Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another round of bills safely out of the House

House Democrats continued their work to improve public safety and the criminal justice system on Saturday night by passing another package of reforms to protect lives and rights—including:
  • House Bill 3124 by Rep. Mary Helen Roberts to prevent children from injury and death by requiring law enforcement officers to notify child protective services when a child is in the car of a driver who is arrested for a drug- or alcohol-related driving offense. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 68 percent of all child deaths from vehicle collisions between 1997 to 2002 involved drunken driving when children were in the car.
  • House Bill 2739 by Rep. Geoff Simpson increases safety in school safety zones by doubling penalties for several traffic violations related to school crosswalks and speed zones. Half the funds collected would go to the School Zone Safety Account.
  • House Bill 1317 by Rep. Lynn Kessler protects police officers and other criminal justice employees by exempting their photographs and birth dates from public disclosure requests.
  • House Bill 2492, also by Rep. Simpson, would allow members of the Law Enforcement Officers' and Fire Fighters' Retirement System (LEOFF) Plan II to include shared leave when calculating retirement benefits. This reform would give nearly 16,000 local law enforcement officers and firefighters a shared leave right that is similar to what state employees currently enjoy.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, legislators are thinking green

House Democrats were on a roll this evening as they successfully passed more bills to boost the state’s green jobs sector.

Earlier this session, the House passed the Jobs Act, sponsored by Rep. Hans Dunshee, which funds energy-efficiency projects in schools and other public buildings and would create 38,000 jobs all over the state.

Tonight, an additional four jobs bills were given the go-ahead, all related to the renewable energy field.

HB 2420 recognizes the forest products industry as a “green” one, and expands the definition of “clean energy” to include energy derived from forest products, such as woody biomass. Sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Kenney, it is meant to ensure that Washington’s working forests and related timber jobs will continue to have a vital role to play as the economy transitions to more and more green jobs.

HB 2481, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, authorizes the state Department of Natural Resources to enter into long-term contracts with private companies to create biomass energy from state timber lands. These long-term contracts will give companies the confidence to invest in Washington, and create more stable timber-industry jobs while producing home-grown energy to lessen our reliance on imported sources of fuel.

HB 2676 and HB 2677, both sponsored by Rep. Maralyn Chase, permit utilities to loan customers money to pay for energy or water conservation projects. The savings on the customer’s utility bill can then be used to make payments on the loan. This provides an incentive for people to undertake these projects in their homes, meaning more work for the contractors who do them.

House sends out several important education bills

Lots of floor action today, including several key education-related bills.

One of the biggies is Rep. Pat Sullivan's HB 2776, a follow-up to last year’s HB 2261, the bill that laid out a ten-year plan for transforming the state’s K-12 funding system. Following several months of discussion by work groups, Sullivan pulled some of their recommendations into HB 2776 which:
  • Establishes a new prototypical school funding model that will simplify the budgeting process and increase transparency.
  • Requires a phase-in of smaller classes of 15 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade by 2017-18 school year.
  • Requires increased funding for maintenance and operation costs, costs the state currently only provides about half the funding for.
  • Implements a new pupil transportation funding method.
  • Accelerates the workgroups focused on local levy and teacher compensation issues.
The House also approved two bills aimed at boosting school districts’ ability to collect local, voter-approved funding. Most districts can use levies for no more than 24 percent of their budgets. Last year the Legislature suspended funding for I-728 and I-732, voter-approved initiatives for class size reduction and teacher cost-of-living increases. The reduced funding meant school districts were collecting less levy money.

HB 2893, also sponsored by Sullivan, and HB 2670 sponsored by State Rep. Kathy Haigh, allow school districts to calculate their levies as though that funding were still in place. HB 2893 also provides a temporary offset to the cuts made by the state last year by allowing a temporary raise in the levy lid by four percent along with increased funding for levy equalization for property-poor districts.

There's still more to come this evening. Stay tuned!

Thought For the Day

After this morning's Finance Committee hearing, during which an over-capacity crowd spoke almost entirely in favor of raising new revenue in order to rescue some government-provided assistance programs they believe vital, we here in the HDC were reminded of this quote from "The Audacity of Hope" by President Obama:
"We will have to stop pretending that all cuts in spending are equivalent, or that all tax increases are the same. Ending corporate subsidies that serve no discernible economic purpose is one thing; reducing health-care benefits to poor children is something else entirely."

