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Washington Legislative Session Roundup

By: JULIE SCHWARTZ and ADAM THOMPSON

Budget, Tax, and Unemployment: The $31.4 billion general operations budget approved by the legislature filled a $9 billion shortfall with federal stimulus money, one-time transfers and more than $4 billion in cuts to education, health and state programs.  The budget includes many cuts to health care and education and slashes $1028 billion from state employee salaries, health benefits, and other compensation, resulting in 7,000 to 8,000 lost government and public school jobs.  The state's K-12 system will lose $800 million in state funds, although about half of that figure will be made up by federal stimulus aid going directly to school districts. While higher ed money has been cut as well, the state has authorized two and four year institutions to shift the burden to students by raising tuition by 7% to 14%.  The $7.5 billion transportation plan, however, passed with only 8 senators voting "nay" and is projected to create 49,000 jobs.  The bill puts $4 billion into more than 400 road projects over the next two years.

With no state income tax and a regressive, sales-tax-dependent tax structure, revenue generation for state and local governments is a perennial hot topic in Washington State.  Lawmakers considered but failed to act on a proposal to create an income tax for the state's top earners, those earning more than $500,000.  Tax fairness proponents plan to renew the effort as part of a broader campaign to improve the state's tax structure in subsequent years.  Still, lawmakers approved SB 5433, which gives local governments, in particular, a little more flexibility in raising revenue.  In most cases, the bill requires officials to gain local voter approval for any levy or fee increases.  One positive provision allows King County, which includes Seattle, to add a 7.5 cent property tax for transit projects.

At the last minute, lawmakers passed SB 5963, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, to give employers a tax break on the premiums they pay into the state's unemployment insurance system.  Earlier in the session, legislators passed HB1906, which increases jobless benefits to $225 per week through the end of the year.

Health Care
: This year, lawmakers sought to preserve the state's health infrastructure so that temporary cuts to programs in eligibility and reimbursement levels can be quickly restored when the state's budget condition improves.

  • Painful Cuts: $2 billion in federal stimulus funding helped the state to minimize cuts to the Medicaid program, but services for adults were curtailed and reimbursements to providers were reduced.  Full implementation of a voter-approved initiative to increase training for long-term care workers was delayed a year.  In response to the state's budget woes, lawmakers approved a $225 million cut to the Basic Health Plan, which serves 102,000 low-income residents and provides subsidized health benefits. As a result of the cuts, 40,000 residents will lose coverage by the end of the year.  The state is currently seeking advice from advocates on how to implement the cuts.
  • Covering Kids: Despite harmful cuts in eligibility and reimbursement to many programs, lawmakers were able to preserve a prior commitment to achieve health care for all kids and place the state on the path to health-care-for-all within 5 years.  Lawmakers passed HB 2128, sponsored by Rep. Larry Seaquist, to confirm the state's goal of ensuring all kids have health coverage by 2010.  The measure officially named the state's kids program, Apple Health for Kids.  Its new provisions streamline enrollment measures (of the 75,000 uninsured children in WA, almost half are eligible but don't know it), take advantage of the federal re-authorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, and modify some requirements for a twin program that will start by 2010 allowing families above 300% of poverty to buy Apple Health coverage for their children.  While families below 300% of poverty will pay relatively low-cost sliding scale premiums for the program, there was concern that the level of benefits would have made the program too expensive for parents above 300%, so the required benefits have been pared down for higher income families that may elect to buy into the program.
  • A Reform Commission for Universal Care: In addition to moving forward on kids' care, Washington lawmakers committed to achieve health care for all Washingtonians by 2014 by passing SB 5945. Sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, the measure creates a reform advisory group to further study and develop health care reform legislation and it articulates key priorities for reform, including the choice of public or private health plans.  Additionally, the bill directs the new reform advisory group to monitor state and federal progress towards health care reform and to specifically collaborate with federal lawmakers.  The bill also directs the state to seek a Medicaid waiver to expand eligibility to low-income adults.  
  • Promoting Efficiency: Other notable health care achievements in 2009 include the Health Efficiencies Act (SB 5346), which will bring providers together to define uniform administrative standards and procedures around claims reimbursement, prior authorization and other utilization systems, and establishing a standardized and electronic process to verify patients' insurance eligibility and coverage.  As Sen. Keiser notes, 30 cents of every health care dollar is spent on administration, "this legislation is intended to change that."  SB 5501 will bring stakeholders together to develop processes for the safe and secure exchange of clinical data and improve patients' access to and control of their health care information. 
  • Other Bills: SB 5360 creates a grant program to help community-based coalitions serve uninsured and under-insured adults and children.  SB 5892 will promote use of generic medications by state programs while ensuring patients' quality of care and use of quality drugs.  HB 2105 creates a work group to create guidelines for the appropriate use of diagnostic imaging, like MRIs and CAT scans, to ensure these costly services are used when necessary. SB 5891 will test primary care medical home reimbursement pilot projects.  And, to improve hospital safety, lawmakers passed two bills to beef up requirements on hospitals to publicly report medical errors and to conduct unannounced inspection of hospitals (HB 1123, HB1021).  A key goal of the measures is to reduce hospital-based infections, notably staph, or MRSA, which can be prevalent in hospitals.

