NW today: Wash. legislators might change GET program

What’s news in the Northwest today:

SEATTLE — The prospect of big tuition hikes at state universities has Washington lawmakers considering scaling back a popular program that lets parents buy tuition credits for their children years before they head off to college. Under the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program, parents lock in tuition prices when they buy the credits. More than 120,000 families are enrolled. But the Seattle Times says some legislators are worried that with rapidly rising tuition at Washington schools, the state one day might have to bail out the program. Several are considering bills to change the GET formula, possibly by creating a new program with lower benefits. A number of other states that offer prepaid-tuition plans have closed their programs to new enrollments or changed the terms because tuition rates are rising too fast. Washington’s program is solvent, with $1.4 billion in assets. The money is invested in stocks, bonds and other investments, much like a pension fund.

Lawmakers consider bill on employee gun rights

HELENA — Lawmakers are considering a bill that would require companies to allow their employees to keep guns in their vehicles while at work. The House Judiciary Committee also held hearings today on proposals to expand concealed carry rights in cities and allow the use of silencers when hunting. House Bill 368 would let employees keep guns in their vehicles on the company’s property during the workday as long as the vehicle is locked. Gun advocacy groups say it is a safety issue and the workers have a constitutional right to keep guns in their cars. Petroleum, coal, railroad and other business organizations spoke out against the bill. They cited employers’ private property rights and concerns that the measure could threaten workplace safety. The committee took no immediate action on the bills.

WSU enrollment figures show record increase

MOSCOW, Idaho – There are 311 more students attending Washington State University than there were last spring, officials report. That’s a 1.3 percent increase based on enrollment numbers 10 days into the new semester. For the Pullman and Spokane campuses, which are listed as one campus for enrollment purposes, there was an increase of 0.7 percent, or 132 students. Pullman’s enrollment is up to 18,805 students, while Spokane has 1,267. The fastest-growing campus is WSU Vancouver, which jumped 6.1 percent, to 176 students. WSU Tri-Cities gained three students or 0.2 percent. WSU officials said despite growth, the institution still can maintain a quality education.

Washington, B.C. sign climate-change agreements

OLYMPIA — Officials from Washington and British Columbia have agreed to work together to prepare for and try to limit climate change. Under agreements signed today, the state and province will promote public awareness of higher sea levels and the effect on coastal areas, and to limit carbon emissions by the two governments. Washington Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant says that besides rising sea levels, the two governments share many other climate-related problems, such as lower stream flows and diseased forests.

Public meeting to discuss safety on National Forest roads

MOSCOW, Idaho – The St. Joe Ranger District of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests will hold a public meeting to discuss efforts to improve public safety on National Forest System roads and to solicit public comments. The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 9 in the downstairs conference room of the Federal Building. Changes to Idaho law now allow underage, unlicensed off-highway vehicle riders on all National Forest System roads. This situation has led the Forest Service throughout Idaho to undertake a safety review of their road systems to identify road segments that may require additional safety measures, according to a news release. The Idaho Panhandle National Forests has more than 4,000 miles of forest roads that are currently accessible to the public. Of those 4,000 miles, the forest has identified 151 miles of roads that may require additional safety measures. In the St. Joe Ranger District, 28 miles of roads have been identified.

Another day, another Idaho revenue proposal dead

BOISE — Another day at the Idaho Legislature, another revenue increase proposal dead. In mid-January, a panel of Senate and House lawmakers recommended boosting vehicle registration fees by $10. That would have raised $15.6 million to cover gas taxes the Idaho State Police are set to lose in a 2009 plan to shore up highway maintenance. But the panel reconvened Tuesday afternoon and reversed its vote. Idaho State Police, they decided, should keep its gas tax proceeds. Why the change of heart? Earlier Tuesday, the House rejected a $1.50 increase to fees on lawbreakers to bolster state police academy funding. Republican Rep. Maxine Bell said that House vote was a harbinger for how her panel’s registration hike would fare with budget hawks eager to kill even the hint of an increase.

Washington tribe exhibits images of flooded petroglyphs

ELLENSBURG — The island petroglyphs long revered by a tiny band of Indians known as the Wanapum have been underwater for 50 years, but the band will exhibit rubbings from those stone etchings in a new museum exhibit. The Wanapum have lived for centuries along the banks of the Columbia River some 30 miles east of Yakima, and its members consider Whale Island, where more than 300 petroglyphs were created, a holy place. Like many culturally significant sites for tribes in the Northwest, the island was washed over 50 years ago with the construction of Priest Rapids — one of more than a dozen hydroelectric dams constructed along the Columbia River in the 20th century. Rubbings from the Whale Island petroglyphs produced before the dam was built haven’t been shown in several years, and the band believes a new generation of children should be exposed to this side of their heritage, said Angela Buck, director of the Wanapum Heritage Center. The rubbings have been in storage at the center’s repository.

