Legislative Session: Halfway done, but a long way to go

Education, CRC among issues that lawmakers must tackle

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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For more information about legislation being proposed this session, visit the Washington Legislature's website, http://www.leg.wa.gov, and click on the "Bill Search" tab near the top of the page. The Legislature's general information hotline is 1-800-562-6000.

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As the 2013 Washington legislative session nears its halfway mark, the biggest policy battles remain unsettled.

Faced with a new political climate, with one chamber run by Democrats and the other run by conservatives, legislators are gearing up for debates about paying for K-12 education and the state's transportation projects, including the Columbia River Crossing.

"We're in negotiations about the budgets," Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said. "The only one that's been rolled out is a revenue package for transportation."

That funding package, proposed by House Democrats, would include a 10-cent gas tax hike over five years and dole out the $450 million CRC planners say is needed for the state's share of the bridge replacement project. House Republicans are expected to unveil a different kind of transportation package Monday.

During the second half of the session, legislators also will attempt to address a potential budget shortfall last estimated at about $900 million. New state revenue forecast numbers will be released later this month.

Smaller fixes

While those big policy debates loomed, the first half of the session has allowed lawmakers to shepherd along their most popular proposals.

Two bills by state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, have whizzed through the Senate and into the House. One of those bills could ease the burden on local governments faced with acquiring environmentally friendly vehicles. In 2007, the Legislature mandated that by 2015, local governments, including fire and school districts, must replace their gas and diesel vehicles with those that run on electricity or biofuel.

Under Senate Bill 5099, the state's Department of Commerce would be required to create an advisory committee, including representatives from local government, to take a closer look at those requirements. The bill also states that a gas or diesel vehicle should not be replaced with an eco-friendly one until "the end of its useful life."

"My goal is to make it easier for cities to meet the standards that were set out as the technology becomes available," Rivers said in a statement. "That way it doesn't become such an expensive proposition for the taxpayers and the ratepayers who ultimately pick up the tab."

Another of Rivers' bills would extend the agriculture department's Christmas tree growers licensing program to 2020. The program, which is set to expire next year, requires that Christmas trees be checked for plant pests and diseases.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who introduced a whopping 57 bills this session, has seen a few of his proposals pass through the Senate so far. One would allow motorcycles to pass bicyclists in shared bike lanes. Other vehicles already are allowed to do so.

Another of Benton's bills making it to the House would give credit unions in the state more options, including the ability to merge with other credit unions and to invest in some mutual funds and property. It would also create more regulations for credit unions, based on recommendations from the Northwest Credit Union Association.

"Credit unions serve more than 40 percent of Washingtonians," Benton said in a statement. "This bill would provide the regulatory tools needed to keep them safe and sound, which is good for their shareholders and investors and by extension good for our state."

Second-half struggles

Legislators remain tasked with finding a way to pay for K-12 education, after the state Supreme Court ordered them to "amply fund" basic education by 2018. Doing so will likely require a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, who have taken different approaches to solving the problem.

Many ideas have been floated by lawmakers, including the creation of a separate education budget, and moving the cost of operating school buses into the state's transportation budget.

"I think we'll have a good dialogue on education," Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said. Harris said he wants to see education be a priority over other state programs. He also said solving the education funding problem might require further reforms to the education system.

Moeller stressed that cutting social service programs to pay for education could be counterproductive, because children who rely on those programs will feel an impact. A homeless and hungry child isn't going to excel in the classroom, Moeller said.

Before they can make any kind of deal on education funding, lawmakers will need to see how much state revenue they're forecasted to bring in during the upcoming years.

"There's still a lot of uncertainty about how much better or worse the financial situation will get" in terms of state revenue, Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said.

There's also a new dynamic between the Legislature's two chambers.

Republicans have more power than they did last session. They've gained support from two conservative Democrats, giving their unique coalition a 25-24 majority over the rest of the Senate Democrats.

The new coalition has restructured Senate committees, putting conservatives in charge of many of the chamber's high-stakes policy panels, allowing them to set the agenda in that chamber. If they all vote together, they'll also have control of which bills pass out of the Senate.

The state House, on the other hand, has a comfortable Democratic majority.

Interstate 5 Bridge

Despite contention between several Democratic and Republican legislators from Clark County regarding the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing, the megaproject could be lumped into a package that would pay for the state's major transportation needs.

In addition to funding the state's share of the CRC project, the nearly $10 billion plan House Democrats proposed last month would help pay for the North Spokane Corridor, widening Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, and connecting state Highways 167 and 512 to Interstate 5. It would also set aside $1 billion to maintain existing infrastructure.

