Friday, April 5, 2013

Women of the House say Senate GOP budget chooses loopholes over families

They are mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and sisters. They're nurses, educators, and community activists. The women of the House Democratic caucus come from different backgrounds and different towns, but today they all shared one message: The Senate Republican budget proposal prioritizes special interest tax loopholes over our children and most vulnerable people.

Representatives Eileen Cody, Tami Green, Ruth Kagi, Laurie Jinkins, and Dawn Morrell led a group of women legislators calling out the problems for families in the Senate's plan. 

They pointed out that, instead of closing a single tax loophole -- many of which have been on the books for decades without any review -- the Senate actually includes 25 more loopholes.

Cuts in the budget plan include:

·  Childcare support for more than 4,500 families through Working Connections Childcare;

·  TANF Services – A temporary lifeline to struggling families used for the most basic of needs like rent assistance, school supplies and basic hygiene items;

·  Funding for career services and educational certification programs for the poor;

·  Required health care cost-sharing for low-income individuals, limiting access; 

·  Transitional housing services for seniors and reduced access to shelters for homeless families;

·  Corrections services, leading to early release of offenders;

·  Funding to home care services which keep seniors and the disabled from going into nursing homes;

·  Support for grandparents caring for their grandchildren, keeping them out of foster care; and

·  Legal services for low-income persons who need help to keep their homes.
Here is the full press release from today's event, and here are more comments about the budget plan.

Read this story in Spanish.


Today nearly every insurance plan in Washington covers both maternity services and abortion services. However, the Affordable Care Act could inadvertently limit these reproductive choices by requiring additional administrative red-tape for abortion services. 

This change would interfere with a woman’s ability to make the best decisions for her family and her health.

Enter the Reproductive Parity Act (RPA) sponsored by House Health Care and Wellness Committee Chair Rep. Eileen Cody and 40 other co-sponsors. It would require insurance companies to continue their current policy of covering a full range of reproductive choice. The bill ensures fairness and protects freedom in a woman’s health care decisions. 

It passed the House back in February, and received a hearing in the Senate Health Care Committee on April 1st. At that hearing, Senator Steve Hobbs presented a letter signed by 25 senators who support the RPA – the majority needed to pass.

However, it appears the bill won’t be heading to Governor Inslee’s desk this year. The bill did not come up for a vote in committee ahead of Wednesday’s policy cutoff deadline.

Washington voters have a long history of supporting reproductive rights that stretches back over 40 years. Two years before Roe v. Wade, Washingtonians approved Referendum 20, which legalized abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

Then again in 1991, when it looked like Roe could be overturned, voters approved Initiative 120, which protected a women’s right to make a private choice with her doctor regardless of what occurred at the federal level.

The Seattle Times, editorializing in favor of the RPA, summed it up perfectly:

A woman’s decision to become a mother shouldn’t be determined by a lack of resources or insurance. 

It’s a deeply personal choice between a patient and her doctor. Washington state has a history of respecting that right and should continue to protect it.

Refusing to let the RPA come up for a vote in the Senate is a defeat for women and privacy in Washington. This decision doesn’t reflect our state’s values.

You can find more information on the RPA here. You can also read some of the national attention the RPA and House Democrats have received over at the New York Times, Salon and Jezebel.

Read this story in Spanish.

To hedge or not to hedge

That is one question.

Another question is, "What is hedging?"

In this case, it has nothing to do with that overgrown evergreen out in the yard.  According to this recent AP story in a Vancouver newspaper, utility hedging is a practice used by natural gas companies that has cost Washington ratepayers $800 million over five years.

"The Washington State Attorney General's Office said it wants the WashingtonState Utilities & Transportation Commission (UTC) to continue investigating the hedging strategies used by utilities," says the newspaper article, "in which the companies purchase gas futures in order to protect against sudden price increases."

In fact, Lisa W. Gafken, an assistant attorney general, is asking that the UTC slap a moratorium on any new hedging. Gafken points out that utilities don't have any genuine motivation to do a better job making their investments as long as they can simply pass the costs on to -- you guessed it -- the ratepayers.

Gafken says that her office "is concerned that customers have been harmed by the companies’ hedging practices. Even recognizing that hedging can be an appropriate natural gas purchasing tool, the dramatic size of these losses highlights the need for more rigorous regulatory review.”

