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Special session makes the Legislature seem like it’s in reruns

UPDATED: Tue., May 2, 2017

OLYMPIA – Viewers of TVW could be forgiven Tuesday if they thought the state’s cable television station had gone into summer reruns, showing old debates they’d already watched.

The Legislature was live, but lawmakers were repeating arguments and votes on a wide variety of bills with topics as varied as drilling water wells, protecting internet privacy, mitigating court fines and lowering Seattle’s controversial license tab fees.

On the first day that most lawmakers spent in Olympia since the special session began on April 24, the House and Senate both spent time approving bills they already passed, sometimes by large majorities, but the other chamber didn’t. That work was necessitated by a legislative rule that requires all bills that haven’t passed both houses in the same form in the regular session to be sent back to the chamber where they were introduced, and start the process over in a special session.

Among the bills in the House again was one that would keep internet service providers from selling data about their customers unless those customers specifically agree to such sales. That bill originally passed the House in early April but didn’t get a vote in the Senate. It passed the House again Tuesday, with a bipartisan 79-13 vote.

The House also gave a second approval to a bill that would give courts more discretion on imposing fines, restitution and other “legal financial obligations” on indigent defendants. It also would rearrange priorities for who receives those payments, requiring victims be fully compensated first.

The Senate again passed a bill that would allow families wishing to build homes in rural areas to drill wells for domestic use. It’s a response to an October ruling by the state Supreme Court, commonly known as the Hirst decision, that has prompted many counties to stop issuing new well permits.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R- Moses Lake, called it a simple bill that will allow landowners to drill domestic wells without taking away senior water rights.

“It is not going to fix all the problems with water laws,” she said.

Warnick’s bill passed the Senate early in the regular session but stalled in the House, where Democrats have two competing proposals to address the Hirst decision. It passed Tuesday on a 28-18 vote and was sent to the House again.

The Senate spent much of its time on the floor Tuesday arguing over a solution to the high fees being imposed by Sound Transit for the third phase of its light rail system. The transit system instituted a motor vehicle excise tax that has hiked tab fees in parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, in some cases by hundreds of dollars.

On a 25-20 vote, the Senate sent to the House a bill that would require they use a different formula for calculating that tax, based on the Kelley Blue Book value rather than a percentage of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. An amendment to the bill also would cut the transit system’s authority from $54 billion to $50 billion and avoid requiring them to refund some bonds.

On a 45-0 vote, the Senate also passed a bill that would remove the requirement for the state’s high school seniors to pass a biology assessment test. If it passes the House, it would apply to this year’s seniors, and each graduating class through 2021, when a better assessment test is expected to be available.

Some senators said the state should take similar action on math and English assessment tests that could keep students who have met all other graduation requirements from getting their diplomas.

While all of these bills could become law if agreement can be reached by both parties in both chambers, the special session was called primarily to reach a compromise on the state’s 2017-19 operating budget. Each chamber has passed a budget, but the two plans disagree on how much would be spent, and what taxes would be raised to pay for it.

Formal negotiations on the budget have not yet begun, and a comment at a committee hearing suggested an agreement could be far off.

In objecting to a new bill on prison sentencing for some felonies, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said he didn’t disagree with the substance as much as the fact that it was being rushed through the Law and Justice Committee with the hearing and the vote on the same day.

There was no reason for such haste, Pedersen argued: “We’re likely to be around for the next couple of months.”

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