporary tattoo in the final hours of the fight – called the negotiations a delicate balance. She admitted that she was “profoundly disappointed” that the Senate plan didn’t stick, but said that overall, the balance of power between the House and Senate has been pretty even.

“You don’t succeed in everything,” she said.

As for Republicans, they predict that they’ll be vindicated soon, when the two-year, $33.4 billion budget – a $4.3 billion increase over the last one – will force deep budget cuts or a large tax increase. In the final hours of the session, Republicans in the Senate hoisted 5-foot-tall signs reading “33%!” which they say is the amount that the state budget has increased in four years.

“The taxpayers’ pockets aren’t large enough to accommodate this budget,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia.

“Time will tell,” added Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.

Here’s a look at some of the things that lawmakers did – and didn’t do – this year:

Spending: The $33.4 billion operating budget will spend heavily on schools, health care and colleges. It will decrease class sizes, increase all-day kindergarten, increase pay for state workers, build hundreds of prison cells and make room for thousands more students at the state’s colleges, among many other things.

Roads: Lawmakers also approved a $7.5 billion transportation budget that includes $99 million more for the North Spokane Corridor, as well as money for a rail spur and loading facility near Spokane.

Local projects: A separate construction budget includes tens of millions of dollars for Inland Northwest projects. Among them: $2 million for the Fox Theater, $7.8 million for a veterans’ cemetery, a $58 million new biotechnology center in Pullman, as well as nearly $900 million for building schools.

WASL reprieve: The high school Class of 2008 will not have to pass the math part of the controversial Washington Assessment of Student Learning in order to graduate. That requirement has been delayed for several years. And in a last-minute deal, lawmakers agreed to let students who fail the reading or writing parts appeal to special panels. It’s yet to be seen, however, whether Gregoire – who has resisted calls to do away with the reading and writing requirement – will veto that appeals process.

Prison inmates: Lawmakers approved a broad series of reforms aimed at treating, educating and easing the transition for offenders back into communities. Republicans called it “welfare” for criminals and many balked at a provision requiring that released offenders be more broadly spread throughout the state. Democrats said Spokane, Pierce and King counties are getting a disproportionate share of felons now.

“Enough is enough,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy.

Others said the bill is too simplistic.

“More people with a violent nature will be released into counties other than Pierce or Spokane,” said Rep. Chris Strow, R-Clinton. That doesn’t make sense in rural counties with few services, lawmakers said.

NASCAR: Lawmakers, particularly Chopp, balked at a request to steer millions of dollars in taxes into what would have been the first NASCAR track in the Pacific Northwest.

Health care: Senate Bill 5930 launches a variety of reforms intended to spur cheaper, better health care in state programs. Also, the bill would require all insurers to offer people a chance to extend coverage for unmarried children up to age 25.

Wildlife rehabilitation: If the governor signs Senate Bill 5188, people who get personalized license plates will pay $32, instead of $30. The extra money would go to wildlife rehabilitation programs. “This is increasingly needed as we deal with the urbanization of Washington,” said prime sponsor Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

Reporter’s shield law: Lawmakers voted to ban courts from trying to force reporters to disclose the names of confidential sources, although their notes and recordings could be seized with court approval.

State vegetable: Will be the Walla Walla sweet onion, thanks to years of effort by schoolchildren. The potato industry, deciding it wasn’t such a big deal after all, withdrew its objections this year.

State amphibian: Will be the Pacific Chorus Frog, courtesy of a class of determined Olympia third-graders. “We didn’t hear a word from the salamander lobby, so evidently the frog is it,” said Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park.

Hospital-acquired infections: Would have to be publicly reported.

Wild pets: Spurred by a case of a Lewis County family evicted from their rental home along with their several Siberian tiger pets, lawmakers banned the private ownership of tigers, bears, crocodiles, rhinos and all primates, including monkeys. Those with such pets can keep them, but can’t breed them or get any more.

Sonics: After weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling, lawmakers opted not to continue hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to help build a new basketball arena in Renton. Gregoire said she’d continue negotiations with the owners of the SuperSonics and Storm.

Survivors’ tuition: If the governor signs Senate Bill 5002 into law, the state’s colleges must waive all tuition and fees for qualifying children and spouses of military veterans killed, permanently and totally disabled, missing in action or captured by enemies.

Foster kids: Trying to get them off on a better footing, lawmakers set up a scholarship program for them up to age 26 and agreed to extend their state-paid medical coverage from age 18 to 21. Another bill also sets up housing help for teens “aging-out” of the foster care system at 18.

Tuition hikes: Will be limited to 7 percent a year for resident undergraduates, under a bill already signed into law.

State poet: Washington will have one. The salary is yet to be determined, but budget writers started things off with a $30,000 appropriation for the next two years. They refused to follow the medieval tradition of also providing the poet with 126 gallons of wine – a commitment that Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, said he’d ask the state wine commission for.

Text messaging: Lawmakers, unhappy with a man who allegedly triggered a chain-reaction pileup in Seattle last December while reading a message on his Blackberry, voted to ban writing, reading or sending messages while driving. The fine: $101.

Auto theft: With 40,000 cars a year being stolen in Washington, a bill passed to toughen penalties and fund regional task forces, “bait cars” and other enforcement efforts. If signed into law by Gregoire, it would take three convictions for an adult auto thief to land in prison, instead of the current seven.

Flame retardants: In a key victory for environmentalists, Washington is the first state in the nation to start banning some fireproofing chemicals in televisions, computers and furniture.

Eminent domain: Government agencies will now have to provide better notice to property owners when it’s deciding to take their property. Many lawmakers were angered when Seattle-area Sound Transit argued successfully in the Supreme Court that it was sufficient to post a meeting notice on the agency’s Web site. The Tacoma couple whose property was condemned to make way for a parking lot never saw the notice. Now agencies must send a certified letter and publish a meeting notice in the largest local newspaper.

Global warming: Gregoire is expected to sign a bill banning utilities from signing long-term contracts with coal-fired plants that produce excessive greenhouse gases.

Children’s mental health: After much negotiation, a bill was passed to improve diagnoses and state services for children with mental health problems.

Mental health parity: Following through from a landmark bill two years ago, lawmakers voted to require small companies to cover mental health to the same degree that they cover medical care. This is already the rule for large employers.

Stolen metals: Lawmakers approved tougher penalties, fewer payment options and more recordkeeping in a measure aimed at reducing thefts of copper, aluminum and other valuable metals.


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