The utilities engage in hedging for reasons plenty sound and logical -- they want to sidestep future fluctuations in the cost of gas. When it works out, then great; everyone's a winner. When it doesn't work out so nicely, well, that's why it's called "hedging" -- not "sure-thinging."

Companies involved in this utility hedging in question are:

  • Puget Sound Energy, Inc. -- approximately 761,000 customers in western Washington.
  • Avista Utilities -- approximately 149,000 customers in eastern Washington.
  • Cascade Natural Gas Company -- approximately 197,000 customers in western and south-central Washington.
  • Northwest Natural Gas -- approximately 68,000 customers in southwest Washington.
The commission is holding a public meeting today that will include a discussion of the matter. The meeting will start at 1:30 that afternoon in the UTC hearing room at 1300 S. Evergreen Park Dr. S.W., Olympia. To participate by telephone, please call the commission at 360-664-1234 prior to the meeting to make conference-line arrangements.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Standing guard for Fort Democracy

Time and again, the adage "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" has been offered up down through these 22 decades-plus of our American existence. Thomas Jefferson (perhaps) and numerous others (for sure) have wielded that faithful maxim likely first advanced by Irish orator John Philpot Curran some 223 years ago.

A big part of that eternal vigilance here in Washington? Keeping a watchful eye on our voting process.
Today, sentry duty at Fort Democracy in the Evergreen State comes in the form of the Election Administration and Certification Board, a panel to which state Rep. Sam Hunt was just recently reappointed by House Speaker Frank Chopp.
Hunt chairs the House Government Operations & Elections Committee. For many years, he's championed government efficiency, including safeguards in the electoral process.

In addition to Hunt and other legislators, the Election Administration and Certification Board features folks from the Secretary of State's office, and people representing county auditors and the major political parties.

Read this story in Spanish.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ross Hunter comments on the Senate Republican budget proposal

The Senate Republicans released their 2013-15 budget proposal today, and House Appropriations Committee Ross Hunter issued the following statement in response:
“While it is nice that the Senate Republicans have acknowledged our responsibility to fund the McCleary decision, they have done so with a budget proposal that relies on assumptions that are unconstitutional or unsustainable. The Supreme Court has been pretty cranky about this issue, and this budget will do nothing to improve their mood.

“In addition to being unsustainable, some of their decisions seem downright cruel. Providing child care subsidies for parents trying to get back into the workforce was part of the deal when we “reinvented welfare” two decades ago.  Cutting it now will not only force single moms back onto welfare, it will perpetuate the opportunity gap in our schools for years to come.

“I am also very concerned with some of the shaky assumptions made in the proposal.  There are $157 million in unnamed efficiencies, $40 million in an uncollectable use tax, and $166 million in a school trust transfer that is clearly unconstitutional.

“We have spent the last five years making our budget more sustainable with actions like reducing our long-term pension obligations and cutting staffing at all levels.  A budget built on unconstitutional actions and assumptions that are unlikely to come true moves us away from sustainability.”

Read this story in Spanish.

Good news: personal income jumps in state. Not-as-good news: Help for state budget diminishing

The total personal income for everybody in the state of Washington added together rose by 4.5% from 2011 to 2012, the fourth-highest percentage increase among the states, the federal government says.

So a lot of folks saw their income go up last year, which is certainly good news.

And you might think that would also be good news for the hard-pressed state budget, since a bit of those increased earnings might be spent on stuff that's covered by the state sales tax.

Turns out it's not such a budgetary boon. Why? Because over the last 20-odd years, state government has tapped an ever-declining share of that personal income to pay for education, the State Patrol, bridges and highways, foster care and all the other services the state provides.

Part of the reason for that is that the Legislature is very reluctant to raise taxes.

Another part of the reason is our revenue system – which, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, is the most regressive of any state's ("most regressive" means that in Washington, the rich pay less and the poor pay more than anywhere else, in terms of their shares of the total tax burden).

All of that makes balancing the state budget a tough job. That's the main task before the state House and Senate right now, and we will see their ideas for how to do it announced soon.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Associated Press drops “Illegal Immigrant” from style guide

The Associated Press announced today that they would no longer be using the phrase “illegal immigrant” to describe a person without legal status in our country.

