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2010 Legislative Session Roundup: Washington

Despite confronting a $2.8 billion deficit and 9.5 percent unemployment rate, Washington state lawmakers were able to score key progressive victories this year.  Although tax and budget issues were undoubtedly the predominant legislative focus, elected officials made significant strides on several issues during both the regular and special session, including, children's health, workers' rights, weatherization, and providing initial foundation for the implementation of federal health care reform.

Tax and Budget:  Washington's regressive taxation system lacks a personal or corporate income tax, placing a massive burden on the state's middle class.  The state's revenue dropped almost 9 percent last year, only exacerbating the pain for Washington's working families.  To the ire of many conservative legislators, progressives achieved a major accomplishment in late February when Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a temporary suspension of Initiative 960, which required a two-thirds legislative majority to approve tax increases.  Accordingly, budget discussions became quite intense and forced the Governor to call lawmakers back to Olympia for a special session.  In the end, legislators came together and passed a revenue package that allowed the state to preserve basic education, all-day Kindergarten, a health care program for low-income Washingtonians, childcare services, and funding for higher education.

The budget agreement will raise approximately $757 million in new revenue from a $1 increase in the cigarette tax;  extending the sales tax to bottled water, candy and gum; raising the beer excise tax by 50 cents per gallon;  a temporary tax on soda that will amount to 2 cents per 12 oz. can;   imposing a   0.3 percent temporary business and occupation tax surcharge on service-industry businesses, including lawyers, accountants, real estate companies, and hairdressers, for the next three years; and adopting economic nexus, which will require some out-of-state corporations to pay taxes on the business they conduct in the state of Washington.

The plan provides tax credits for "candy companies, awarded on the basis of jobs, and a doubling in the business tax exemption for small businesses."  The Legislature additionally allotted funding for the Working Families Tax Rebate, championed by the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, based on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

However, the Legislature also approved $120 million in cuts to public education, reduced funding for state universities and community colleges by $73 million, and directed state agencies to seek $50 million in savings through furloughs.

Health Care:  During the budget process, lawmakers were able to maintain funding for Washington Basic Health, providing assistance to working families to access affordable health care.  Even still, the program continues to be plagued by long waiting lists, now approaching 100,000 applicants who need access and assistance in meeting their health care needs.

Although the state's Attorney General, Rob McKenna, joined others in a misguided, costly, and partisan lawsuit against federal health care reform, the state still took crucial steps in establishing foundation for the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Affordability Act.  Gov. Gregoire signed Executive Order 10-01, forming the Health Care Cabinet, which will be composed of the state Health Care Authority administrator, the state Health Department Secretary, the Department of Social and Health Services Secretary, and the Governor's Executive Policy Director and state Budget Director.  The group is responsible for guiding the initial stages of implementing reform.

Gov. Gregoire also offered a spirited rebuttal of Attorney General McKenna's actions and defended the right of all Washingtonians to access affordable and quality health care.

Elections:  In response to voter confusion in King County last November over a ballot initiative, Rep. Scott White introduced HB2496 to improve the clarity of ballot design and ensure that the voter instruction section is clearly delineated from the actual substance of the measure.  Upon passage of the bill, the state's Election Director, Nick Handy, commented, “[t]his legislation is a major step forward in ensuring that ballots are designed to be more voter friendly.  [Our goal is] having ballots that are clear and readable and that assist the voter in moving down the ballot with ease.  We want the civic act of voting to be enjoyable, and not perplexing in any way.”

The Washington Senate also called on Congress to amend the Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) decision, which gave corporations the same First Amendment rights as citizens in advocating for politicians.  SJM 8027 states, "[f]or the past three decades, a divided United States Supreme Court has misinterpreted the First Amendment favoring the corporations' agenda over the people's voice...(and the) Supreme Court's ruling threatens to dilute an individual's power as a voting citizen and compromise the democratic process."

Weatherization and Green Jobs:  In approving Sen. Claudia Kauffman's SB6468, the Legislature provided critical funding for weatherzation and energy efficiency initiatives.  The legislation will additionally allow for structural rehabilitation assistance and is estimated to spur job creation.  Rep. Hans Dunshee introduced a green jobs bill, HB 2561, that would fund energy cost saving improvements to public facilities and issue general obligation bonds to support energy repair and retrofitting work at public schools, state colleges, and universities.  The $505 million bond authorization would be placed before voters in the general election this coming November.  Analysts estimate that the initiative would create 30,000 new jobs and save state residents $190 million annually.  Both the House and Senate approved the measure and it awaits the Governor's signature.

