April 28, 2009 in City, Region

Session brought changes to partnerships, school funding, other laws

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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For more news from Olympia, please see www.eyeonolympia.com.

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:

•Domestic partners: Two years after launching a domestic partner program for same sex couples and some senior-citizen heterosexual couples, lawmakers approved an “everything but marriage” bill that grants them virtually all of the rights and responsibilities of spouses. The changes include labor- and employment rights and public-employee benefits, including inheritance of pension benefits.

•College tuition: Budget writers assumed a tuition increase of nearly 30 percent at the state’s four-year universities over the next two years. Until now, tuition hikes were limited to 7 percent a year. It remains to be seen whether college officials will raise tuition that high, although both Washington State University and the University of Washington, facing deep cuts, lobbied for the change.

•Unemployment insurance: After a months-long round of brinkmanship with organized labor, businesses won an 11th-hour victory when lawmakers approved changes in the state’s unemployment insurance system. Labor unions won some temporary increases in unemployment benefits, but failed to win permanent changes. The bill would save businesses hundreds of millions of dollars.

•Marijuana: Efforts to decriminalize possession of less than 1.4 ounces of pot failed this year. Some lawmakers wanted to change it from a criminal offense to a civil infraction.

•Car fees: Lawmakers tripled the maximum “document fee” that car dealers can charge customers, from $50 to $150. The move could raise millions of dollars for struggling dealers. Dealers also argue that it’s a critical issue of competitiveness, since auto quotes don’t include fees. They say that makes cars in Idaho, where such fees are believed to average $150, look cheaper than they really are.

•K-12 schools: Advocates were deeply divided over a bill to overhaul school funding over the next nine years. The state PTA and others called it the biggest reform in decades, promising to steer billions of dollars more into schools. Teachers, however, pointed out that it’s just a promise. Lawmakers were unwilling to raise taxes now to pay for changes.

Still, the plan boosts high school class hours, increases all-day kindergarten and would broaden state support for things like preschool and gifted education.

•WASL: Lawmakers also signed off on plans to revamp the state’s controversial Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests. Schools chief Randy Dorn, who is no fan of the WASL, has vowed to make it cheaper, faster and better at helping quickly identify struggling students.

•Payday lending: After years of lobbying by consumer advocates, legislators narrowly approved tougher regulations on the payday loan industry. The changes include limits on the size of loans and forcing lenders to accept payment plans from struggling customers.

•Voting rights for felons: For years, Washington has barred convicted felons, even after release from prison, from voting until they’ve paid off all their court-imposed fees. For poor people, this can amount to a lifetime loss of the right to vote. Under a bill awaiting Gov. Chris Gregoire’s signature, felons could register to vote once they’re off probation.

•Newspapers: Lawmakers, saying that the struggling newspaper industry was important for informed voting, overwhelmingly approved a temporary tax break for newspapers. The move cuts the state’s business tax on papers by 40 percent until 2016.

•Porn tax: A proposal to tax pornography and other adult items died quickly in committee after a flurry of publicity. Opponents said the bill was unconstitutional.

•Dead pets: A widely publicized proposal to allow deceased pets to be buried with their owners failed.

•Political lies: Candidates lying during political campaigns, which the courts have said is hard-to-touch free speech even if false, will now find themselves running afoul of a new state law. Gov. Gregoire has signed a bill making certain false political ads illegal. Violators could face fines.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or at richr@spokesman.com. For more news from Olympia, please see www.eyeonolympia.com.


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