Today's hot list

What better way to start your weekend than a hearing on I-960 and closing tax loopholes? The House has five hearing rooms, A-E. This hearing is supposed to take place in A, but apparently we're packing the House (literally and figuratively) with this one.

9:00 Every single hearing room Finance
Public Hearing:
ESSB 6130 - Amending provisions related to Initiative Measure No. 960.
HB 3176 - Increasing state revenues to preserve funding for education, public safety, health care, and safety net services for elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people by preventing abusive tax avoidance transactions, narrowing or eliminating certain tax preferences, and providing equitable tax treatment.

12:30 Floor

Friday, February 12, 2010

Remember when it wasn't that simple?

She may be in New Zealand now, but we bet this week's news is making former Rep. Shay Schual-Berke smile.

A tiny bit of good budget news

It's been a long time, but finally legislators have some small bits of good news to celebrate (emphasis on the words "some" and "small").

Arun Raha, the state's chief economist, is wrapping up this morning's revenue forecast meeting. Raha gives quarterly updates on how much money the state is bringing in and from what sources.

The good news? After months of declining revenue (we've collected $1.7 billion less than anticipated in April 2009), Raha says the state will bring in about $31.5 million more than expected during the remaining half of the 2009-2011 biennium. For legislators, this represents a long-awaited flattening of a year-long budget nosedive.

As Rep. Ross Hunter points out, "flat is the new up."

But there's a way to go before anyone can say we're well on our way to economic recovery. Raha says consumer confidence is still very low, the commercial real estate market is still in decline, non-residential construction is at a 30-year low, credit is tight, and the impending expiration of home buyer tax credits could throw a wrench in the housing market.

Not to mention (but we will), the Dot Foods case is costing the state $150 million. The impact of Dot Foods, then, means that instead of being up $31.5 million, we're down $118 million. If the Legislature addresses that case this session (one of the reasons Hunter says we need to suspend I-960), we could reclaim $95 million of that.

So what's the number you'll hear legislators using to describe our shortfall? $2.7 billion, no thanks to the increased caseloads legislators learned about earlier this week.

Raha's final plea to the audience: "Please buy a house. Or a strip mall!"

Today's hot list

Legislators will be back on the floor today at 10. This will likely be a late night for staff and members.

Also at 10 is the revenue forecast. Earlier this week we heard that caseload costs were up $96 million, bringing the budget hole to $2.7 billion. After this morning's report on expected revenues, legislators will have a full handle on the size of the shortfall they need to manage.

8:00 HHR C Ecology & Parks

Work Session: Off-road vehicle use: Providing opportunities while balancing impacts.

8:00 HHR A Education
Work Session:
High Stakes Assessments: Panel discussion of multiple perspectives.
School District Organization (including JLARC Study of School District Size)

10:00 Floor

10:00 John. A Cherberg Building Hearing Room 3
Economic and Revenue Forecast Council meeting

Thursday, February 11, 2010

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew counters youth violence with street outreach

In response to continued youth and gang violence statewide, Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle) focused on a preventative rather than punitive approach to the problem.

Last year, Pettigrew led an effort to secure approximately $3.7 million from the Washington auto theft prevention authority account for competitive grants to community-based organizations. Today, that money has translated into increased services for 565 at-risk youth.

Provided intervention services included individual needs assessment and support in accessing services, job searching assistance, encouraging participation in school and positive activities, and street outreach.

Aimed at helping young people who are the hardest to relate to and most difficult to reach, Pettigrew strengthened preventive measures by helping fund “foot soldiers,” which are people and organizations that directly interact with at-risk youth on the streets.

“As complicated as it might be, it all boils down to one simple formula,” Pettigrew said. “It’s about helping those young people relate to someone who will have an influence on their lives.” Pettigrew said that the secured funding was an attempt to work in collaboration with some of the more established non-profit organizations and support foot soldiers’ efforts as a way to build relationships with at-risk youth.

