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Jan. 27, 2022

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Washington lawmakers discuss top priorities for 60-day legislative session starting Monday

By , Columbian staff writer
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Nurses are in short supply in Washington state, as seen at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center on Wednesday morning, Sept. 22, 2021.
Nurses are in short supply in Washington state, as seen at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center on Wednesday morning, Sept. 22, 2021. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

State lawmakers will turn their attention to Olympia on Monday for the start of the 2022 legislative session. Despite a short 60-day window, legislators already have a long list of priorities they want to tackle.

While each of the legislators representing Clark County’s districts have their lists of priorities, a few subjects rose to the top across the board.

Long-term care tax

Repealing or reforming the long-term care tax passed in 2019, which had been scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, was the one item nearly every lawmaker put on their must-do list. The rollout for the mandatory payroll tax was delayed by Gov. Jay Inslee in December to let the Legislature resolve issues and questions about the tax.

When it starts, Washington workers will pay 58 cents per $100 earned toward the Washington Cares Fund. Someone who earns $75,000 a year will pay about $435 a year into their account, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Taxpayers who contribute to the fund for 10 years could receive $36,500 over their lifetime to help pay for long-term care needs, such as in-home care, nursing home care, caregivers, meals and other services.

While Democrats favor fixes to the existing bill, Republicans want it repealed.

“Always, we end up fixing the unintended consequences of good ideas from prior years,” state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said.

Wylie said rather than repealing the tax, the Legislature needs to ensure it is rolled out effectively, “and that we don’t jump the gun. Make sure we do the smart thing and make it work.”

The new tax will be especially burdensome on those already struggling to make ends meet, state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said.

“It takes several hundred dollars out of people’s paycheck. People say that’s not a big amount, but it’s a big amount for some people. People are rightly upset about it,” Braun said.

Braun said Democrats know it’s a bad plan and there’s no way to fix it.

“The program was set up poorly and folks still need a chance to opt out or find solutions that are better for themselves,” state Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, said during a Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce legislative preview on Dec. 10.

However, state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said the long-term care tax will be transformative for some families.

“Too many people, as they are aging, simply cannot afford services. … Families are being bankrupted,” Cleveland said. “We know with more people aging, the state’s Medicaid program will be stretched thin and overburdened.”

Cleveland noted private long-term care insurance is often very expensive and difficult to obtain, which is why the tax was passed. Like Wylie, Cleveland said the tax needs to be refined rather than repealed.

Pandemic

Legislators had two primary issues they want to address related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans want to see the governor’s use of emergency powers curtailed and any future decisions related to the pandemic made by the Legislature.

Democrats are focused on helping schools, communities, health care workers and facilities and others adapt and thrive as the pandemic continues.

“I feel strongly that is something the Legislature can and should be doing. The majority is essentially hiding behind the governor making decisions. I support some of the governor’s decisions, others not so much; but the fact is it should be debated openly, transparently with folks from around the state representing their communities,” Braun said.

State Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, had similar concerns.

“The governor is ignoring the Legislature. We are an equal branch of government, and we’ve been under an emergency order now approaching three years,” Hoff said (Inslee’s first pandemic mandate was issued Feb. 29, 2020, less than two years ago). “The House and the Senate have been written out of the governing process. That’s a very large issue and one we’re going to address this session.

“We are long past the point where the governor needs emergency power. There’s nothing the Legislature couldn’t have dealt with,” state Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said.

Cleveland said her No. 1 priority is the Legislature’s response to the ongoing pandemic and ensuring impacts to families, employees and businesses are addressed.

“We are all continuing to face major challenges as a result of COVID. As much as we want things to be normal again, it just doesn’t look to be possible in the near term,” she said.

One of the ways to get Washington’s economy moving is passing a transportation revenue package that includes the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project as well as shovel-ready projects to take advantage of federal funding available, according to Cleveland. She said transportation revenue will strengthen the region’s economy and help combat the negative impacts of the pandemic.

“We need to return some of those hard-earned tax dollars that we’ve paid back to our community and our region so we can create more jobs and ensure our economy is strengthened,” Cleveland said.

With the state bringing in an extra nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2021, Wilson said it’s time to provide tax relief to families and others. A property tax bill Wilson is working on would exempt the first $250,000 of property value from property taxes.

Also, rather than raising the gas tax to pay for transportation projects, Wilson said she wants funds from the state’s motor vehicle sales tax used instead. She also wants business and occupation taxes eliminated from manufacturing.

“We need manufacturers making the products we need and to be exporting so we become less dependent on other countries for our products — as we can tell by our supply chain issues,” she said.