It might seem like inside baseball, but it’s actually a very important change. The AP stylebook is taught in every communications class, is used as a standard for journalistic writing, and directly or indirectly sets the tone for public discussion through the media.

By dropping the pejorative phrase, the AP has taken a step towards acknowledging the complexity of the issue and the important role of immigration in American culture and history. This excerpt from their announcement captures the weight of their decision:

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally…

…Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.”

The last paragraph is particularly important. The death of the DREAM Act, which passed the House with a strong bipartisan 77-20 vote but was killed in the Senate Higher Education Committee, was a blow to progress in equality and social justice in our state. But changes like this show that, even if polices falter this legislative session, broader and deeper cultural change continues to bend the arc of history towards justice.

Welcome home, Bertha!

Three and a half months ago we wrote about Big Bertha, the world’s largest-diameter tunneling machine who, after traveling 5,000 miles, is finally making her grand entrance into Elliot Bay today.  
Built in Osaka, Japan, the five-story-tall, 7,000 tons boring machine that will dig the SR 99 tunnel beneath downtown Seattle, had to be taken apart into 41 pieces to load her on the Jumbo Fairpartner and begin her two-week journey on March 19.  
As she was going through Port Townsend, at around 10:30 this morning, she tweeted (yes, Bertha has a Twitter account): 
She’s expected to reach Seattle at around noon so you could grab lunch in the area and witness her arrival. Check out the DOT’s viewer’s guide (click on the image for a larger map):
But if you’re not lucky enough to catch the action in person, the DOT will have a live webcam pointed at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 46, once the ship has berthed, so you can watch her journey unfold from anywhere.

Read this story in Spanish.

Wonder what a committee vice chair does? Rep. Ormsby explains it in new “Capitol Ideas” interview

We all know, or think we know, what the chair of a legislative committee does. But what does the vice chair do, besides call up witnesses?

The answer, at least for House Appropriations Vice Chair Timm Ormsby, is far more interesting than you might think, and for political junkies and policy wonks, this new Capitol Ideas podcast offers a fascinating insight into a rarely explored subject.

Read this story in Spanish.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Welcome home, Vietnam veterans

Near the Capitol Dome is our state's version of the Wall, with the names of the fallen written into the rock.

While the war has been over for forty years, the veterans who went to Vietnam still carry the memories of their service and the brothers and sisters who never made it back.

The House and Senate honored those veterans last week by establishing March 30 as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.  the last U.S. troops left Vietnam on March 30, 1973.

The measure was sponsored by Rep. John McCoy, at right wearing sunglasses, and Rep. Norm Johnson. 

Read this story in Spanish.

The $2 billion budget myth

Let's say you drive your car about 100 miles a week as part of your job responsibilities. Your boss gives you $50 a week to cover your gas expenses. Then one day your boss says, "Good news, I'm increasing your fuel stipend to $60, but we're also doubling your route to 200 miles."

While the stipend increase would be welcomed, is that really good news? The added miles would more than wipe out the extra $10 a week.

This is the kind of argument you'll hear from some lawmakers and advocacy groups over the coming weeks as budget negotiations heat up. They argue that the state has $2 billion more in revenue this budget cycle compared to the last one – like your gas stipend going from $50 to $60 per week.

Therefore, as the argument goes, we can balance the budget, meet our McCleary obligations, and avoid deep cuts to vital services all without new revenue.

While it is true that our revenues are up about $2 billion, only looking at this side of the equation is fiscally imprudent and misleading.

This argument conveniently leaves out the other half of the equation, like the part about adding more miles to your route. Our expenses have also increased by more than $2 billion since the last biennium.

We have more kids in public schools, more students enrolling in higher education that need financial assistance, and more low-income families and seniors that need medical care.

In other words, it costs more this year to run the state than it did last year. Despite having more money this year, our revenues are not keeping up with expenses.

Based on current expense and revenue projections, the state budget is about $1 billion short of paying for our obligations. When you add our McCleary obligations, we're about $2.3 billion short.

We are not going to find $2.3 billion in cuts alone. We've cut $12 billion from the budget since 2008. House Democrats are pleased to see Governor Inslee's call for closing some tax loopholes to balance the budget and fund education for our kids.

Read this story in Spanish.