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Sunday spin: Reaching a deal on crucial meal policies

OLYMPIA – A special panel made a great leap forward last week, coming to an agreement on defining one of the thorniest issues in legislative policy.

Not tax policy or basic education policy or health care policy. Meal policy.

As in how many meals can a lobbyist buy before a legislator runs afoul of the state law that requires him or her to accept only “infrequent” meals from a lobbyist? And just what, exactly, is a meal?

The Legislative Ethics Board settled on 12 meals a year as being infrequent, although a legislator could take them all in a 60-day legislative session, or presumably in a single week of a session, because there’s no rule limiting them to one per month. This was a compromise, seemingly worthy of Henry Clay, because some board members wanted to go as low as three and others were pushing for 24 or points north.

Those who were looking for a higher number had concerns such as whether it would count against the allotted dozen if friends who just happen to be lobbyists come to town and offer to buy you lunch (it would). Or whether it would count if said friend invites you to his backyard barbecue (it would). Or whether it would count if a lobbyist bought you a donut (it wouldn’t, unless the donut came with coffee and you sat down and had a chat about legislative business, in which case it might.)

There was some expected harrumphing from members of the board who argued they couldn’t be swayed by a beer and burrito, or presumably filet mignon and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. One member, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge, thought 12 was too many because that broke down to one per month and, as he related in a moment of possibly unnecessary marital candor, “I don’t go out for dinner with my wife once a month.”

Hansen and others pushing a lower number had an easy work-around. Go to as many meals with lobbyists as you want, if they are your good buds and you enjoy their company. Just pay for your own meal. Legislators are getting their per diems bumped to $120 so “they can certainly pay for their own $7 burrito,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle said.

As for the definition of a meal, it comes down to any breakfast, lunch or dinner that a lobbyist or a lobbyist’s employer buys, it counts against your 12.

Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky that legislators are not like hobbits, who had seven meals a day: Breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. The ethics board might never reach a compromise.

Court to Legislature: Sanctions possible for lousy school plan

OLYMPIA – A recent report on how the state will spend more money on education is so inadequate the state Supreme Court threatened Thursday to hold the Legislature in contempt.

The state’s highest court said the Legislature’s latest update on how the state can meet its constitutional duty of properly paying for public schools does not follow the instructions the justices issued in January. It ordered a hearing in September and told the Legislature to send someone ready to explain why the court shouldn’t levy a fine or take over the budget process until education is properly funded.

The order, technically known as a Show Cause Order, could ignite the simmering constitutional dispute between the Legislature and the court. . . 

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, continue inside the blog.

Sunday Spin: How to make freebie meals very infrequent

OLYMPIA – A special panel is struggling to tell legislators how often they can break bread – and drink various beverages – with lobbyists.

State law already carries the stricture that such activities should be “infrequent.” The task for Legislative Ethics Board – a group of legislators and citizens who set rules for the conduct of senators and representatives – is deciding when does one move beyond infrequent to frequent.

Is it one dinner a month? Lunch every third Thursday? One dinner, one lunch and two coffee dates a week?

This argument may seem to fall somewhere between medieval scholars debating how many angels fit on the point of a pin and Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it” . . . 

To read the rest  of this item, or to comment, continue inside the blog.

Special session on budget starts Nov. 28

OLYMPIA — The Legislature gets to spend the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas playing Scrooge to state agencies.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she is calling legislators back for a special session starting Nov. 28 to deal with declining revenue projections that are likely to decline even more before they get here.

Nov. 28 is the Monday after Thanksgiving, and by law a special session can last up to 30 days. How long it lasts is up to legislators, who will be wrestling with Gregoire's request to cut $2 billion out of the budget they approved for the 2011-13 fiscal cycle just five months ago…

Gregoire: No special session before November

Gov. Chris Gregoire at the Suncadia Lodge.

CLE ELUM — Washington's economic outlook is so much more likely to get worse in the next two months that Gov. Chris Gregoire said she won't call the Legislature into a special session until November.