In a related jobs and smart growth move, the state enacted the Washington Works Housing ProgramHB 2753, to create $1 billion in housing for the working poor within proximity of transit to allow more convenient access to employment.  This initiative will create thousands of prevailing wage construction jobs and provide housing equity for low-income workers.

Environmental Protection:  Washington became only the second state to take on the issue of bisphenol A (BPA) by enacting SB 6248, the Safe Baby Bottle Act, to eliminate BPA from food and beverage containers intended for children under the age of three.  The legislation will also prohibit the use of BPA in sports bottles.  Sen. Karen Kaiser, the main sponsor of the bill, commented, "I’m very pleased that Washington state is once again a leader in taking action to limit potentially harmful chemical exposures, especially for infants and young children."

Advocates were also pleased that state budget preserved funding for evironmental priorities such as toxic contamination cleanup, air quality, water quality, water resources and habitat protection.

Workers' Rights:  To strengthen enforcement authority to prevent wage theft violations, HB3145  extends the time period to investigate wage complaints and increases the penalty for violators.  HB 1560 will now allow employees of four-year institutions to engage in multi-employer bargaining, while SB 5046 will put symphony musicians under the jurisdiction of the public employment relations commission for purposes of collective bargaining.

Education:  The Legislature approved several significant education bills.  Though the state initially refrained from the first round of the federal Race to the Top grant competition, SB6696 enacts accountability measures and other reforms that will allow the state to enter the running this summer.  HB1418 creates a statewide reengagement system that permits school districts to enter into agreements with educational service districts, community or technical colleges, and other public institutions to offer services to former students, including GED preparation, counseling, and instruction.  HB3026 ensures that all students enjoy the same basic civil rights and protections.  Finally, HB2776 creates a new distributional funding formula, expands state spending on the public education system, and will likely increase the state's educational investment by billions of dollars.

Protecting Children:  Sen. Kauffman sponsored SB6470, which will provide stronger protections for Native American children in the state's welfare system and make sure they are not unnecessarily removed from homes.

After the state's vaccination program was eliminated due to budget cuts last year, the Legislature worked swiftly to provide vaccination coverage for Washington's children.  Lawmakers successfully moved HB2551 to create the Washington Vaccine Association.

Medical Marijuana:  In approving SB5798, the Legislature expanded its medical marijuana program and permitted licensed health care professionals, such as nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants, to authorize the use of marijuana for patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses.

Notable Initiatives that Did Not Pass:

  • Financial Reform:  Rep. Bob Hasegawa introduced HB 3162 this year, a bill that would create a state bank modeled after the Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned bank in the country.
  • Elections:  Since a contentious judicial election in 2006, lawmakers have been attempting to move a pilot program for public financing of state Supreme Court elections.  Unfortunately, SB5912 died in committee.
  • Unemployment Insurance:  In an effort to alleviate the pain of the long-term unemployed, several legislators sponsored SB2647, to allow certain state residents to seek part-time employment while still retaining eligibility to receive unemployment insurance.
  • Initiative Process Reform:  SB6754 aimed to strengthen the initiative process and provide protections for state residents against fraud and false declarations.
  • Corporate Transparency:  Rep. Hasegawa intended to provide further protections for Washington taxpayers by pursuing augmented transparency of the state's spending.  HB2110 would have required a tax expenditure report as part of the biennial budget documents, but failed to pass the House.
  • Hazardous Substance Tax:  The Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters advocated for an increase in the state's hazardous substance tax to clean up polluted waterways.  HB3181/SB6851, or the Clean Water Act of 2010, would have increased the tax 2 percent and raised an additional $225 million a year for stormwater improvement projects.
Resources:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities - Recession Continues to Batter State Budgets
Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy - Who Pays?
The Olympian - Budget Plans Ready to Go
Pew Center on the States - Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril
Progressive States Network - Progressive Legislators Challenge Right-Wing Obstruction on Health Care
Progressive States Network - Update:Options for Reining in Corporate Election Cash in Wake of Citizens United Supreme Court Decision
The Seattle Times - Analysis: Scorecard for the 2010 Wash. Legislature
The Seattle Times - Lawmakers end session with taxes, services cuts
Washington Education Association - Dorn's take on legislative session: 'Relatively pleased'
Washington State Budget and Policy Center - A Primer on the Working Families Tax Rebate
Washington State Budget and Policy Center - Overview of 2010 Budget Measures
Washington State Labor Council - Legislative Tracker