Pettigrew said that these services aren’t aimed at the young people typically found at traditional outreach facilities such as the Boys & Girls Club. Instead, the focus is on young people who have been in the system or come from families that have been in the system. This population often doesn’t have the support networks to prevent them from being involved in criminal activities.

“I was one of those young people,” said J’Quai Holiday, 27, and participant in the Alive and Free Program, which is a street outreach program through the Metrocenter YMCA in Seattle. “I grew up in a broken home. I’ve always wanted to do something different, but the community and the environment I was in just didn’t provide that for me so I was drawn into the types of activities that I’m fighting now. I do Alive and Free because I know that it works-it saved my life.”

Pettigrew said that he will continue advocating for at-risk youth by working to maintain strong support for prevention efforts such as street outreach programs.

Today's hot list

8:00 HHR B Agriculture & Natural Resources
Work Session and Public Hearing: Natural Resources streamlining ideas and efforts

8:30 HHR E Early Learning & Children’s Services
Work Session: Foster care and services for adolescents

9:00 HHR C Finance
Public Hearing: HB 2473 - Authorizing a local sales and use tax for parks and recreation, trails, and open space allocation.

11:00 House Floor

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

House passes another big job-creation bill

Everybody agrees that the best way out of this persistent recession is to put people back to work. Today, the House passed a bill that can move at least 10,000 construction workers off unemployment and back onto the job.

The Washington Works Housing Act of 2010 creates jobs, builds affordable homes for working families, and helps save gas and cut emissions by locating housing close to mass transit. Sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall of Des Moines, HB 2753 was approved 75-22. It will help non-profits and public agencies to purchase, build, and own real property used for affordable housing.

"It's a myth that only the lowest paid workers and the homeless are struggling to find a decent place to live," said Orwall. "When the average price of a house in Seattle is $350,000 and salaries start at $35,000 per year, how can these families possibly afford a home near their workplace? Teachers, police officers, nurses -- they are really struggling."

Also struggling is the construction industry, one of the hardest-hit segments of the economy. The Washington Works Housing Act and the JOBS Act that the House approved a couple weeks ago, are conservatively estimated to create around 50,000 construction jobs, many of them almost immediately after final approval. And each of those jobs can have a positive impact on individual communities -- after all, most of those wages aren't usually stuck in a savings account. They are spent at the local grocery store, the dentist's office, the car dealership.

Washington's budget hole is $96 million larger

It isn't terribly big news because it' s a rather small number when looking at a $2.6 billion budget hole (make that $2.7 billion now).

But the state's Caseload Forecast Council confirmed today what many legislators suspected - the recession has increased demand for services and caseloads are up.

The council's 76-page report shows an uptick in the number of children in our public schools, inmates in state prisons, people on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a cash assistance and job-finding program for the unemployed), and other programs. There are a few declines as well, including Medical Assistance for Families and nursing homes.

Though the news isn't good, it isn't, as Jim Brunner in the Seattle Times points out, "a game changer for the Legislature."

The more telling news will come on Friday when lawmakers will get the latest revenue forecast. The forecase will tell us whether revenues continue to decline (we've brought in $1.7 billion less in revenue than anticipated since April of last year), or if the most recent projections from last November are still on track.

Washington to reap rewards of nearby Olympic Games

On the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympics just a ski run away in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia, the entire Pacific Northwest stands to gain from the influx of visitors to the Games.

And thanks to some foresight and long-term strategic thinking, the Legislature began laying the groundwork to reap those rewards even before Vancouver was announced as the host city.

“The Games not only represent the truest form of peaceful sportsmanship and unity amongst the international community, but a chance to reinforce our commitment to work with our neighbors to the North in order to showcase the Pacific Northwest’s unique economic and cultural gifts to the world,” said Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Morris, who led the legislative efforts in 2003 and beyond.

In that sense, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. have already been a great success if for no other reason than strengthening our place as one of the world’s greatest and most vibrant regions, both economically and culturally.

Now let’s go win some gold!

Read more about the Legislature's plan here.

Today's hot list

It's a short list today. A few committees are meeting this morning for work sessions. Seems the only public hearing today is in Local Government & Housing on HB 2850 - concerning local conservation area financing.