“It would be premature for me to call them back before the next forecast. They need to know how large the problem is,” Gregoire said.

Speaking to the annual “policy summit” of the Association of Washington Business, Gregoire said the state's chief economist has told her it's about four times more likely the state's revenue outlook will be worse for his November forecast than it was last week. That's when he said the state can expect a drop of about $1.4 billion from the amount the Legislature expected when it wrote the 2011-13 general fund budget.

Before last week's forecast, Gregoire told state agencies to prepare plans to cut 5 percent and 10 percent from their current appropriations. But Chief Economist Arun Raha's forecast last week essentially blew those apart.

“Neither of those would be enough,” she said.

The asssociation, which represents businesses throughout the state, is holding its annual conference at the Suncadia Lodge, a golf, winery and lodging complex on the eastern slope of the Cascades. Advocates for higher taxes on businesses are massed at the entrance, demanding an end to tax preferences — they use the term loopholes — for businesses rather than another “all cuts” budget.

Gregoire didn't mention a tax preferences of a tax hike in her talk to the business leaders, and none asked her about them in the brief question and answer session after her speech. But she left open the prospect that the state would consider some, urging the crowd “everything is on the table” — presumably taxes as well as cuts.

“I'm asking you… not to draw lines in the sand,” she said.

With bad revenue forecast, can special session be far behind?

OLYMPIA – With economic recovery described as “a mirage in the desert” and a projected gap between income and spending growing to $1.4 billion, state officials began setting the stage Thursday for a special legislative session that would find ways to cut more from the budget.

“The November forecast may bring more bad news so we can't wait until the start of session in January to take action,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a prepared statement released as the Economic Forecasting Council ended its meeting. “Today's forecast demands that we take action.”

Arun Raha, the state’s chief economist, told the forecasting council that tax collections fell below projections this summer, and the Washington economy can expect continued problems over the rest of this two-year budget cycle.

Jobs aren’t coming back at a pace that is lowering the unemployment rate. Foreclosures are likely to go up and home construction is off. State revenues may be about $500 million below previous projections through June 30, 2012, and $900 million lower in the next fiscal year. Normal economic times “seem like a mirage in the desert, the closer we get to it, the further it moves away,” Raha said.

The four legislators on the council all seemed to expect some type of session to be called this fall, although they disagreed on how it might be structured or what it should consider…
  

To read the rest of this post, go inside the blog.

Legislative pay cut: Some say yes, some say no

OLYMPIA – About half of the 15 members of the Spokane-area legislative delegation have volunteered for the same level of pay cuts the imposed on state workers. That’s a level slightly better than legislators statewide.

Many who have done it, like Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, say it’s a personal decision.

“As a businessman, the buck starts and stops with me,” said Parker, who owns a chain of coffee shops. “It’s the same with us as legislators.”

Parker’s seatmate in Spokane’s 6th District, Republican John Ahern, said he doesn’t plan to ask for a pay cut, but he is donating 3 percent or more to charities, ranging from his church and the Boy Scouts to organizations that oppose abortion like Teen-Aid.

“This way I know exactly where the money is going,” Ahern said. If he took a pay cut, the money would stay in the state’s general fund, and go to state programs or agencies he doesn’t support….

To read the rest of this item, or for a list of the Spokane-area delegation's decisions on a voluntary pay cut, click here to go inside the blog
  

