Friday, June 11, 2010

Rep. Van De Wege declared honorary Fire Chief for 2010

When he’s not representing the people of Washington’s 24th Legislative District here in Olympia, Rep. Kevin Van De Wege (Sequim) can often be found working a shift at the Blyn Fire Station in Clallam County. As a professional firefighter and paramedic, Rep. Van De Wege deals with public safety on a daily basis. And when it comes to fire-related issues, he shares his insight with House colleagues about how to keep people and property safe.

His efforts were recently recognized by the Washington Fire Chiefs Association, which honored Rep. Van De Wege at a banquet in Spokane and named him “honorary Fire Chief for 2010.” They singled out his support for “fire-related issues” and his work to help pass legislation “benefiting citizens and the public safety community.”

“It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized by my fellow firefighters, for whom I have the highest respect,” Rep. Van De Wege said. “Fire safety is an important part of public safety, and it’s also an important piece of the state budget picture. We spend millions of dollars fighting wildfires, many of which could be prevented. I’m going to continue to push for safety measures that save lives, property, and taxpayer dollars.”

In the 2010 Legislative Session, Rep. Van De Wege was among several legislators who tried to pass a wildfire safety bill that would have mandated stricter fire-prevention codes in new construction and remodeling. Several Washington counties have already voluntarily adopted these codes. However, the bill was stymied when House Republicans opposed it during floor debate.

“It’s my hope that a wildfire safety bill will be taken up in the next legislative session. There was a lot of misinformation about the bill this year, and it failed when it should instead have passed easily. Saving lives and money is something I think everybody can get behind,” Van De Wege added.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rep. Ericks nominated for U.S. Marshal position

Rep. Mark Ericks’ (Snohomish) law enforcement career spanned over thirty years before he came to the Washington State House of Representatives in 2005. But a return to law enforcement appears imminent now that President Barack Obama has nominated Rep. Ericks to be a U.S. Marshal for Western Washington. The nomination was announced yesterday. He will now have to be confirmed to the post by the U.S. Senate.

A life-long Washingtonian, Rep. Ericks is a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and a former Bothell Chief of Police. Some of the highlights of his law enforcement career include arresting Carl Harp – the notorious “Bellevue Sniper” – in 1973, which was the first freeway sniper case in the U.S. The story was turned into a made-for-TV movie. He also led a team that solved the “George Russell” serial murder case in 1990, which ended up being the subject of a Discovery Channel special.

Here in the House, Rep. Ericks is known as the vice-chair of the Ways & Means Committee, and an often outspoken champion of working families and small businesses. His colleagues honored him with a floor resolution as the 2010 Session was drawing to a close, as he is one of several retiring House members.

With a Senate confirmation in his future, we bet Rep. Ericks retirement will be anything but dull. Although he will be missed here in the House, Washington will be fortunate to have someone with his experience as the U.S. Marshal for our region.

State, local budgets to take hits because of … Canada?

Canadian visitors shopping for Washington souvenirs will soon find them costing less as of July 1. In fact, nearly every retail item will be cheaper for them.

Our northern neighbor British Columbia (and also Ontario) is set to change methods of taxing, and in doing so has made residents eligible for sales-tax exemptions when visiting Washington state. The provinces are ditching their provincial sales tax in favor of a harmonized value-added tax, in conjunction with the Canadian federal government.

Washington state law allows tax exemptions for residents of states and provinces where the sales tax rate is three percent or less. Since the new Canadian taxing structure isn’t technically a sales tax anymore, BC will join our southern neighbors in Oregon as being tax-exempt here.

This could be a boon for northern Washington retailers that might see an influx of Canadian shoppers, but it will certainly hamper the budgets of local governments and the state. Officials learned of this news on Tuesday afternoon, just a few weeks before the new tax is set to take effect, catching them by surprise. The City of Bellingham, for example, could see anywhere from a $400,000 to $1 million budget hit each year. Canadian visitors will continue using local infrastructure but their tax revenue will now be gone, essentially forcing local jurisdictions to do more with less. The impact to the state's revenue is unclear at this point.

For more, check out coverage on both sides of the border, at the Bellingham Herald and Vancouver Sun. See Bellingham Rep. Kelli Linville’s thoughts on the matter here. You might also recall efforts last year to end the out-of-state tax exemption—more on that here.

(Photo by Jessica Rabbit @ flickr)

New law protects homeless encampments on church properties

After witnessing the City of Lacey attempt to restrict a local church from allowing a homeless encampment on their property, State Rep. Brendan Williams championed a new law protecting the rights of religious organizations to do exactly that.

