Friday, May 6, 2011

Rep. Ross Hunter: "Just spending less money...that’s not reform"

Publicola gained some pithy insight into how the lead House budget-writer thinks about the budget.

When asked to compare the steeper cuts in the Senate proposal against the cuts made in the House, Ways & Means Chair Ross Hunter earned his second Publicola quote-of-the-day:
Just spending less money on education and children’s health care, that’s not reform, that’s just spending less money. Spending less money on kid’s health care and not giving a hand up to people that need help, that’s not why I’m here. In fact, that’s the opposite of why I’m here.
Read the rest here. Hunter has also written about the budget on his personal blog here.

To read this blog post in Spanish, go here.

Restless Rhetoric Syndrome Sufferers: Avoid contact with the following information

Warning: The following contains graphic illustrations of Washington’s business-friendly climate. Those leery of shifting paradigms or who suffer from Restless Rhetoric Syndrome should avoid contact with the following information and discontinue reading further.

USA Today reports to the US, today, that Americans are paying the smallest share of their income for taxes since 1958, a reflection of tax cuts and a weak economy:
The total tax burden — for all federal, state and local taxes — dropped to 23.6% of income in the first quarter, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

By contrast, individuals spent roughly 27% of income on taxes in the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s — a rate that would mean $500 billion of extra taxes annually today, one-third of the estimated $1.5 trillion federal deficit this year.

Seeing as how we've reported here before about the state's tax burden shrinking to 1980s levels, let's connect some dots... From the Seattle PI:
Washington state is pretty good at growing millionaires, if you believe a study from the Deloitte Center for Financial Services.

There were 226,000 millionaires in the state in 2010, putting Washington at 14th in the country if we’re counting them all up.
From The Puget Sound Business Journal:
In 2010, there were 226,000 millionaires in Washington state, a larger amount than other states in the Pacific Northwest region. That number will almost double by 2020, according to results of a Deloitte Center for Financial Services study, released today.
We can only hope similar news is in store for the rest of us Washingtonians still suffering the effects of the economic downturn.

More on Washington's business climate here and here and here and here and here, oh and here.
And here.

To read this blog post in Spanish, go here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Good call

Youth sports referees and umpires, many wearing their stripes, huddled around the Governor's conference table this morning as she signed House Bill 1636 into law. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dave Upthegrove, clarifies that the small, nonprofit associations that refer amateur sports officials to schools and community sports events are not considered "employers" for unemployment insurance purposes.

This clarification of law is crucial to keeping youth sports affordable.

At today's bill signing, Governor Gregoire told the referees and umpires in attendance, "My daughters are better today because they were involved in youth sports."

Rep. Upthegrove, who is a youth basketball referee in his non-legislative life, explains in this video clip why being an amateur sports official is more difficult than being a state representative.

You can read more about the bill here.

To read this blog post in Spanish, go here.

We’re number one!

Washington today became the first state in the nation to ban coal-tar pavement sealants, which are laced with toxins that poison rivers, lakes, fish and other aquatic life—and that are suspected to increase cancer risks in people.

You can thank House Democrat David Frockt and the Washington Environmental Council for leading the way.

Check out today’s story on MSNBC!

Coal tar sealants are the toxic stuff that caused last July’s Boone Fish Kill in North Carolina, wiping out all aquatic life along a mile and a half stretch of Hodges Creek

The US Geological Survey has identified these sealants as the leading cause of rising levels of toxic PAHs (short for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in streams and lakes across the United States—including Lake Washington and Lake Ballinger in the state we love best.

Why would anyone use this risky substance? Good question. It’s marketed as a sealcoat to protect and prettify asphalt, but anyone can buy asphalt-based sealants that do the same job.

In fact, the USGS found that the coal-tar products have PAH concentrations that are 1,000 times higher than their asphalt-based rivals.

Responsible retailers like Home Depot and Lowes have already voluntarily yanked coal tar sealants from their shelves in Washington, because of the toxic threats. The Washington Department of Transportation stopped using it for the same reason (WSDOT replaced it with the safer asphalt alternative).