Not much of a grading curve

Washington state got an F in initiatives last week.
Not that the state enrolled in Ballot Measures 101 or anything. We graduated with a degree in initiatives and referendums in 1914, when state residents added that power to the constitution.
But the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a Washington, D.C., group which bills itself as a place that “strengthens democracy by building a national progressive strategy for ballot issues”, annually grades states for the kinds of changes it thinks the states should make to “ensure the integrity of their initiative process.” It has looked at our laws and determined that we don’t rate. For the third year in a row.
Don’t be smirking over there, Idaho. You got an F, too.
In its 25-point test, Washington got graded down for not having 14 of the things the center thought a good state should have. Things like keeping folks from re-running the same initiative for at least three years or requiring notarized affidavits that all signatures are gathered within the law or banning companies for paying people based on the number of signatures they gather. They have some interesting and even debatable ideas, which could be why the Legislature has debated many of them, but never approved them.
Chances are good some Washington progressive groups will propose legislation along those lines again next year.
But those groups might want to think twice about citing Washington’s failing grade from the Center as a reason to change state law. In grading all 24 states that have the initiative process, the Center flunked half, gave out one B, one C, and the rest Ds. That’s not a curve, it’s a slope like a ski jump.
Most teachers who turned in a grade book like that would be answering questions about what was wrong with their methods, not with their class.
Seems like a more honest way to grade initiatives might be to give states that don’t allow them an F, and work up from there. Just sayin.
  

Spokane Valley legislators push bill on unmarked patrol cars

Republican legislators Matt Shea and Larry Crouse have brought forward a bill in the State Legislature to make it illegal for the Spokane County Sheriff's Office to park unmarked patrol cars on private property. This has been something pushed for by the family of Wayne Scott Creach, who was shot last August after a confrontation with a uniformed sheriff's deputy in an unmarked car. Reporter Tom Clouse has more details here.

No decision on special session

OLYMPIA — After nearly two hours behind closed doors, legislative leaders and Gov. Chris Gregoire broke their huddle over budget problems but emerged with no consensus on a special session to close at least some of a gap of $1.1 billion projected for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The only agreement seemed to be that the meeting was “productive.”

“We’re all moving in the right direction,” Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the Senate Republicans’ budget expert, said. But there’s no specific time table for making decisions, although his preference is “sooner rather than later.”

Democrats said they needed more time to get consensus on possible cuts. Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said a short session that could cut “hundreds of millions” out of the budget only makes sense if they could reach an agreement. But he won’t know if that agreement is possible for his caucus until next week, when legislators are gathering for interim committee meetings.

Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said House Democrats are also discussing different ideas for cuts.

Some of the big ticket items on lists proposed by Gregoire and Senate Republicans include the state’s Disability Lifeline program and the Basic Health Program. Scaling back or eliminating those programs could be difficult in a special session that lasts only a couple days, as Gregoire wants. And there are questions whether such major changes should be made by outgoing legislators in a lame-duck session, or the new crop of legislators elected in November, who take office next month.

But whether the cuts are made this month, or after the new Legislature meets in January, the cuts could affect to affect public schools, state colleges, services for seniors, the disabled and workers who don’t have health care benefits at their job and rely on the state for the Basic Health plan, Murray said.

“What programs I can’t answer until I talk to our members,” he said.

Because of falling revenue projections over the last three months, the state faces a gap of about $1.1 billion between the cost of programs and salaries it has on the books and the revenue it can expect to take in between now and the end of June. Gregoire ordered a 6.3 percent across-the-board reduction in October in most departments and programs not protected by the state constitution, but last month’s revenue projection suggests that’s not enough and the state needs to cut more, either this month in a special session or at the beginning of the new session before tackling a budget for 2011-13 in which revenue projections are also down.

Another meeting between Gregoire and legislative leaders is scheduled for Thursday, with more possible on Friday and Saturday.

 

Lawmakers at work

For those who care about these things, the Website WashingtonVotes.org has posted its account of missed votes from this year’s regular and special sessions of the Legislature. It’s a valuable site if you like to keep track of legislative activity. The lawmaker who missed the most votes was Spokane Valley Sen. Bob McCaslin, who was hospitalized and underwent heart surgery during the session. His 491 missed votes were easily at the top of the pack.  No. 2, at 163,  was Rep. Chris Hurst, and Enumclaw Democrat, whose wife underwent brain surgery followed by a difficult recovery.  The five senators and six House members with the most missed votes were given a chance to explain, and most of them said it was personal or family health issues that  took them from Olympia when there was work to do. But Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham, cited merely “personal reasons” (well, yeah) and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said he needed a family weekend.  My nomination for least justifiable, though, is Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, who missed 78 votes mainly because she is going to law school at night.

