Clark County's state legislators primed for start of busy session

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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There are plenty of unknowns heading into the 2014 legislative session, which kicks off Monday in Olympia, but road improvements, government spending, health care and marijuana are likely to top the agenda, lawmakers from Clark County say.

They especially point to the transportation debate as one to watch during the 60-day session.

Last year, legislators couldn't reach an agreement on a $10 billion transportation plan, which would have raised the gas tax by more than 10 cents a gallon and would have paid for a number of transportation projects across the state. That plan initially included $450 million for the Columbia River Crossing, but money for the CRC has since been stripped from the proposal.

With the CRC left out, a revised plan began circulating among lawmakers this fall. It includes only $41.4 million in projects for Clark County. Some lawmakers hoped to have a transportation package passed before this year's regular session, but negotiations stalled.

"There were not enough projects in Southwest Washington for me to vote yes on the bill," said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, adding that there are many transportation needs in this corner of the state. "They've got to fix that to get the bill to pass."

Conservatives are leery to pass a gas tax unless certain reforms are passed. They want the state to stop charging itself sales tax on transportation projects, for example.

"There's too many things that need to be fixed in our (state Department of Transportation) before we take more money out of Washington taxpayers' pockets," Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, said.

Complicating matters, the makeup of the Legislature remains a recipe for gridlock, with Democrats leading the House and Republicans holding control of the Senate.

"There's wide agreement that we need to do something" on transportation, Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said, but "I hear mixed messages about whether or not there's any political will for a transportation package this year."

Education, spending

Putting more state money into education was one of the biggest issues during last year's legislative session, when lawmakers were tasked with writing a two-year state budget. They put nearly $1 billion in additional funding toward K-12 schools, a response to a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that the state wasn't meeting its constitutional duty to adequately fund basic education.

The state's high court warned lawmakers on Thursday that they weren't moving fast enough to meet their goal of fully funding education by the 2017-2018 school year.

This session, legislators can make tweaks to the two-year spending plan by passing a supplemental budget, but there isn't much new revenue to go around.

Last month, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee proposed what he called a modest supplemental budget, which would take projected increases in state revenue and bump up 2014 state spending by about $200 million. Some legislators wonder, though, whether the Republican-controlled state Senate is interested in increasing spending at all.

"I do not see a supplemental budget happening," Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said. She added that the 2013-15 "final budget was hammered out between all four caucuses and the governor. It was all hands on deck, everyone performed (and) we came up with a good product."

Meanwhile, several legislators aren't interested in changing too much when it comes to education policy, saying educators want more time to see how newly adopted changes work.

Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, said the educators in his district say "they are pretty happy with what the state's done, but they just want time to implement it. We can let what we've done play out and see what happens."

Health care

As Washington state begins to put in place federal health care reforms, health care will continue to be a topic of talk in the Legislature, Harris said. As a part of the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act, the state launched its health care exchange program last year. The program allows the uninsured to purchase health care plans, and see if they qualify for a reduced rate.

Lawmakers are applauding themselves for the exchange, Harris said, but "it has its own set of problems. I think there will be bills addressing the exchange and health care itself."

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, agreed that health care will be a focal point this session. A top priority for her this session will be making sure mental health care is not left out of discussions, she said.

"I really believe this session we'll grapple a bit with mental health reform, and that's absolutely necessary," Cleveland said. "We're at a point with health reform implementation where we really need to ensure that we integrate mental health within overall health care services."

Marijuana

Harris also said he expects lawmakers to propose a number of bills that aim to regulate the state's new recreational marijuana industry. In 2012, Washington voters approved Initiative 502, which legalized pot use for adults 21 and older.

The state's Liquor Control Board has spent the past year creating a licensing system for businesses that want to grow, process or sell marijuana. At the same time, medical marijuana has been legal in the state for several years, and producers of medical pot don't follow the same regulations. Medical pot isn't taxed, while recreational pot will be.

Last session, Rivers introduced a bill that would bring rules for both marijuana markets closer together.

"I'm still moving forward with my pot bill, which aligns the medical marijuana industry and tries to develop the revenue we were promised under I-502," Rivers said.

Business reforms

The tax incentives given to the aerospace industry during a special legislative session this fall has many Republicans hopeful of future discussions on improving the business climate in Washington.

"I just hope we can follow up on that mantra," Vick said, adding that many small businesses are struggling. "I think we obviously said with our decision with Boeing (that) we're uncompetitive in certain areas, and we have to fix that."

Wylie said tax breaks for businesses have to be fair, and smart investments.

"We have to take another look at the tax exemptions," Wylie said. "We passed a really, really thorough policy bill to start reviewing all those, and then Boeing sidestepped them. … We do have a highly skilled workforce, but it won't stay that way unless we keep investing in training and investigation for the agencies we earmarked as our strengths to grow on."

Pike is working on a bill that would require legislative review of any new business regulations or permits, if enough legislators or agencies oppose the new rule.

"Too often, state agencies draft new rules and increase thresholds for air- and water-quality permits that go beyond federal guidelines," Pike said. "We need to have oversight on such rules to ease onerous regulations on Washington's business and industry."

Other proposals

Throughout the session, legislators from Clark County will shepherd along lower-profile bills, many of which make policy fixes that would impact Southwest Washington.

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said she'll push a bill this session to create the Washington Advance Loan Program, which would provide low-interest student loans to middle-income families. The program would require startup money for the loans. After that, the program would become self-sufficient as graduates start to repay the loans.

"My target is those middle-income families who don't qualify for the State Need Grant, and for them, tuition costs are continuing to rise and they are continuing to get priced out of higher education," Stonier said. The new loans would only be extended to students pursuing degrees in STEM — science, technology, engineering or math — or students working toward careers in health care.

Stonier said Rivers has committed to introducing a companion bill in the Senate.Cleveland is working on a bill to help communities impacted by the loss of money in the Public Works Trust Fund. That money was used to help make a payment toward K-12 education last year, but it was meant to provide low-interest loans for building projects in local communities across the state. Cleveland's bill would restore money to the fund by 2017, and prohibit lawmakers from raiding it in the future.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, reintroduced a bill to remove mentions of HIV in the state's criminal assault laws, while still preserving the penalties for criminals who intentionally infect another person with a serious disease. Last session, Moeller said he introduced the bill because the human immunodeficiency virus should not be singled out in state law from any other deadly, infectious diseases.

Harris plans to promote a bill that requires prescription drug manufacturers to produce noncrushable oxycodone pills. Crushable pills are sometimes ground up and snorted by prescription drug abusers, and Harris said oxycodone is the most abused prescription drug.

Vick is working on a bill to allow people to drive more types of electric scooters on the roadway, excluding highways. He said there's a state law that allows Segways to be driven on the road, but it's written in a way that excludes other scooters, some of which are made in Southwest Washington.

And after debating those issues and more during the scheduled 60-day session, legislators hope they won't need weeks of overtime like they did in 2013. For most of them, 2014 is a re-election campaign year.