Will several delayed Tri-City construction projects finally start up? Will the Washington Legislature reach a compromise on permits for digging wells in rural areas?
The issues are among several of interest to Mid-Columbia residents.
The 60-day state legislative session began Jan. 8.
The ongoing impasse between Democrats and Republicans on the so-called Hirst ruling in 2016 blocks landowners from digging new wells without proving they won’t threaten nearby stream levels needed for fish.
In coming up with a law to deal with the ruling, legislative Republicans want to loosen up Supreme Court’s restrictions more than the Legislature’s Democrats want to. As part of that impasse, Republicans refused in 2017 to pass a $4 billion capital budget — including state funding for Mid-Columbia projects — until they get what they want on the Hirst fix-it bill. This has stalled construction projects statewide.
In the Mid-Columbia, this include delays to upgrading the intersection of Highway 395 and Ridgeline Drive serving south Kennewick, water supply projects in the Yakima and Columbia river basins, design work for a 40,000-square-foot center for an Army infantry Stryker company in the Horn Rapids area, and on expansion and fix-it work at Richland’s Jefferson Elementary School.
Other delays include building labs, classrooms and offices in the middle of the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus; constructing a 9,000-square-foot new building to hold classrooms, exhibits and offices for student outreach at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO; upgrades to the city of Kennewick’s water-meter-reading system from using workers walking from home to home to transmitting all the information electronically; and building a new North Franklin School District bus center.
“Families are not working today because the Legislature has failed to pass a capital budget … These projects have been unnecessarily delayed,” said Gov. Jay Inslee.
Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, a negotiator on resolving this deadlock, is cautiously optimistic that a compromise will be reached in January. The Democrats’ last offer would set up local committees in each region of the state consisting of people from all the appropriate special interests, from tribes to local government to state agencies, to review and rule on rural well-digging applications, with a process set up to appeal those decisions.
A major change in the Legislature from the 2017 session is that Democrats have control of the Senate and House. Democrats have controlled the House for more than a decade. However, the GOP dominated the Senate since 2013 until Republicans lost a seat in the northeastern Seattle suburbs last November, giving Democrats a 25-24 edge of the Senate
But Republicans have significant clout on this one matter because 60 percent each of the House and Senate must approve the $4 billion in bonds to finance the projects. Democrats need GOP help to reach that 60 percent mark within each chamber.
Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, plus Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland, Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, Terry Nealy, R-Dayton, and Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, said they needed to study any actual compromise before voicing an opinion on it.
“My biggest concern has always been economic development, and eventually we’ve got to get it right,” Haler said.
Brown added: “I hope we resolve this as soon as possible.”
Nealy said: “I’m not really positive we’ll reach a conclusion until later on. It’s a complex matter to determine on each basis. It’s going to take time.”
Here are some other issues the Legislature will tackle this session:
As of Jan. 3, Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, and Haler were the only Mid-Columbia legislators to pre-file bills for the 2018 session.
Walsh’s bill is a big one. She and several Democratic senators introduced a bill to repeal the death penalty in Washington for first-degree murder and replace it with life without parole.
When they were in the House in 2015, Walsh and Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, introduced the same bill to start public discussions on repealing the state’ s death penalty. That 2015 bills died in a Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee. At that time, committee chairwoman Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the public was not ready to repeal the death penalty. Also in 2015, the GOP controlled the Senate and would have likely killed the bill.
In a 2015 committee hearing, testimony overwhelmingly favored repealing the death penalty. Repeal arguments were that imposing the death penalty is prohibitively expensive, and there is a chance of erroneously sending an innocent person to death row. At least nine people are currently on Washington’s death row. In 2014, Inslee declared a moratorium on executions that will last until he leaves office.
Haler has pre-filed two bills to tweak how voters approve public facilities district projects and wastewater treatment operators’ qualifications.
He also plans to revive his 2017 bill to aid Hanford workers in declaring cancers, beryllium diseases and neurological diseases as occupational diseases in getting industrial insurance coverage. His stalled bill would add heart and respiratory ailments to that list if they occur within three days of being exposed to toxic fumes.