Fees going up for students, most businesses, and yes, Christmas tree growers…

From my weekly print column

The state budget, slated to be signed into law early next week, includes no new state tax increases. Lawmakers were unable to get a two-thirds vote, even a for a 25-cent increase on your phone bill to pay for better emergency-call-handling.

Fees, however, are a different thing. State law doesn’t require a two-thirds vote for those. And up they went.

Lawmakers approved increases in 48 different fees, totaling $87 million this year and $186 million next year.

Who will pay more? Lots of people. Electricians and plumbers will pay more for their licenses, as will doctors, dentists and Christmas-tree growers. So will most businesses, nurseries, Realtors, funeral homes and architects.

The vast majority of the increases, however, involve higher education. These include tens of millions of dollars in higher tuition, operating fees and a long list of other college-related charges: student and activities fees, a building fee, and lab and class fees.

The Seattle Times has posted a list of the fee increases in the budget this year. Click here.

Looks like an all-cuts budget in Wash.

Income tax plan dies. Looks like the sales-tax plan is dead, too. What will be cut? Read on.

All cuts, no new revenue. Thoughts?

 

 

The popular thing to do

A brief news item out of Olympia this morning reports that the governor is about to get a measure by which Washington state would join the states pushing for a popular vote in presidential elections.

Only four other states have signed on so far, but the idea is that once states representing 270 electoral votes  have joined the compact, they would begin alloting all their votes in the Electoral College — enough to elect a president — to whichever candidate won the national popular vote.  Advocates of this national movement say only about a third of the states are truly competitive in presidential elections, meaning the others get minimal campaign attention.

Backers cite a 2008 poll that showed 77 percent of Washington state voters like the idea. Support was 77 percent among independents, 85 percent among Democrats and 68 percent among Republicans.

More information is available at nationalpopularvote.com.

This issue has escaped much attention so far, but if Gov. Gregoire signs Senate Bill 5599, the number of electoral votes committed to this plan will still be only 61. If the tally gets closer to the magic 270, the clamor is going to pick up.

 

A closer look at the budget…

Lawmakers on Friday released the details of their proposed two-year operating budget and a quick scan of the 515-page document suggests that they did, in fact, use scalpels instead of hatchets. In addition to the major changes for schools, colleges, social services and health care, lawmakers ended up trimming spending on things like the governor’s bodyguards, classes on robots, and the flower plantings around the state capitol.

“No one was spared the pain,” said House budget writer Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham. The bodyguard budget was reduced by $190,000. The flowers were cut $42,000. And the robot class will be ended, saving $300,000.

Gone also is a “teak surfing” awareness program to tell people that it’s foolish to hang onto the back of a speeding motorboat. It will be replaced by a sticker warning would-be teak surfers about carbon monoxide.

Some things were added. Lawmakers set aside $642,000, for example, to open the Eastern Washington Veterans’ Cemetery on Memorial Day 2010.

Here’s a look at where some of the chips fell. Except where noted, the numbers are compared to the previous state budget. Follow the link below for a breakdown for K-12 schools, Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, health care, law enforcement, community colleges and other things.

Senate, House pass first round of cuts…belt-tightening metaphor now extended to trousers…

The state Senate and House this morning each approved spending cuts this morning, in the first of what will be several whacks at state spending.

“For those that say you want to cut more, just sit in your seats,” said House budget writer Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham. “You’ll have a chance.”

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, clearly responding to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s criticism of lawmakers’ budget-cutting pace earlier in the week, said that no Washington legislature has ever approved budget reductions this early in a legislative session.

Brown also said lawmakers were proud to preserve a state plan to allow families living on up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($63,600 for a family of 4) to buy into the state’s health insurance plan for kids.