Kudos also go to Washington’s Department of Ecology and Department of Natural Resources for their powerful testimony in favor of the ban, as well as to Rep. Dave Upthegrove and Sen. Phil Rockefeller, who worked with Rep. Frockt to shepherd House Bill 1721 into law.

As Rep. Frockt puts it, Washington is the first state, but won’t be the last, to ban this toxic threat—because we’re once again leading the nation in the right direction for the health of our people and environment.

To read this blog post in Spanish, go here.

Training for tomorrow's embalmers gets boost from Kirby legislation today

Do you have a calling for embalming? Folks possessed of such a career yen here in the Evergreen State have only Lake Washington Technical College’s nationally accredited program as their in-state choice for training. Unfortunately for Lake Washington’s program, and for its students and would-be students, pre-2011 state law prevented the school from acquiring the human remains needed for men and women undertaking the training.

Enter state Rep. Steve Kirby, who stepped in this year with a solution in the form of his House Bill 1691. Having unanimously cleared both legislative chambers, Kirby’s measure is now all queued up in the governor’s office awaiting only that gubernatorial ink to become Washington state law.

“Most mortuary programs in other states have access to human remains. That access gives these other programs an edge because they can provide an extraordinary educational opportunity for their students,” Kirby said. “Embalmers-in-training need to perform 10 of these procedures to earn their accreditation. This legislation provides our Washington students appropriate educational access to human remains that they need to earn the professional training that they require.”

The 39 Washington counties are required by state law to take care of the disposition of the remains of any indigent person whose body is unclaimed by their relatives or a religious organization. King County's indigent-burial program is facing financial difficulties. Kirby’s bill provides welcome help for the proper disposition of indigent remains in King County. Lake Washington Technical College’s program will save tax dollars because fees paid by its embalming-students will cover cremation costs.

House Ways and Means Committee meeting today, but not in-house

The House Ways and Means committee is meeting in temporary digs over in Senate territory today, Hearing Room 4 of the Cherberg Building. The House office building (JLOB) has been turned over to contractors who are retrofitting it for earthquake safety.

Nevertheless, the committee will work through an extensive agenda today.

Public Hearing:
1. HB 2048 - Concerning low-income and homeless housing assistance surcharges.
2. HB 2080 - Modifying tax refund and interest provisions.
3. HB 2082 - Making changes to the disability lifeline program.
4. E2SSB 5182 - Establishing the office of student financial assistance and the council for higher education by eliminating the higher education coordinating board and transferring its functions to various entities. (If measure is referred to committee.)
5. ESSB 5921 - Revising social services programs.
6. ESSB 5927 - Limiting payments for health care services provided to low-income enrollees in state purchased health care programs. (If measure is referred to committee.)
7. SB 5941 - Concerning judicial branch funding. (If measure is referred to committee.)

Possible Executive Session:
1. HB 1131 - Regarding student achievement fund allocations.
2. SHB 1132 - Reducing compensation for educational and academic employees.
3. HB 1250 - Transferring funds from the budget stabilization account to the general fund.
4. HB 2065 - Regarding the allocation of funding for students enrolled in alternative learning experiences.
5. HB 2074 - Changing functions of the higher education coordinating board.
6. E2SSB 5182 - Establishing the office of student financial assistance and the council for higher education by eliminating the higher education coordinating board and transferring its functions to various entities. (If measure is referred to committee.)
7. ESSB 5927 - Limiting payments for health care services provided to low-income enrollees in state purchased health care programs. (If measure is referred to committee.)
8. SB 5941 - Concerning judicial branch funding. (If measure is referred to committee.)

For information on these or any other bills, please see here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Better comply with the feds if you want federal bucks

Commercial drivers, the State Patrol and small contractors can breathe a little easier now that Governor Chris Gregoire has signed a couple of Rep. Luis Moscoso’s bills into law to make sure Washington meets some very specific federal requirements.