Members will head to the floor at 10 to kick off a three (or four, or five, or six) day marathon of floor action. We'll post updates when something interesting happens on the floor, and you can follow along on Twitter too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Today's hot list

8:00 HHR C Finance
Public Hearing: HB 3179 - Revising local excise tax provisions for counties and cities. This is a deceptively bland title. If you're interested in how cities and counties are hoping to manage their own budget woes, this is one bill you want to pay attention to.

3:00 HHR A Ways & Means
The committee will continue working its lengthy list of bills to get out of committee today.

Tomorrow, the marathon of floor action will begin at 10. It'll be a good day to grab a veinte drip on your way in.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Who should pay for pollution – polluters or property owners?

The number one water pollution problem in Washington state is stormwater pollution.

The solution to cleaning up stormwater and keeping toxic runoff out of Puget Sound is stormwater infrastructure projects, many of which are mandated by federal law under the Clean Water Act.

But these kinds of construction projects are extremely expensive, and local governments can’t afford to pay for them. Meanwhile, time is running out on Puget Sound.

Enter the Clean Water Act of 2010, or House Bill 3181, introduced Friday and sponsored by Rep. Timm Ormsby. The bill would fund labor-intensive stormwater infrastructure projects by raising the state’s Hazardous Substance Tax from 0.7 percent to 2 percent. This puts the cleanup costs where they belong – on the polluters themselves. Otherwise, local governments would have to raise property taxes or utility rates. In a time when many homeowners are struggling to stay on top of mortgage payments and pay rising utility bills - but polluters are enjoying record-breaking profits - the Clean Water Act is a fair way to stay on track with our water cleanup efforts.

It also gives a boost to the construction industry, which is currently suffering from high unemployment. Stormwater projects put people to work in family-wage jobs while keeping our communities safer and cleaner.

The Clean Water Act would raise about $225 million a year, and for the first few years a large portion of that would go to the state’s general fund to cover core services now facing deep cuts. That would transition back to fund clean water projects as the economy – and our state budget - improve.

To tax gold bullion, or not to tax?

Rep. Ross Hunter, who has probably spent enough time pouring over our state Department of Revenue's list of tax exemptions to recite it to anyone with the time and the interest, says no.

The list is becoming popular reading material for those trying to find ways to bridge the state's $2.6 billion budget shortfall. The gold bullion exemption is a popular example of one that should end.

But, as pointed out in today's Seattle Time's story and Hunter's blog, it's not as easy a decision as you might think.

Which, needless to say, can be said for most of the money-saving and money-making ideas floating around. But for now, it appears gold bullion is one exemption that will stay on DOR's list.

This week's hot list

This week most of the action moves from committees to the floor. Fiscal committee cutoff is Tuesday and starting Wednesday, members will be on the floor starting at 10 every day.

Monday 2/8

9:00 HHR A Ways & Means
Public Hearing:
HB 2197 - Abolishing the department of social and health services and creating new departments to take over its functions.
HB 2670 - Restoring the school district levy base.
HB 2893 - Changing school levy provisions.

1:15 HHR B Transportation
Work Session: Washington State Ferries – Fuel initiatives, Chetzamoka construction update

Tuesday 2/9

Wednesday 2/10
8:00 HHR D Human Services
Work Session: Special youth intervention program

Thursday 2/11
8:00 HHR B Agriculture & Natural Resources
Work Session and Public Hearing: Natural Resources streamlining ideas and efforts

8:30 HHR E Early Learning & Children’s Services
Work Session: Foster care and services for adolescents

Friday 2/12
8:00 HHR A Education
Work Session:
High stakes assessments: Panel discussion of multiple perspectives

School district organization (including scope and objectives for JLARC study of school district size)

8:00 HHR B Commerce and Labor
Work Session: Overview of apprenticeship and update on apprenticeship utilization; update on E2SSB 5809 and discussion of other approaches for building worker retraining capacity.

8:00 HHR C Ecology & Parks
Work Session:
The Department of General Administration’s capitol campus landscaping carbon footprint: Implementation of Governor’s veto message on E2SSB 5560.

Off-road vehicle use: Providing opportunities while balancing impacts.