The Washington State Legislature is nearing the end of its general session and now is the prefect time to list a few of the major victories this year.
In spite of the painfully narrow defeat of a bill that would have provided legal protections to gays and lesbians (the bill passed in the House, but went down by one vote in the Senate), this session was overwhelmingly positive, in spite of highly critical media coverage.
Instead of drastic budget cuts as in prior years, the Democratic controlled Legislature passed a budget bill that will increase state spending by 12%, financed largely by sin taxes (on alcohol and cigarettes), a slightly revised tax on estates, and shifting some of the tobacco settlement funds. It’s a one-time-only fix, but hopefully Gov. Gregoire will use the next year in office to start talking about more permanent revenue streams. The best option would be a state income tax combined with cuts in expensive tax credits for businesses. One or both of these would be an improvement over what we have now.
As far as the other bills that passed this year, healthcare advocates were the big winners. Bills that allow for the purchase of prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies and wholesalers, that set up a drug-purchasing consortium to buy cheaper medicines from Canada, and a bill that would set up a nonprofit foundation to help low-income Washington residents purchase medicines at reduced rates are particularly welcome. Also notable were bills that increased personal allowances for nursing home residents and promote quality care in boarding homes, hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities.
In addition, several key healthcare items survived the grueling budget process: $80 million of lost federal funding for mental health care, partial funding for a mental health/chemical dependency bill, and money to maintain the current enrollment in the state-funded Basic Health Plan at 100,000 people.
A few weeks ago, the press focused heavily on the mental health parity bill, which will require group health insurance plans to provide equal coverage for mental health services. Unfortunately, employers with less than 50 employees are exempt from the new law; however, insurance companies are required to offer an optional mental health coverage plan to those “small” businesses that might want to provide it to their employees anyway. At least requiring the big guys to do it will take some of the strain off our public health system.
On the brighter side, the mental health/chemical dependency bill contains a provision that would allow cities and counties to levy a 1% sales and use tax to fund expanded mental health and chemical dependency programs–a key piece to fund this long-desired, much-needed swing away from failed, drug-war-inspired, incarceration-only policies.
Housing advocates also racked up a few hits–most notably a bill that will allow counties and cities to financially penalize landlords for building code and health code violations, then give that money to tenants to find safer housing elsewhere. A gentrification-relief bill also passed the Legislature. It will provide assistance to tenants who are displaced when their building is “rehabilitated” and the rents raised accordingly. But the icing on the cake is a line item in the budget that will give a $20 million boost for the state’s Housing Trust Fund, which provides money for the creation of low-income housing. Every year, housing advocates hope for this increase, but more often find themselves fighting to keep the money for the Trust Fund from being cut. Congratulations all around.
A major victory for environmentalists came in the form of a bill that will change vehicle emission standards to conform more closely to California’s stricter laws instead of the looser, auto-industry friendly federal law. Healthcare advocates have also hailed the new law because it states that 80% of toxic air pollution comes from automobiles, which are therefore deemed a public health hazard (finally!). The law exempts vehicles already in use, but requires new vehicles to pass the emission standards, and will require all vehicles to pass the standards by 2016.
Another environmental victory came in the form of the “green buildings” bill that requires all new public buildings to include several energy saving, nontoxic, and environmentally friendly features. It’s the first bill of its kind to pass in the US–a major milestone and worthy of celebration all on its own.
A number of other good bills have passed the Legislature (or are very near to passing as of this writing) and will be headed for the governor’s signature, including bills and budget items that help children in foster care, address problems in providing Medicaid to poor families, bring wage stability to childcare workers, fund increases in teacher salaries and reductions in class sizes, provide services for the victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse–the list goes on and on. And, most importantly, the funding for these initiatives is provided for in the budget bill or in the bills themselves, so they’re not just empty rhetoric, as we’ve seen in past years. This is a sign of what can happen with a Democratic majority in both houses and a Democratic governor who’s not a jellyfish. Like her or not, Gregoire at least does something.
There is one issue, however, that has been a major struggle for the Legislature to address this year, just like in prior years: transportation. It’s the millstone hanging around the Legislature’s neck, with many proposals on the table and few easy solutions. This year’s best chance to fund major transportation construction comes in a proposal for a 9.5 cent gas tax over four years. As of this writing, the bill passed the house, but went down in defeat in a first vote in the Senate, with more debate and a second vote considered likely. It’s even possible that haggling over the transportation bill could prevent the final vote on the budget bill, and therefore force the Legislature to come back for a special session in May.
The biggest problem with the transportation bill is not that it’s being passed mostly with Democratic support (it’s not “bipartisan”) or that it’s driven other issues off the agenda, but that it’s not a real solution. The gas tax is not indexed for inflation, nor will this tax be levied for more than four years. It’s a one-shot deal. It will provide some money for the Alaskan Way viaduct and the 520 bridge replacement, but the rest of the funds will have to come from the tri-county region (Snohomish, King, and Pierce) by the year 2007 or all the money will revert to some other use–probably more freeway lanes.
The tri-county Regional Transportation Board, however, has resoundingly failed in the past five years to put a plan before the voters; there’s no indication that this will change any time soon. In addition, there’s no money in the plan set aside to upgrade I-5 through Seattle–a problem almost as urgent as the teetering viaduct.
To be fair, the real cause of our transportation woes is not entirely due to inaction at the state level. It’s also caused by inaction at the federal level, where funds for major transportation upgrades should be flowing freely from the federal government down to states and cities all over the US. Instead, the money for our crumbling infrastructure is going overseas to fight a pointless war in Iraq and to provide tax cuts to the wealthy. Until those problems are addressed, transportation fixes can go nowhere.