Last week, legislative committees in Olympia decided on which bills would go before the Senate and the House. Many good bills died in committee, a few made it through committee, and lots of time was spent agonizing over the budget and transportation issues. With only three weeks left in this short session, there’s not much time to plug the funding holes left by I-695.
The repeal of the car tab tax left the state’s biennial budget short by $750 million. There’s about $74 million available under the I-601 spending cap that can be immediately used to fill some of the gap. There’s also about $200 million in unrestricted reserves and another $500 million set aside by law in the emergency reserve account. I-695 supporters want to see all of that reserve money spent. The only problem is, once the money’s gone, it’s gone. Spending the entire reserve–including emergency funds–to fill the gap in a single budget year is moronic, to say the least. Which means the legislature will probably try some combination of budget cuts and raiding of various trust fund accounts (the Housing Trust Fund, the tobacco settlement funds, etc.) to pay for transportation. And in the middle of all of this, there’s been a lot of chest-beating, election-year moves by both the Democrats and the Republicans to cut taxes, which would create an even bigger hole in the budget.
Governor Locke has provided no leadership on either the budget shortfall or the collapse of transportation funds. He has made a one-time allocation of $100 million to local transit authorities, giving them three or four months’ grace period before the big cuts have to happen. Meanwhile, his head-in-the-sand approach to transportation funding–i.e., leave it to his Blue Ribbon Committee on Transportation to study and recommend a solution in late November (after the November elections, of course)–is politicking at its worst and a clear dereliction of duty. At the very least, it’s a sign that Locke is another one of that odious breed of conservative Democrats who’s happy to find one issue (in this case, education) that he hopes will take the voters’ minds off his stunningly poor record. Yet, even Governor Lick-Ass’s education proposal is being savaged by this year’s legislature in the name of finding a little dough for road construction. On Feb. 5, Locke at last backed down and admitted that maybe this year’s legislature ought to address the transportation funding problem, but he has no coherent plan and clearly prefers to drop the subject, if possible.
In the meantime, the legislature has a narrow timeline to approve bills and work out a budget. The bills listed below are, as of this writing, being debated on the House and Senate floors. On Wed., February 16, bills that have survived a vote of the full House will be passed on to the Senate for another run through committee, and vice-versa for Senate bills. That process will take approximately two weeks. The final 10 days of the session will be devoted to voting on bills that survived committee, reconciling the House versions with the Senate versions of each bill that passed, and hammering out the budget.
This, then, is a progress report. (Note: House Bills have the “HB” designation and begin with the number 1 or 2 and Senate Bills have the “SB” designation and begin with the number 5 or 6. An additional “S” in front of a bill number designates a substitute bill.)
First of all, a lot of very good bills died in the first round of committee hearings. Most childcare bills died, including a provision for a toll-free childcare hotline that would have provided parents with free and easy-to-obtain information on childcare providers. Foster care bills fared badly, especially a couple of good proposals to provide educational assistance to children in foster care and to 18 to 21-year-olds raised in foster care who have no access to funds for college or other higher education options. Folks with disabilities got short shrift, too, as one bill after another failed to make it out of committee.
Affordable housing advocates watched some of their bills die, too, including a proposal to extend the “just cause” requirement to tenants outside of Seattle. Inside Seattle, landlords who want to evict tenants have to show “just cause”–not so, in the rest of the state. But a bill to preserve federally designated Section 8 housing and give tenants or non-profits a chance to buy former Section 8 properties (SSB 6663) survived and will be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor; its chances in the House seem slim, however. Senate Bill SB 6689 would reallocate real estate excise taxes to local, low-cost housing. Call your senator and tell her or him to support these two bills.
Welfare advocates helped to shepherd through a few bills to mitigate the impact of the state’s welfare reform policies. SHB 2367 and SSB 6558 would allow single parents to count on-the-job internships and practicums as part of the work requirements under the WorkFirst rules. This is a no-brainer, and SHB 2367 passed the House unanimously. Similarly, SB 6365 and SB 6364 would allow apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs to also qualify as work. Another bill, 2S6167, would make it easier for low-income folks to maintain access to Medicaid by removing the “assets test” for people who re-apply for benefits. It does, however, force everyone to use the same application when they apply. Currently, pregnant women and children use a simplified application that’s less burdensome. This problem, however, could be hammered out later.
The big social issue of this session has been the state’s health insurance crisis. The legislature has bypassed any discussion of fixing the state’s Basic Health Plan and concentrated instead on two items: the Patients’ Bill of Rights and the private insurance market.
The Patients’ Bill of Rights has come up in prior years, but has hit a dead end every time. Not this year. A much-amended version sailed through the Senate on a 48-1 vote. It has already passed through the House Health Care Committee and is scheduled for a vote on the House floor, where it will probably pass (2SHB 2331). It will give patients the right to sue HMOs, requires insurance carriers to offer a choice of providers, and would ensure the confidentiality of patient information. One provision, however, is problematic; the bill would allow patients a third-party review for claims that have been denied, but there’s no time limit on how quickly that review must occur. It’s a bad sign when both Premera Blue Cross and Regence BlueShield representatives gloat that they are already in compliance with this provision. Only a week ago Premera agreed to pay the state a $55,000 fine for illegally denying patients’ claims to cover emergency room visits. Regence has also been accused of the same crime, as has Aetna. And QualMed Washington paid a $250,000 fine last August for emergency-room claim denials.
The insurance industry has another trick up its sleeve. Two bills (one in each house) address the private insurance market. Both bills would change state law to lengthen the time people with pre-existing conditions must wait before they can qualify for private insurance. Currently, the wait is only three months. HB 2362 would extend that to six months, while HB 2360 would extend it to one year, primarily at the request of insurance companies that don’t want to cover pregnant women or “high-risk” individuals (for example, a person recently diagnosed with cancer). Both bills are bad, both have stalled in the House Health Care Committee–but both are also exempted from the usual cut-off dates, so either one could be revived at any time. Ominously, a substitute Senate bill, 2SSB 6067, which pushes similar changes to our state’s insurance laws, is scheduled for a Senate floor vote. Some legislators want to tack it on to the Patients’ Bill of Rights. Call your Senator and tell him or her to vote this one down.
On the bright side, two bills–HB 2031 and SB 5920–require health insurance plans to offer their enrollees direct access to midwives. These bills have passed both houses and could easily become law by the end of the session.
These are only a few of the many bills that have passed committee. To check on the status of these and other bills, you can call the Bill Room at 360-785-7573. To reach your legislators, you can call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-562-6000 (TDD 1-800-635-9993). Via the Internet, you can visit http://www.leg.wa.gov to see the texts and status of bills, follow the legislative schedule, and find out who your representatives are.