Rather than release a group of bills about how to pay for some of the state's most crucial transportation needs, House Republicans will unveil on Monday a package of bills aimed at reducing transportation costs for the state. Washington state pays more than it should on its transportation projects, Republicans said, adding that they might be able to set aside money for more projects once their cost-saving measures are put into place.

Republican legislators from Clark County remain critical of the CRC bridge-replacement plan because it includes a light-rail line from Portland to Vancouver, and because its height of 116 feet does not provide enough clearance for some businesses that make large shipments along the Columbia River.

"If the Republicans want to throw stones at the project, there's nothing I can do to stop them," Moeller said. "Thank God the Democrats are in charge, at least in the House, and all we need is 50 votes here and 25 votes in the Senate, and governor's signature, and we'll have a (funding) package."

Moeller said there are a number of legislators from both parties that see value in getting their transportation projects included in a financing package.

"I think it's going to be a process of (political) horse trading," Moeller said.

Gun violence, gun rights

Given their controversial nature, many proposals to prevent gun violence, inspired by recent shootings at the Clackamas Town Center in Oregon and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, have stalled in the Legislature.

Democrats this session proposed a ban on so-called assault weapons and universal background checks for nearly all gun purchasers. Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, proposed giving school districts the authority to arm teachers who would volunteer to bring their own guns and ammo to school.

Lawmakers conceded that their efforts to curb gun violence may take multiple legislative sessions, and groups on both sides of the issue are bracing for that fight.

The Clark County Republican Party has issued a political threat to local lawmakers, even fellow Republicans, who have "taken any action to further infringe, impair, subvert or usurp our Natural and Constitutional right to keep and bear arms," according to a resolution the party passed recently. The resolution states that the party's central committee will condemn, sanction or even organize a recall effort against public officeholders seeking stricter gun-control laws.

At the same time, gun-control advocates from across the state reportedly are forming a grass-roots lobbying group called the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. The group is financed in part by a Seattle venture capitalist, according to a report by National Public Radio.

Health care

Legislators will continue to work on the formation of the state's health care exchange program and the state's Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, said Harris. He serves on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

While Harris said he cautiously supports the state's expansion of Medicaid, which provides medical services to low-income people, he said he worries the state's health care changes will cause insurance premiums to rise for middle-income residents.

"We're not going to cover this amount of people for free," he said. "I will work to make it right as best I can."

Other proposals

Despite legislators' differences, lawmakers from Clark County have been able to move several, less controversial bills along.

Wylie said she's excited about the success so far for her bill that eases the requirements for getting new license plates. While on the campaign trail, Wylie said she learned that "people are annoyed at having to replace and throw away license plates for apparently no good reason."

Instead, her bill would allow plates to be changed every 10 years instead of every seven years while also increasing the license plate fee from $10 to $12.50 and allowing vehicle owners to keep their old license plate number. Wylie said her constituents are willing to pay slightly more for the convenience of not having to change their license plates as often.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is working to advance a bill that would require companies competing for a government contract to place their bids online. Contractors from far-flung areas of the state are at a disadvantage when it comes to mailing or handing in a bid by a specific deadline. Placing the bids online would also increase transparency in the process, Stonier said.

That bill passed out of the House Capitol Budget Committee on Tuesday.

Another of Stonier's bills to pass out of committee would let fire departments fix the low-priority reasons some people might call 911. Letting departments pay for programs to help the people who often make those necessary yet low-priority calls would save fire department resources and taxpayer money, Stonier said.

For example, someone might call 911 every time they fall in their home, when the simple solution might be to install a rail in the house to keep the person from falling in the first place, she said.

"The districts that already have this in place save tons of money," Stonier said.

Moeller's bill to allow single-screen movie houses, such as Vancouver's Kiggins Theatre, to serve beer and wine even when minors are present has cleared its policy committee hurdles and is awaiting a floor vote by the entire House. That bill would help historic theaters compete with larger theaters, Moeller said.

Moeller said one of his favorite bills allows just-married people, despite their gender, to change their last name. The bill would allow a man to adopt his spouse's name or allow both spouses to hyphenate their last names. That bill also awaits a vote on the House floor.

A bill allowing Washington pharmacies to fill prescriptions written by physician assistants in other states has passed out of committee and awaits a floor vote in the Senate. Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, introduced the proposal, noting that the change would be particularly helpful for communities living near a state border.

Harris' bill to help crack down on the prescription drug trade is advancing through the Legislature. House Bill 1565 would create a revenue stream for the state's prescription monitoring program, which keeps tabs on how often someone fills a prescription. The program's funding is uncertain, but Harris' bill would pay for it with money from the Medicaid fraud penalty account.

The 2013 Legislative session is 105 days long and concludes April 28.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com