Advocates for the homeless and church officials joined Brendan at the public hearing for his bill, SHB 1956. In the end, Brendan was pleased a majority of his colleagues in the House and Senate agreed. The new law goes into effect today, making it clear that cities and counties cannot impose unreasonable limitations upon such housing.

Brendan sums it up best: “Our troubled economy and a mortgage crisis created by Wall Street banks have placed too many Washington families on our streets. Government should not interfere in the work of churches to serve those in need – especially not in these times.”

L&I opens Chuck Norris style can o' Whoop-A$$ on Underground Economy

Amongst several new laws going into effect today is one giving the state Department of Labor & Industries the ability to pursue subpoenas for “purposes of agency investigations of underground economy activity.”

The new law sponsored by Reps. Steve Conway, Maralyn Chase, Zack Hudgins, Jim Moeller, and Geoff Simpson gives some teeth to the arm of the agency that’s keeping workplaces safe, and ensuring every business in Washington is playing by the same rules.

In related news, L&I just announced a pretty fascinating new blog called Nailed, written by Carl Hammersburg, the Fraud Prevention and Compliance Manager at the agency.

So that makes Carl the Chuck Norris of L&I. Because the videos on Nailed are just like watching Walker, Texas Ranger except with more corporate crime and fewer slow-motion roundhouse kicks.
Here’s Carl on Nailed:
“People tend to think fraud only involves workers cheating the workers’ comp system, but it’s much more than that. Millions of dollars are lost when employers, medical providers and contractors commit fraud. The blog will show how my staff is working to fight fraud and also how we bring cheaters into compliance. I also hope Nailed will attract attention to workers’ comp fraud and encourage more people to tip us off to fraudulent activities.”
In other words, cracking down on the few bad apples helps the businesses playing by the rules by keeping L&I costs down, and most importantly, keeps workers and consumers safe.

And that, my friends, is Chuck Norris (and Conway, Chase, Hudgins, Moeller, and Simpson) approved.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hang up and drive starts Thursday

Every day, you see them: drivers yakking on their cell phone -- or typing out a text message -- as they weave all over the road or blow through a stop sign.

Starting on Thursday, those drivers will start getting pulled over by police and handed $124 tickets.

Common sense says it's dangerous to have one hand on the wheel and one hand on your cell phone. Research backs that up: here in Washington state, hundreds of people are maimed or killed, every year, because people were using cell phones while driving.

The numbers don't lie: in 2007, drivers using cell phones caused 481 crashes that caused injuries or deaths.

A driver talking on a cell is as distracted and impaired as a drunk with a .08 blood-alcohol level. A person texting while driving is as dangerous on the roads as somebody who blows a 1.6 blood-alcohol level.

(For the policy wonks out there, here's your numbers fix from the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.)

The state Legislature responded to this new trend with a law making it a secondary offense to drive while using a cell phone without a hands-free device.

That law did help: in 2008, drivers on cell phones caused 334 crashes resulting in injuries or deaths.

In the 2010 session, lawmakers made that law stronger. Now it's a primary offense, which means state troopers and police don't have to wait for a driver with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the phone to start speeding or blowing through stop signs before pulling them over.

For teenagers -- who are much more likely to get hurt or killed the first few years they're on the road, as they're still learning to drive -- the penalties are more severe. Teenagers aren't allowed to use cell phones at all, hands-free or not, except in emergencies.

Also, every new teenager driver has an intermediate drivers license their first six months, which means they can't have passengers except immediate family or drive between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. If they get cited under this new law, they don't graduate beyond an intermediate license until they turn 18.

(Photo by Brian A. Sayrs)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Federal stimulus = 2 million hours of work, $80 million in pay in Washington

Is the stimulus working? It’s a question commonly asked of President Obama’s economic recovery plan.

The numbers in Washington state are pretty compelling—in fact we’ve recently passed some important milestones in transportation.

WSDOT reports that the 2,000,000-employment-hours mark was crossed in the last couple of weeks, and 115 local and state projects are now operationally complete. Along with big safety improvements and maintenance work for the state’s infrastructure, the Recovery Act is generating much-needed economic activity and jobs for construction companies. The cumulative payroll for workers has reached $79.6 million, helping to support employees and their families during this rough economy. Read more about the Recovery Act-related transportation projects at WSDOT’s newsletter.

Speaking of the Recovery Act, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just reported the stimulus has been a bigger success than anticipated on the national level. In the first three months of this year, the CBO estimates the Act’s policies “increased the number of people employed by between 1.2 million and 2.8 million” and raised real GDP by between 1.7 percent and 4.2 percent. The stimulus’ effects should continue through this year and into 2011 before dropping off in 2012, the CBO projects. More information on the CBO’s blog here.

Photo (courtesy of WSDOT): I-90 at Moses Lake repaving project. Supported 50 jobs.