Not guilty plea in Seattle hatchet killing

SEATTLE — A man accused of a random hatchet attack that killed a man on a Seattle sidewalk pleaded not guilty today in King County Superior Court. KOMO Radio reports Michael LaRosa was evaluated at Western State Hospital and found competent to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge. He’s accused of killing 58-year-old Joseph LaMagno as he was walking home Nov. 22 with groceries. The 26-year-old LaRosa also is a suspect in a similar attack the day before in Seattle.

DeFazio suggests waiver to solve health care issue

CORVALLIS, Ore. — U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio says he has a fix for the problem behind recent federal court rulings declaring the new health care law unconstitutional. The Gazette-Times in Corvallis reports DeFazio told a town hall meeting this week that people who don’t want health insurance should sign a waiver so that people who do won’t have to pay for them. The Oregon Democrat said he plans to introduce legislation to that effect within a few weeks. DeFazio said he agrees with people who object to making health insurance mandatory, but adds that with choice comes responsibility.

Early numbers show January tax revenue beat forecast

BOISE — Idaho’s January tax revenue likely beat forecasts by about $15 million. The news, which indicates the economy could be picking up steam, may help mitigate concerns that arose last week about a yawning $185 million budget hole. Division of Financial Management director Wayne Hammon confirmed the preliminary figure to the Associated Press. The robust January receipts come despite $9 million in unexpected sales tax rebates paid out to alternative energy companies. Still, this news likely won’t ease lawmakers’ job of determining what revenue figure to budget to when they set the 2012 spending plan, due to start July 1. For instance, legislators still must decide whether to synchronize Idaho’s tax code with new federal tax rules, a move that could cost Idaho an estimated $70 million over two years.

Woman killed in fiery Auburn crash

AUBURN, Wash. — A neighbor who heard a speeding car crash into a power pole in Auburn pulled the driver out of the car, but it erupted in flames before a woman passenger could be rescued. The Valley Regional Fire Authority said firefighters found her body after they extinguished the flames. Auburn police said the man was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The crash about 1 a.m. today knocked out power for a couple of hours for 7,300 Puget Sound Energy customers.

Suspect doesn’t get far in Hoquiam police car

HOQUIAM, Wash. — Police shot a tire and rammed a stolen Hoquiam police car to arrest a suspect who had jumped into the car while it was idling. KBKW and KXRO report the 29-year-old transient was jailed Tuesday for investigation of taking a motor vehicle without permission, eluding and felony malicious mischief. Deputy Chief Jim Maloney says deputies had been called to the Hoquiam River RV park about an evicted tenant disturbing residents. While officers were talking with the manager, police said, the suspect jumped in the patrol car and hit the manager’s truck. One officer shot a tire, but the car continued onto Highway 101 and then to Highway 109 where officers used a pit maneuver to push it off the road. There were no injuries.

Yellowstone bison slaughter could begin this week

BILLINGS — Disease testing on hundreds of bison from Yellowstone National Park was set to begin today, and park officials said those that test positive for brucellosis could be shipped to slaughter this week. Twenty-one more bison were captured Tuesday as the animals attempted to migrate out of the snow-packed park to find food at lower elevations in Montana. That brought to more than 300 the number of bison being held in corrals near Gardiner. Conservation groups appealed to officials including Gov. Brian Schweitzer for the animals to be spared. But with more bison expected to exit the park due to a harsh winter — and the corrals capable of holding only 400 animals — a park spokesman indicated even bison that test negative for brucellosis might not be released.

Washington Senate takes up unemployment tax reduction

OLYMPIA — Washington businesses would get a break on this year’s unemployment taxes under a bill headed for a floor vote in the state Senate. It’s projected to save Washington employers about $300 million by halting a planned increase in unemployment insurance rates. The bill’s a priority for Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire. She says it has to pass both chambers of the Legislature and be signed into law by Feb. 8 to have an effect on this year’s unemployment tax rates. Lawmakers also have other issues to consider in the area of unemployment policy, but those topics have been split from the tax-relief bill and will be debated separately. Labor groups have advocated for a new $15-per-child payment for jobless families, but businesses are wary of adding more benefits.

Southern Oregon blood donors need cash, fault economy

MEDFORD, Ore. — Blood donors are lining up in southern Oregon to donate plasma for cash, saying they need the money in a tough economy. The Mail Tribune reports that donors can receive up to $300 for the first month, though that can depend on incentive programs and a sliding scale. If they go twice a week, donors can average about $35 a week. Business is booming at the CSL Plasma center in Medford, which plans to add 15 employees to its current total of 75. Donations were on the increase nationally even before the recession hit, nearly doubling between 2005 and 2008.

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