Local lawmakers have mixed success as bill cutoff date passes

Efforts to revive supermajority for tax hike votes fail

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Those rooting for the revival of two-thirds majority votes of the Legislature in order to raise taxes won't get their wish any time soon, as proposals to impose that rule appeared lifeless Wednesday, a pivotal deadline in the Legislature.

The state Supreme Court ruled last month that a two-thirds voting requirement to raise taxes in the Legislature is unconstitutional. That requirement was part of Initiative 1185, approved by voters this fall.

Once the court made its ruling, many Republicans expressed their support to amend the state constitution to allow the supermajority tax rule. Multiple lawmakers have proposed such legislation this session, including Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. All of those proposals missed Wednesday's bill cutoff.

Wednesday at 5 p.m. was the deadline for non-budgetary bills to pass out of the chamber in which they were introduced.

Bill cutoff rules are somewhat loose. Legislation impacting the budgetary process are exempt from the deadline, and bills that seem dead now can be resurrected or amended onto other legislation later.

Another proposal missing the cutoff was a bill that would require cities to seek a vote of property owners before annexing land into their boundaries.

The legislation, sponsored by Benton, touched on the conflict between residents of Brush Prairie and officials with the city of Battle Ground, who have butted heads in recent years over the annexation of land near a handful of unincorporated neighborhoods.

Benton said he's going to try to amend his idea to a House bill that comes through during the second half of the session, and if he's unsuccessful at that, he'll push for the legislation again next session.

Benton did have some luck, however, with a bill that would allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for criminals charged with the murder of a child younger than 15. It's the third time Benton has tried to pass the proposal; the idea didn't so much as receive a public hearing during previous legislative sessions.

"The murder of a child so young is as heinous a crime as there is," said Benton, R-Vancouver. "In those cases, the prosecutor ought to have the option to pursue the ultimate penalty of capital punishment if that's what it takes for justice to be served."

Benton attributed the success of the bill to the new coalition in the Senate that's made up of 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats. It was unknown how the bill would do in the House, which has a Democratic 55-43 majority.

Other bills advancing

A bill that would require schools to notify parents when their students are restrained or put into isolation rooms passed unanimously in the House during the final days before the bill cutoff. That proposal was introduced by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, and co-sponsored by Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas.

The bill requires principals or other administrators to call the parents of the isolated student no more than 24 hours after the incident, or to notify them by mail no more than five days after the isolation or restraint. Isolation rooms are used in school districts throughout Clark County.

The bill defines restraint as "using force to control a student" for longer than two minutes, and includes the use of restraining devices such as handcuffs. Isolation is defined by the bill as "excluding a student from his or her regular learning environment" and confining them in an enclosure they cannot leave.

Prior to its passage, the proposal was amended so it would only apply to students with disabilities. Another amendment to the bill would require school districts provide parents of disabled students with information about the district's isolation and restraint policies.

Most districts already have a policy in place similar to the one the bill would create, but when districts don't have such a policy, it creates a problem for disabled students, Stonier said.

Another of Stonier's bills to pass out of the House would let fire departments remedy the non-emergency reasons some people might call 911. Letting departments pay for programs to help the people who often make those 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.

That bill is co-sponored by Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver. It passed out of the House unanimously.

A bill by state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, that would help people who are late with their property tax payments also passed out of the House unanimously. It would allow individuals who are behind on their property taxes to make monthly, electronic payments on the amount they owe.

Under state law, taxpayers are not allowed to make partial payments on property taxes. Clark County offers a free, electronic way for its residents to pay property taxes, but the taxes must be paid in full.

CRC legislation

At the beginning of the legislative session, several lawmakers from Clark County introduced bills that could impact the Columbia River Crossing. Only a couple of those proposals remained standing after Wednesday's deadline.

One of those bills, sponsored by Benton, would repeal C-Tran's ability to create a high-capacity transportation corridor area.

Benton has argued that such areas could be gerrymandered to include places where people from all over the county go to shop, including the Westfield Vancouver mall. C-Tran officials have said the law allows transportation districts to better align who benefits from a particular transportation project, such as light rail, and who pays for it.

Benton's bill passed in the Senate, just barely, with a vote of 25-24. The 24 who voted against the bill were Democrats and the 25 who voted in favor of the bill were the 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats who make up the Senate's majority caucus.

A Plan-B proposal for paying for the CRC is likely still in play, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Annette Cleveland, said Wednesday. That bill would let the state borrow $450 million in bonds for the CRC project. Those bonds would then be repaid through tolling and fuel-tax revenue.

The Vancouver Democrat said she believes the bill is still a contender in the Legislature because the proposal would have significant impacts on the budget.

"If that bill is determined to be necessary to implement the budget, it won't be subject to today's cutoff date," Cleveland said.

Additionally, a bill by state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, that aimed to encourage CRC builders to use steel from a Pacific Northwest fabricator is exempt from the bill cutoff deadline, Moeller said. That proposal would require the state's Department of Transportation to charge a fee when its inspectors travel more than 300 miles from Olympia to examine steel for a boundary bridge.

But the major question for the CRC this session, whether state lawmakers will approve Washington's share of the $3.4 billion transportation project, remains unsettled. Lawmakers are negotiating a transportation budget and debating whether 2013 is the year to pass a broad transportation package that would pay for several of the state's megaprojects, including the CRC.

As proposed, the CRC would replace the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River, rebuild five miles of freeway interchanges on both sides of the bridge, and extend a light-rail line from Portland into Vancouver. Payment for the $3.4 billion project is divided into three parts: federal money, tolling, and $450 million each from Washington and Oregon.

Supporters of the CRC say Washington needs to commit at least a portion of its $450 million share this year in order to keep the project on track.

Sights set on next session

While most legislators from Clark County saw success with at least a couple proposals, Reps. Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, did not.

Pike introduced nine bills this session, and she said the main reason they didn't pass was because she decided to tackle difficult topics.

"My bills didn't get passed because they were all about big, serious, meaty issues," she said.

Pike said she did not regret taking on big issues, and that she was determined to continue working on them.

"I am not satisfied; I'll keep working," she said.

Vick hasn't introduced any bills this session, though he said has plans to do so next year.

Tyler Graf and Lucas Wiseman contributed to this report.

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