All 50 states have been warned they have until 2012 to comply with new rules for driver’s certifications, or else… But never fear, Moscoso’s House Bill 1229 ensures we don’t lose much-needed federal dollars for not walking the line.

If the Mountlake Terrace lawmaker hadn’t sponsored it and the governor hadn’t signed it, there’d be consequences:
• Our commercial drivers would not be allowed to operate in interstate commerce.
• Our state could lose up to $17 million of federal highway funds for the first year of noncompliance, and up to $34 million for subsequent years.
• Our State Patrol would not be able to apply for an $8 million grant for its commercial-vehicle division because it has to certify that Washington is in compliance with the new certification rules as part of its grant application.

Also to comply with new federal rules, Moscoso sponsored House Bill 1384, which will help small contractors on transportation projects get their payments more quickly, as required by the Federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise regulations.

“The federal rule says prime contractors must pay subcontractors no later than 30 days after the work is satisfactorily completed,” Moscoso said. “In our current economy, this is great news for Washington’s small contractors that need relief because they don’t have as much of a buffer as larger companies.”

For more information on these bills, go here.

To read this blog post in Spanish, go here.

Tax amnesty provides small budget boost

Yesterday the state Department of Revenue announced their tax amnesty program generated more than $320 million in state and local back taxes owed by businesses.

The state's share is about $264 million, very welcome news as legislators continue working on a $5.1 billion budget problem. Legislators approved the amnesty program during the December 2010 special session and assumed it would generate about $80 million, making the “net” increase closer to $180 million.

Jerry Cornfield of the Everett Herald spoke to budget-writers who were quick to point out that even though this helps the state's bottom line, several budget-related policy decisions remain in play.
"This will solve some of the financial differences," [House Ways & Means Chair Ross Hunter] said. "We still have some policy differences that we have to work out. I see no reason why we should not finish by the end of the special session."
So the work continues.

The Senate Ways & Means Committee is meeting today to hear several budget-related bills, including one by Senator Ed Murray that would allow the Legislature to repeal or modify tax exemptions without a 2/3 majority vote. That requirement was put in place when voters approved I-1053 last November.

House Ways & Means members will be in Olympia tomorrow.

To read this blog post in Spanish, go here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Celebrity crowd gathers in Olympia to support music education

World renowned musicians ventured to Olympia today to show their support for Rep. Marcie Maxwell’s House Bill 1329, which makes it possible to create and sell “Music Matters” special license plates to benefit music education programs in Washington schools.

“We must acknowledge the essential value of music education and continue to promote a well-rounded curriculum for all Washington students,” Maxwell said.

Alan White, drummer from the English rock band, Yes, and Michael McMorrow from the bands Blues Travelers and Stolen Ogre were among the crowd of supporters who gathered in Olympia today.

In the face of one of the most fiscally challenging times in our state’s history, budget cuts are near inevitable. That’s why Maxwell teamed up with Music Aid Northwest, a local non-profit organization, to provide this innovative solution to help fund music education.

The new law takes effect on January 1, 2012. For more details, please click here.

‘Peace of mind’ for health and safety workers

The HIV virus dies within minutes outside the human body.

The Hepatitis C virus, on the other hand, can survive for hours, even days, in dried blood at room temperature.

So which virus would you be more likely to contract through an accidental poke by a used needle?

Until now, state law has been stuck in the 1980's, when AIDS came into the public awareness and an accidental needle poke meant possible HIV exposure. Certain classes of workers, like health and public safety personnel, could order an HIV test on a person whose blood they had been exposed to. But the person wouldn't be tested for other bloodborne pathogens, even though in the meantime, Hepatitis C became a rising public health problem.

Today, Governor Gregoire signed House Bill 1454, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Van De Wege (who is also a fire fighter and first responder). The bill brings the law into the 21st Century, allowing for testing of all bloodborne pathogens rather than simply HIV. Early testing means earlier access to treatment.

"Every day, law enforcement officers, first responders, and health care workers put themselves at risk on the job," Van De Wege said. "One needle poke brings fear of the unknown. This bill brings peace of mind."