Providing relief and development opportunities to small businesses that have struggled to survive pandemic closures is vital for the state’s economy, state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, said. Kraft plans to introduce legislation that would offer relief from business and operations taxes.

“Help those businesses be able to get back up to full speed, be able to thrive, continue growing and be a great part of our community,” Kraft said at the chamber forum.

Police reforms

On Wednesday, state Republicans announced a package of bills aimed at reforming public safety bills passed during the 2021 session. Local legislators supporting the “Safe Washington” bill package claim that 2021’s House Bill 1310 and House Bill 1054, which restrict police use of force and response, has led to higher crime rates.

“They’re making our communities less safe. We need to go back and allow the police to apprehend suspects,” state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said.

Orcutt said last year’s bills have even kept police from using nonlethal means they would have otherwise used, making it harder to arrest a suspect. Orcutt said he also wants to see changes to Senate Bill 5121, also passed last year, which expanded the graduated reentry program for inmates.

“Now you’ve got people getting out of prison early, the police don’t have the tools they need to make an arrest … that’s leaving more criminals out on our streets,” he added.

Braun is sponsoring two bills in the Safe Washington package — one would repeal HB 1310, the second would repeal SB 5121.

“This isn’t to say we’re against law enforcement reforms, we certainly want a well-trained and accountable law enforcement community. But the (Democratic) majority went too far,” Braun said.

While Braun said he supports the graduated reentry program for inmates, SB 5121 went too far and released too many prisoners.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she is also cosponsoring legislation to reform HB 1310.

“What we saw happen since that bill was put into place was the very worst of unanticipated consequences,” Rivers said.

Rivers said she has been working with law enforcement leaders to discover their concerns and make sure “it’s a true stakeholder process this time.”

Democratic lawmakers haven’t issued a response to the Safe Washington proposal.

Homelessness

Clark County’s growing homeless population may be a big concern for the county’s residents, but few legislators listed the issue in their top priorities.

Wylie said her focus will be on “doing things that really work … and making sure that we spend our federal dollars that we’re getting as well as any extra sales taxes that we’ve accumulated wisely and effectively.”

While the rest of the nation has seen a reduction in homeless rates, Washington’s rate has only increased despite increased spending to address the problem, Rivers said.

“We have one of the worst homelessness problems in the country. Washington and California saw the largest increases in unsheltered and chronically homeless over the last decade,” she said.

Rivers said the Legislature needs to better understand the causes of homelessness. Last year, she successfully introduced an amendment with bipartisan support for study and recommendations on the issue. Reports from the study are due soon.

“They will come up with a comprehensive examination of economic, social and health causes, current and expected patterns of housing stability that’s going to determine a good understanding of how each contribute to the issue,” Rivers said.

Homelessness has been a key issue for state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver.

With a homeless encampment next to his legislative district office, Harris said he’s been reaching out to businesses like Fred Meyer to better understand the impacts.

During the chamber of commerce’s legislative preview, Harris said, “I agree with the city that we need to set up some encampments, we certainly need to do something rather than doing nothing.”

Those encampments need to include access to services like mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and housing assistance, he said.

And the rest

These are certainly not the only issues legislators want to address in the 2022 session. The state’s aging infrastructure and related transportation spending package top the lists for Wylie, Hoff and Cleveland.

In health care, Rivers is working on legislation to ensure diverse populations are included in medical research and Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is sponsoring a bill to bring equity to access for fertility treatment.

Hoff also wants to see the state budget evaluated for long-term viability. He also said surplus funds should go to fixing the state’s infrastructure rather than new programs that may not be sustainable in the long run.

Orcutt is looking to provide financial relief to property owners, small businesses and renters. He notes previous legislation has benefited homeowners, but tenants still struggling with the pandemic have been left out.

Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, hopes to introduce legislation that provides an incentive for hiring veterans and wants to bring exposure to suicide prevention.

Braun is looking at how to address the fallout from the state Supreme Court’s Blake ruling that decriminalized drug possession, and also “pocketbook issues” such as rent and utilities increases.

Harris has put the I-5 Bridge replacement in his top priorities, along with changes to the police reform bills.

Vick has put the I-5 Bridge project at the top of his list and especially getting federal dollars allocated to the project so that tolling won’t be necessary.

“If we keep our foot on the gas pedal, I think we can make some good progress there,” Vick said.

The Legislature’s 2022 session convenes Monday. For information on schedules, committee meetings and legislation sponsored, along with how to contact your legislators, go to leg.wa.gov.

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