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Sue Lani Madsen: Road not taken – what didn’t pass in 2019

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Once again, the Washington Legislature adjourned without agreeing to pay its fair share of election costs.

Even tiny rural cemetery districts pay a fee per voter to elect an unopposed commissioner to mow the lawn. All 39 county auditors and elections directors supported the Fair Share Election Funding Bill (HB 1291/SB5073). But it died at the end of the 2019 legislative session.

“Could have been worse, but still not a good session for local government. They have no love for us,” Lincoln County Commissioner Scott Hutsell said.

According to Hutsell, the Legislature also cut local solid waste funds again, hit county budgets when it enacted the new graduated real estate excise tax, swept the revolving loan fund used for infrastructure loans, and resisted pleas for indigent defense funds.

So while the Legislature was meeting behind closed doors to plan new taxes, what other legislative priorities became the road not taken?

Rep. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) said he appreciated the question since “people don’t often cover the bills that get killed,” although his SB 5299 was an exception. Making it easier to pull persistent DUI offenders off the road before they injure or kill someone had wide support and earned front-page coverage when it died. According to Padden, even if the cautiously high fiscal note was accurate, it was a miniscule 0.00076% of the total state budget.

“Some folks just believe no matter how many DUIs, drunk drivers shouldn’t go to prison,” Padden said.

HB 1188, which would have allowed formation of voluntary rangeland fire protection associations, also had bipartisan support. Despite backing from an unusual coalition of Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, the Washington State Farm Bureau, Conservation Northwest, the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and the Audubon Society, all it took was opposition from one union to kill it in committee, according to Rep. Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake).

“The firefighters union people really pushed back,” Dent said. “Originally, they were in favor, but I don’t know what happened to them. A little frustrating, but they say it takes three or four years to get good legislation through, and that was only year two.”

The bill will be back.

Bipartisan support didn’t save HB 1159/SB 5248 either. Grocers and retailers lobbied for a one-sentence change to the definition of theft. It would allow confronting shoplifters inside the store instead of having to chase them down in the parking lot. Simplicity didn’t help. It died in committee as other priorities crowded out a simple small business concern.

Agriculture had concerns too.

“We are disappointed the Legislature didn’t fully fund the Soil Health Initiative,” said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “We believe the research and potential knowledge from this effort would benefit not only farmers but everybody who lives in this state.”

The Legislature also cut $750,000 out of the $1 million recommended by its own pesticide safety work group. It would have expanded training for agricultural workers on the proper use and disposal of pesticides.

Coincidentally, the Democratic majority appropriated $750,000 to study the impact of Snake River dam removal. Talking about dam removal scores more partisan points than practical training.

There were other missed opportunities: SB 5947 would have established a modest sustainable farms and fields grant program to incentivize and test moving toward regenerative agriculture. Changes in common agricultural practices could shift the largest economic driver in the state from a net emitter of CO2 to a carbon storage sponge. Healthy soils store carbon for decades.

Even the most well-designed and operated “net zero” buildings can only delay – but can’t reverse – the atmospheric carbon equation. It wasn’t a perfect bill, but it had bipartisan support and was a start at trying new directions. It cost practically nothing, defined as less than studying Snake River dam removal. but was shot down in committee.

Sometimes a bill makes it to the governor’s desk and dies with a veto. This year, Governor Jay Inslee vetoed Rep. Dent’s bill alleviating concerns from child care providers over the timeline for new training. Then in an unusual move, he signed an executive directive with substantially the same language. Dent is less concerned about how it got done; he’s just glad it got done. Whatever works.

We’ll have to wait until 2020 to see what else gets a second life.