“The sacred cow here is kids’ health,” she said in a press release. “We are keeping a commitment.”

In the House, Rep. Gary Alexander said that the bill there is a first step in state belt-tightening. But he warned that “we’re going to have to go many, many, many notches further.”

Pushing the metaphor further, Alexander suggested that lawmakers might, in fact, have to “take our pants off and go back and purchase a pair that are about three sizes smaller.”

Tough words yesterday from House lawmakers re: the state budget mess…

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There was some blunt talk yesterday from members of a House committee, as officials from the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture tried to argue against deep budget cuts that they say will backfire by hurting local fundraising.

In this clip, Reps. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, and Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, respond that things are bad — much worse than expected — and that saying that cuts will be hard “is falling on our deaf ears,” as Darneille put it.

Unemployment checks: adding $45 a week is on fast track through the capitol…

With unemployment levels nationwide at the highest rates since 1992, Washington’s House of Representatives on Friday voted to temporarily boost benefits for jobless workers by $45 a week.

“An extra 45 bucks can mean a meal’s on the table for the kids,” said Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla.

The House overwhelmingly approved the plan, 91 to 2. All local lawmakers voted for it, except Rep. John Driscoll, one of four House members excused from the Friday session.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she expects the Senate to approve the same plan next week. Gov. Gregoire is expected to quickly sign it into law.

“Our understanding is that if we’re able to get this to the governor’s desk by Feb. 16th, that the benefit increase could start in May for unemployed workers,” Brown said. It would last through Jan. 3, 2010.

National unemployment stands at 7.6 percent, up nearly half a percent from last month. Washington’s jobless rate last month was 7.1 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Spokane, it was 7.4 percent.

“Behind all these numbers are real people, and they need help,” Chopp, D-Seattle, told reporters Friday at the capitol.

Current unemployment insurance benefits in Washington range from $129 a week to $541. The state pays those benefits for up to 26 weeks; federal emergency aid can extend payments for up 

Fewer eyes and ears

TWN, the journal of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, reports in its current issue that the number of print and broadcast journalists covering the Washington Legislature full time has dropped by about 70 percent.

This over a 15-year period when the state’s population has increased by 25 percent.

It’s another sign of the cost-cutting that’s going on throughout the news industry.

Who cares? Harvard’s Alex Jones apparently does.  He’s the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and he put it this way in the TWN account:  “When reporters leave the state Capitol, the mice play.”

The Spokesman-Review is lucky in this respect.  We’re represented by top-drawer reporters in both Olympia (Rich Roesler) and Boise (Betsy Russell).  You can follow their reporting in the pages of the paper and on their blogs, Eye on Olympia (spokesman.com/blogs/olympia) and Eye on Boise (spokesman.com/blogs/boise).

But what about this trend?  Do you share Alex Jones’ anxiety?

Lisa Brown: a moral responsibility to head off cuts to kids…

In the hubbub around Gov. Gregoire’s budget proposal today, one of the dissenters was from a lawmaker close to Gregoire: Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.

Brown was unhappy that Gregoire’s budget assumes about $1 billion from the feds, calling the assumption a “glaring flaw” that the budget juggling look easier than it actually will be.

Brown said that while she, too, is hopeful that Congress and the Obama administration will help states, she doesn’t feel comfortable building that hope into a budget.

Gregoire said the assumption is based on her conversations with Obama, and that some additional federal money has already started coming to the state. If anything, Gregoire said, the $1 billion is probably underestimating the federal help.

Brown is especially focused on trying to preserve the social safety net. In a blog post recently, she talked about meeting with Spokane-area children’s advocates over breakfast recently. Among them: foster parents, social workers, nurses and teachers.

“Their concerns about the budget gap underscore a central truth about state government,” Brown wrote. “No matter how you add it up, state programs that serve children make up significantly more than half the state budget.”

Protecting those kids, she said, isn’t just an economic or political problem, it’s a moral one.