That bill easily passed the House in 2016, but died in a Republican-controlled Senate Commerce, Labor & Sports Committee. Haler said the committee’s new Democratic chairwoman Karen Keiser of Kent is more friendly to this bill and is optimistic about its chances this session.
Brown said she wants to try to boost the presence of small modular reactors and hydropower as part of renewable or alternative power sources covered by 2006’s Initiative 937, which requires Washington’s utilities to use renewable power sources — excluding hydropower — for 15 percent of their electricity by 2020. She also wants to revive a stalled bill to provide tax deferrals on building two new manufacturing facilities each year, one on each side of the Cascades.
She also wants to introduce a bill to use money from increased assessed values in targeted business districts to help pay off local government bonds for improvements in those areas. Brown also is working on an anti-human-trafficking bill of which the details are still up in the air. Plus, she wants to streamline access to youth-suicide-prevention services.
Klippert plans to introduce several bills. These include one to allow local jurisdictions to prohibit the growth and sales of marijuana within their boundaries, and tightening zoning restrictions on allowing pot operations near preschools.
He wants to make residential burglary a crime against a person. Klippert also wants to have pornography and strip clubs declared as public health hazards. And he wants to loosen mental health professionals’ restrictions on putting a potentially dangerous person into a 72-hour psychiatric hold.
As of Jan. 1, Nealy and Jenkin did not have specific bills in mind to introduce. Jenkin said he would have introduced the public facilities district bill if Haler had not already done so.
Last month, Inslee unveiled his proposal to create a tax on carbon emissions to pay for the final one-year shortage of $1 billion needed to deal with a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that the state needs more teachers in grades K-3 and they need to be paid more competitive salaries.
The state reserve funds will pay for that one-time need for an extra $1 billion in 2018, and the first $1 billion from a proposed carbon tax would replace that money.
“It’s the final step to take care of this constitutional obligation,” Inslee said.
Emissions generated by transportation fuels and power plants would initially be taxed at $20 a ton, starting July 1, 2019. The tax rate would increase annually by 3.5 percent, plus inflation.
The tax would generate an estimated $1.5 billion in new revenue over the first two years and an estimated $3.3 billion over the next four years.
Since Republicans controlled Washington’s Senate from 2013 to November 2017, they have stopped or helped stop five Inslee legislative proposals to control carbon emissions. Inslee cited carbon emissions leading to global warming, which leads to less and more erratic water flowing from the mountain snowpacks to farmlands, increasing risks of wildfires, and heating Washington’s shoreline waters enough to threaten the shellfish industry. Republicans have cited increased costs on businesses to deal with carbon emissions.
In 2015, Inslee used his executive powers to enforce a 2008 state law that says polluting industries must gradually trim their carbon emissions. Business interests are challenging Inslee’s 2015 decision in court. It puts gradually decreasing caps on carbon emissions with fines for non-compliance.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, took an opening shot at Inslee’s new carbon tax proposal. “According to the Institute for Energy Research (a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank), carbon taxes reduce economic growth and achieve no real environmental improvement. And, it would force companies who employ workers around the state to move overseas, costing many Washington families their jobs,” Schoesler said.
The Association of Washington Business said the governor’s proposed carbon tax would mean higher costs for energy to heat homes, fuel to drive to work and higher prices for natural gas that has helped fuel industries while lowering emissions. “We should all be sensitive that the governor’s carbon tax would also hit middle-class families especially hard because manufacturing and trade sectors, which support good-paying, family wage jobs, could be impacted,” said Kris Johnson, AWB president, in a statement.
Sen. Ray Palumbo, D-Maltby, a lead on the carbon tax issue, said if a carbon tax stalls in the upcoming session, it will likely be a public ballot issue next November. Palumbo said a law crafted by the Legislature is more thorough and precise than a “blunt force” ballot initiative.
Another recent state Supreme Court ruling requires an overhaul to the state’s fish culverts to the tune of $1.1 billion to $2.1 billion. The proposed carbon tax could be applied to tackling that expensive court mandate.