To read this blog post in Spanish, go here.

Medicaid: cutting costs v. preserving access

As nearly every state around the nation grapples with budget problems, the growing cost of Medicaid is creating headaches and headlines for state and federal lawmakers. It's especially a challenge in times when more people are struggling to find private insurance and turning to Medicaid as a safety net for their families.

Medicaid is a health care program for low-income residents funded with a combination of state and federal dollars. There are about 1 million Washingtonians enrolled in Medicaid, receiving a variety of programs and services from maternity care to dental services for people with disabilities to health care for kids.

The federal government has issued new regulations to try to address the difficult balance between containing Medicaid costs and preserving adequate access for the medical services people need.

And it's those costs that are driving states to consider legally risky cost-cutting moves. The New York Times reported today:
Faced with huge financial problems, many states have frozen or reduced Medicaid payments to health care providers, and governors of both parties have proposed additional cuts this year. Medicaid recipients and health care providers have sued state officials to block such cuts, and one case, from California, is pending in the United States Supreme Court.
Ways & Means Chair Ross Hunter recently noted on his blog that we face the same challenge in Washington. He points to two reasons for rising costs - rising costs and rising numbers of people seeking Medicaid services.

Hunter cites information from the governor's budget office saying average medical cost inflation since 2000 in Washington is about 3.7 percent with predicted medicaid cost growth far higher - around 6.5 percent. Hunter says shrinking that growth to 3.7 percent "would be a major win, and an effective reduction of billions of dollars in the budget."

One of the ways we can do that, says Hunter, is by moving away from the fee for service model currently in place.
We would pay a “capitated” rate per month for each client to the clinics, not pay them per visit. They would have incentives to drive down the number of visits with better care, where today they have a financial incentive to get people to come back over and over. This will require a federal Medicaid waiver and we’re working on it.
But the problem isn't always how much you pay, but what you pay for. In some cases there are less expensive ways to achieve the same health goals. For example, Washington state is a national leader in encouraging people to use generic drugs in lieu of name-brand drugs, when the less-expensive generic version is just as effective.

House budget-writers are looking at other possible cost-savings. Medicaid, for example, pays for half the births in the state of Washington and there are enormous variances in the number of caesarean sections performed in different hospitals - a far more expensive procedure that isn't always medically necessarily. The same is true early induction of labor. Budget-writers are asking health leaders to look into how we can address those variances while still providing the right kind of care for mothers.

So will Washington make a move like California? We've reported before that such a tactic is difficult, as evidenced by the pending lawsuit.

You can visit here for more information on recent budget-related changes made to Medicaid, as well as information on the current budget proposals related to Medicaid and other health care programs here (starting on page 11). Washington has already taken some actions to reduce Medicaid costs, largely by tightening eligibility requirements for certain programs and eliminating certain services.

The plan as we know it

Members adjourned yesterday afternoon after voting on several bills.

Some members will be back Thursday at 10 when the House Ways & Means Committee meets to hold public hearings and vote on several more budget-related bills.

All the members will then be back next Monday.

At this point, still no word on a budget agreement.

Now you know what we know.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A show of May Day solidarity in Mount Vernon

For most Americans, Labor Day has come to be the popular day to recognize the efforts of the average worker in our country, preferably over some BBQ and maybe a ballgame. But the idea of memorializing the achievements of the country’s Labor movement has its roots in a much older workers’ holiday, traditionally observed on May 1st – May Day.

In a show of May Day solidarity with the trade unions that brought us the eight-hour workday and the weekend, Rep. Kristine Lytton joined in the Farmworker’s Solidarity March in Mt. Vernon yesterday. A daughter of a coal mining town and a casual historian of the American Labor movement and its heroes and heroines, Kristine was thrilled to join them on a beautiful sunny day back home, reflect on the contribution workers like them make to our country every day.

“There are some who have forgotten the value of our nation’s farmworkers, or no longer feel a connection to our land," Lytton said as she addressed the crowd gathered for the post-march rally. "They only see the produce on the store shelves and the gallons of milk behind the glass, never wondering what it took to get there."

