OLYMPIA – Washington’s 2008 legislative session began with a small band of property tax protesters battling cold winds and rain on the Capitol’s granite steps. But after last fall’s one-day special session to reinstate a 1 percent annual limit on hikes in total property tax hikes, it’s unclear how much more lawmakers will do this year.
One idea – a “homestead exemption” – comes from Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. He wants to amend the state constitution to exempt the first $100,000 of a home’s value from the state’s slice of property tax. (Much of your property tax bill is made up of local taxes.) If voters and two-thirds of the Legislature agree, Zarelli figures that Senate Joint Resolution 8226 would save a homeowner about $200 a year. The state would lose about $150 million a year.
It’s true that Zarelli’s part of Olympia’s slim Republican minority. Democrats have nearly a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, and Gov. Chris Gregoire is also a Democrat. But Zarelli was also the budget point guy who championed a hard-to-tap state “rainy day fund” for lean budget years. Democrats ended up embracing that idea, and in November, so did voters.
Paydays, Band-Aids and tattoos
In a Statehouse where groups are constantly competing for the attention of key lawmakers, a little political theater helps. Public employees seeking raises have in the past fanned out across the Capitol, pointedly handing out Payday candy bars. Health care advocates have passed out budget Band-Aids. And last year, the group Moms Rising handed out temporary tattoos of their logo: a we-can-do-it style Rosie the Riveter mom hoisting aloft a smiling, chubby baby. And some lawmakers – Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown among them – wore the tattoos during debate.
This year, Moms Rising is pushing hard for lawmakers to find a way to pay for a five-week stipend ($250 a week) to help working parents take time off to bond with a newborn or adopted child. Lawmakers approved the program last year, but although it starts next year, they haven’t yet agreed how to pay for it. One controversial suggestion: a tax of 1 cent per hour paid by all employees.
Moms Rising’s new tactic: fortune cookies. The group had a bunch of fortune cookies made with sayings like “Success in future endeavors awaits those who fully fund Family Leave Insurance.”
Like a 401(k) for lifelong education
An Indianapolis-based educational foundation recently gave the state $75,000 to design a program through which workers can set aside money – matched by their employer – to pay for further education and training.
The accounts help “ensure that people who want to grow in their jobs and careers can have the financial means to do so,” said Gregoire.
Several states are testing this idea, called a “Lifelong Learning Account.”
The state will initially target counties around Olympia and Aberdeen. The plan is to eventually expand it statewide.
No man’s land
Since 1983, new state laws have been written in gender-neutral terms. Last year, lawmakers waded a little further into the state lawbooks, rewriting terms like “fireman,” “policeman” and “bondsman” in older sections of code. Last year’s changes also required the attorneys who massage the state’s legalese to make state law completely gender-neutral by the summer of 2015.
This year, half a dozen state senators are trying to move things along. Senate Bill 6413 would rewrite more law, changing “men” to “persons,” “councilman” to “councilmember” and “chairman” to “chair.”
Among this year’s unusual bills:
House Bill 2519: Banning smoking if children are in a vehicle.
Senate Bill 6408: Making it a crime for a pet dealer to sell a seriously ill animal. It’s aimed at shoddy health care at “puppy mill” breeders.
Senate Bill 6241: Barring drug companies from using physicians’ prescribing histories to target their marketing efforts.
House Bill 2422: Banning small petroleum-based plastic water bottles.
And more ideas
As the newspaper’s Statehouse reporter in Olympia, I periodically hit up readers for comments about what state lawmakers doing. (I’m at email@example.com.) Among those weighing in early this year: Colville’s Patrick Conley.
Some of Conley’s ideas for lawmakers:
•Widen deadly U.S. 395 north of Spokane.
•Expand health coverage for the poor.
•Lower in-state college tuition.
•Scrap the Washington Assessment of Student Learning “and teach to the needs of our children’s place in society and our country’s place in the world.”
•Boost fast rural Internet access, using the power grid.
•Set a new, higher “family wage” minimum wage and mandatory employee health coverage for large- and medium-sized employers.
•Tighten regulation of casinos, payday lenders, banks and credit card companies.
While you’re at it…
Gov. Chris Gregoire has a key suggestion for President George Bush’s $145 billion economic stimulus proposal announced last week: Make permanent the deductibility of Washingtonians’ sales tax. For years, Washingtonians were at a big disadvantage to taxpayers in income-taxing states like Idaho or Oregon, where people deduct their state income taxes from their federal tax bill. Congress recently agreed – reluctantly – to a temporary workaround: let Washingtonians deduct their sales tax. It’s high time, Gregoire says, to make that deduction permanent.
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