In the past, House Democrats—the longtime majority caucus in that chamber — haven’t been able to guarantee the 50 votes within their own caucus needed to pass any carbon tax proposal on the full House floor. Even though Democrats now control both the House (50-48) and Senate (25-24), all it would take is for one Democrat to break ranks in either chamber to put a carbon tax bill into jeopardy.
Inslee does not have a Plan B to fund the final $1 billion needed for education in 2018 if a carbon tax bill fails. “We don’t go into the new year planning for failure,” Inslee said.
Brown, Klippert, Jenkin, Haler and Nealy all oppose Inslee’s proposed carbon tax. “A carbon tax makes it more difficult for business to make a go of it. … It’s a tax grab,” Jenkin said.
Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, expects to introduce a bill to improve internet speeds and bandwidth in rural Washington. As January began, she was still working on her proposed bill’s details.
The Federal Communications Commission voted to eliminate net neutrality, an Obama administration rule that required internet providers to treat all users the same. Without net neutrality, providers can arbitrarily block services to specific users and arbitrarily provide different internet speeds to different users. Without net neutrality, providers would be able to charge users in the same region different prices for the same services.
Reps. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and Smith have introduced a bill to make Washington the first state in the nation to have in-state net neutrality despite the feds revoking it. If a provider blocks a Washington customer from using any internet sites or deliberately slows down internet speeds for some users, the state would be able to file a lawsuit to stop that practice and seek punitive damages, Hansen said.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson claimed only big broadband providers have supported the FCC’s decision. He said evidence in a few states has surfaced that support for revoking net neutrality have been sent to the FCC from false names. He said at least three Washingtonians have complained about their names being used in messages to the FCC to revoke net neutrality without their knowledge or permission. Ferguson plans to file a lawsuit soon to combat the FCC’s decision.
Nealy and Haler support the bill. Klippert is more cautious, but does not like the idea of internet providers blocking customers. Brown and Jenkin had not read Hansen’s legislation, and declined to give an opinion until they did so.
Congress has failed so far to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, commonly called CHIP. That program officially expired Sept. 30 due to congressional inaction. It has provided almost $14 billion annually since 1997 for health insurance coverage for nine million uninsured children whose families don’t make enough to pay for private insurance while also earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid.
There is a good chance Congress will vote on whether and how to renew the CHIP program while Washington’s Legislature is in session. The problem is no one knows whether Congress will renew all of the program or just parts of it — meaning Washington has no idea how much extra money it will have to find to counter any cuts in CHIP, said David Shumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management.
Last session, Hansen introduced a bipartisan bill that would forbid Internet Service Providers from selling people’s personal data with their permission. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House and had enough Republican and Democratic support to easily pass in the Senate. But the Senate Republican leadership refused to send the bill to a floor vote. With Democrats winning a special November Senate election in the suburbs northeast of Seattle, that party now controls the Senate.
Hansen said he plans to resurrect his bill and try to get it quickly through the Legislature.
Haler supports the bill. Jenkin and Nealy thought it was rushed through too fast toward the end of the 2017 session without adequate study. Brown and Klippert did not have an opinion on it because they had not read it as of Jan. 3.
The Reproductive Parity Act would require health insurance plans that cover maternity care to cover abortions as well. From 2013-15, Hobbs and Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, have introduced this bill in each chamber each year. Cody’s bill kept passing on a roughly party-line split. Both would then see their bills die in the Senate Health Care committee each year. With Democrats now controlling committee chairs in the Senate, Hobbs said he plans to resurrect the bill this session.
Last year, Oregon became the first and only state to mandate abortion coverage. An abortion’s basic costs are roughly $600 to $650, which does not count traveling and hotel expenses, according to several women’s health organizations. Sometimes women seeking an abortion must travel to another city or even another state.
Washington’s abortion rate in 2015 was 12.5 percent, compared to 25.7 percent in 1991, according to the Washington Department of Health.
Benton County had 9.8 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2015, down from 11.2 abortions per 1,000 in 2011, according to state health department figures. In Franklin County, that ratio dropped from 12.5 per 1,000 in 2011, to 8.3 per 1,000 in 2015, which is the latest year that the data is available.
Klippert and Nealy oppose the proposed bill. Brown, Haler and Jenkin had no opinion on it, wanting to read the legislation first.
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