"That’s why I am here today; to say to you, our families, our communities, our state, and our country are in your debt! By creating value in the land, you have helped build a nation. And you have helped keep Woody Guthrie’s dream alive – the dream that this land was made for you and me.

"You and me equally. And we will always keep striving to keep it that way.”

Bridgeport High School still in the running for President Obama visit

Eastern Washington’s very own Bridgeport High School is one of three schools still in the running in a national competition to have President Obama as their commencement speaker.

The White House announced the top three finalists for the 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge today. The other finalists are High Tech High International in San Diego and Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis.

Want to see what Bridgeport High School is doing to prepare its students for college and future careers? Check out the video below!

Ways & Means hearing scheduled for Thursday

As planned, members will go to the floor later today to run a series of bills necessary to implement the budget.

Looking ahead, there will be a Ways and Means meeting on Thursday at 10. The current agenda:

Public Hearing:
HB 2048 - Concerning low-income and homeless housing assistance surcharges.
HB 2080 - Modifying tax refund and interest provisions.
HB 2081 - Providing support for judicial branch agencies by extending surcharges on court fees.
HB 2082 - Making changes to the disability lifeline program.
ESSB 5921 - Revising social services programs.

Possible Executive Session:
HB 1131 - Regarding student achievement fund allocations.
SHB 1132 - Reducing compensation for educational and academic employees.
HB 1250 - Transferring funds from the budget stabilization account to the general fund.
HB 2065 - Regarding the allocation of funding for students enrolled in alternative learning experiences.
HB 2074 - Changing functions of the higher education coordinating board.
HJR 4219 - Addressing the state's long-term pension obligations.

From wood waste to jet fuel - Stanford bill gets gubernatorial approval

A bill “to emphasize important new policy both for the environment and for the aerospace industry” is now the law of the state. Prime sponsored by state Rep. Derek Stanford, House Bill 1422 was recently signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The measure sets up a biomass pilot project to create jet fuel from wood waste. Stanford’s idea builds on last year’s Forest Biomass Initiative. Says the Washington State of Department Natural Resources: “The goal of the biomass initiative is to fill a void in assembling people to forge public-private partnerships among forest biomass suppliers, biomass purchasers, energy producers, communities and state agencies to utilize biomass materials for renewable energy generation.”

What we’re talking about here, folks, is nothing less than the making of jet fuel out of wood waste. No, it’s not some wild storybook alchemy. It’s not someone’s fantastical pipe dream. It’s a cutting-edge new idea that simply makes plain-old common sense – whether you look at it from an economic-development perspective or from another decisive viewpoint that goes by the three-word name of green-energy expansion.

“A biomass-to-fuel emphasis will spur investment in new technology for renewable energy. And this is exactly what we need to generate new green jobs and to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” Stanford emphasized. “This work is critical for our energy security and for the environment – a great win-win for Washington people with no cost to their state budget.”

Stanford also pointed out that “this legislation is good for the environment and the aerospace industry – two areas of immense importance to every Washingtonian.”

Finally, Stanford stated that manufacturing jet fuel more economically and environmentally correct is the right thing to do in view of the fact that its consumption has grown so much over the past quarter-century:
  • Every year 2.2 billion people fly, with passenger traffic actually growing the last 10 years by 45 percent.
  • Every year airplanes transport 35 percent of all international trade in goods.
  • The aviation industry is responsible for two percent of global anthropogenic GHG emissions.
  • Bio-derived fuels offer the prospect of significantly lower CO2 emissions, when one looks at this equation from a lifecycle perspective compared to a fossil-based jet-fuel perspective.
(Photo: from DNR blog)

In the House today

There are more unknowns than knowns at this point. As we reported last week, the back-and-forth budget process is underway but no word on agreement yet.

In the meantime, House members are back on campus today for a full day of caucus and likely some floor votes on budget-related bills. We'll keep you posted.