National Popular Vote: Washington became the 5th state to join the "electoral college pact" by enacting SB 5599 to commit the state's 61 electoral college votes for president to the winner of the national popular vote.  Even though 77% of Washingtonians support national popular vote, opponents to the new law are waging a campaign to put the question to the voters in November.

Broadband: Awaiting action from the Governor, HB 1701 aims to bring new high-speed Internet access to residents, businesses, educational institutions, public health and safety services, and community organizations in under-served parts of Washington State, as well as increase broadband adoption throughout the state.

Gay and Lesbian Rights: Opponents of recognizing same-sex relationships plan to file a referendum today that repeals the latest addition of rights to the state domestic partners registry.  The Legislature passed Senate Bill 5688, which substantially expands the registry to include all state rights accorded to married couples. The registry has more than 5,000 couples, most are same sex couples though some are heterosexual domestic partners.

Foster Parenting: Lawmakers enacted several bills to strengthen foster parents' rights and assure the best interests of children in the state's foster system.  To create more stability for foster children, lawmakers passed HB 1782 to allow the courts to consider long absences by biological parents when deciding whether to end visitation rights and SB 5431 requires that children who are removed from their biological parents for a second time be placed with foster parents they know.  Another bill, SB 5803, puts foster families on notice that if an adopted foster child needs mental health services in the future, the state will not pay for the care through the foster system.  Such transparency is important, but advocates are hoping to get the state to someday pay for mental health services for adopted foster children, who often need such services because of high instances of abuse or drug use by their biological parents.

Newspaper Industry: HB 2122 provides the state's struggling newspaper industry with a temporary break on the state's main business tax.  Under the proposed measure, the business and occupation tax on newspapers would be cut by 40 % through 2015.

Education: The session saw some major education reforms:

  • K-12 Education: Lawmakers passed HB 2261 to overhaul the public education system and redefine “basic education” for the first time in the state since 1979.  The bill would phase in funding for high schoolers to achieve 24 credits and attend 6 classes per day, phase-in all day kindergarten and include early learning for at-risk children and highly capable education in the definition of "basic education".  It would also create a transparent funding system so that everyone, including the public, understands how the state supports basic education, create work groups to make recommendations on how to best spend local levy funds and how teachers are hired and compensated. Lastly, it would require the Board of Education to create a comprehensive system for improvements targeted at challenged schools and districts that have not made enough improvements on their own and assign the Professional Educator Standards Board to create performance standards for teachers.  The legislation was not without controversy, with the state's largest teachers' union vigorously opposing the bill.  Union officials say the education overhaul is the wrong move at a time when lawmakers are likely to cut heavily from K-12 spending to make up a $9 billion budget deficit - including skipping voter-approved cost-of-living raises for teachers.
  • Higher Education: Revenue shortfalls mean that Washington’s institutions of higher learning will need to raise tuition rates if they are going to maintain the level of services they currently provide.  Despite budget issues, the Legislature took steps to help families have better access to information that will assist in the college planning and financing processes.  One large change comes in the form of HB 2021, which makes big changes to financial aid for Washington higher education students and institutions.  The intent of the legislation is to promote and expand access to state financial aid.  HB 1946 encourages all institutions of higher education to use common online learning technologies. HB 1025 requires college bookstores to disclose information on required course materials at least four weeks prior to the start of class.  SB 5043 convenes a work group to develop a plan to create a one-stop, web-based portal for students and families planning, preparing, applying for, and attending college.
  • Workforce Development:  Washington State made an effort to link higher education and training of students so that they can achieve the high-demand skills that are needed to grow the economy.  HB 1323 (companion to SB 5048) requires state agencies and local organizations involved with workforce and economic development to coordinate their efforts to assist industry clusters.  HB 1328 allows public technical colleges to offer degrees that prepare students to transfer into certain bachelor degree programs.  The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, explained that the legislation was about breaking down the institutional silos that currently exist to make it easier “for real students living real lives” to transfer technical college coursework to bachelor’s degree programs.  HB 1394 (companion to SB 5316) changes the timeline for the state to develop a comprehensive plan for workforce training and education.  

    House Bill 1355 (companion to SB-5773) creates the Opportunity Internship Program.  Students chosen for the program will receive internships, apprenticeships and up to one year of college financial aid, along with the promise of a job interview if they complete a post-secondary program of study.  Local groups that help place students into jobs that pay at least $30,000 per year will be eligible for incentive payments, subject to existing funds, of $2,000.  The goal is to develop educational and employment pipelines for low-income high school students to high-demand occupations.

Environment: 2009 was a mixed bag for environmental legislation, with comprehensive reform measures failing to pass while smaller, more focused legislation made it through.  

Bills that made it:

  • SB 5649 is a bold weatherization effort that will target the reduction of energy consumption by retrofitting an estimated 20,000 homes and buildings across the state in each of the next five years. This will reduce heating bills and provide an estimated 8,000 living-wage jobs for skilled workers, apprentices, veterans and disadvantaged populations.
  • SB 5854 will raise efficiency standards for new building construction, while improving energy efficiency in existing public buildings through insulation, better windows and improved heating and cooling systems.  Known as Efficiency First, the bill will make Washington the first state in the country to meet the Architecture 2030 Challenge for progress toward buildings that are net-zero energy consumers.  Efficiency First will also establish energy use scores, similar to miles-per-gallon ratings of cars, to be disclosed to potential buyers before buildings are sold.
  • SB 5560, which still needs to be acted on by the Governor, takes some important steps to move Washington forward in planning for climate change impacts, and requires any entity receiving grants from the capital budget to have a plan in place to meet state climate emission reduction goals.
  • Noting a European Union ban on the use of lead weights on vehicle wheels, lawmakers passed HB 1033, which phases out the use of lead-weights on vehicle wheels starting in January 2011.
  • HB 1007 creates a sustainable energy trust allowing for investor and consumer owned electricity and natural gas utilities to collect a monthly charge from customers to support sustainable energy resources of five megawatts or less, or smart energy technologies.

Bills that didn't:

  • This session’s cap and invest bill, SB 5735, died at the last minute.  However,  most of the bill's important substance (especially authorization for the state to participate in the Western Climate Initiative) had been taken out of the legislation weeks earlier. Some environmentalists fear that failing to join a regional cap-and-trade program has left Washington with statutory commitments to reach certain emissions targets but no clear way to achieve those targets.
  • HB 1614/ SB 5518 would have levied a per-barrel fee on petroleum products that contribute to storm water pollution. The revenue from the fee would have been used to fund projects to restore Puget Sound and Washington’s rivers and lakes.  If it had succeeded, the legislation would have created green jobs around the state.
  • The state's environmental community was successful in stopping the passage of SB 5840 that would have cut the voter-endorsed renewable energy standard up to 75% or more in 2020. 
  • The Legislature failed to pass governor-requested legislation SB 5735, which would have continued progress to develop a comprehensive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the state’s 2020 limits.