Last Thursday was the end of the 60-day legislative session in Olympia. Before the day was out, Gov. Locke had already called lawmakers back for a special session to resolve the budget. How long that special session will last is anyone’s guess–it could run a few days or a full 30 days; it could also require a second 30-day special session, if the even 49 Republicans/49 Democrats split in the House continues to be as big a problem as it has over the past three weeks.
In mid-February, the split in the House became a standoff. Both parties had agreed that no bill could come to a vote on the floor of the House unless both co-speakers (one Republican and one Democrat) had reviewed the bill and agreed to vote on it. As a result, any bill that had the support of only one party was blocked, and mostly minor, bi-partisan bills or those with no or little impact on the budget were allowed for a vote. Major bills that passed the Democratic-controlled Senate have languished and died, but the main casualty so far has been the budget, and both parties are far apart on how to address the shortfalls created by I-695.
There are four drafts of the budget in circulation: the governor’s proposed budget, the Senate’s version, and two versions from the House–the Republican’s proposal and the Democrat’s. They all vary widely, but there are two things they all share: not one of them manages to completely restore all the money lost from I-695, and they all include some kind of property tax cut–more to appease voters this November than to help balance the budget in any practical sense.
Viewed in this light, all the budget proposals are dismal, to say the least. Naturally, the House Republican version is the worst. It would drain money away from vital social services (including services for low-income women, infants, and children) and pour it into tax cuts and road construction. It would privatize one prison and cut enrollment in higher education. It would also cut the current budget by $170 million, thereby lowering the I-601 spending cap and making it even harder for the legislature to fund services next year. But the worst aspect of the Republican proposal is that it would force the state to go heavily into debt to finance road construction, meaning the state will have to allocate more money under the shrinking I-601 cap to pay bond interest, cutting social services, transit, education, and subsidies to local and rural governments even more. And there’s only a one-time $50 million grant for transit in the Republican budget (less than half of what transit needs each year to stay afloat). This is a clear sign that Republicans have accepted Tim Eyman’s argument to eventually do away with transit completely.
The two budgets proposed by the Democrats are better, but still flawed. The Democrat approach would maintain funding for many existing social services and provide more for transit, but it still doesn’t fill the I-695 gap. It would transfer funds from the emergency reserve account to fund transportation projects over three years, which the Republicans claim is not “long-term” enough for them; long-term debt is better, they assert (perhaps taking a page from Ronald Reagan’s book).
All three budget proposals share one more thing in common: they involve spending emergency reserves set aside by I-601 and/or lowering the I-601 spending cap. The Republicans argue that it will take a two-thirds vote to approve this, while the Democrats argue that a simple majority can do it. Neither side, however, has taken the necessary step of throwing out I-601 altogether. After all, I-601 has tied up a billion dollars that can’t be spent on anything. Let’s be clear about this: government is not a person and it does not need retirement savings. An emergency reserve needs to be spent on emergencies; what else is it for? And let’s define a real emergency: transportation funding and money to support local governments and social services surely qualify as emergencies–more so than a ballpark for the Mariners did. When government has to go into debt (as the Republicans propose) to afford these basic services, it’s time to spend the savings instead.
Much as we may disagree on how smart it is to spend the emergency reserves now, the legislature should recognize one thing. Most people in the U.S. don’t save very much money; a lot of folks voted for I-695 because they knew the state was sitting on a big pile of reserve cash. Like it or not (and personally, I don’t like it), if Washington residents want to spend that cash, the legislature should probably do it. But in this election year, no one has the guts to say so.
While most of the special session will be spent haggling over the budget, here’s a list of some bills that passed both houses and are sitting on Gary Locke’s desk waiting to be signed (bill numbers are in parentheses):
–A bill requiring health insurance plans to offer direct access to midwives. (HB 2031/SB 5920)
–Patients’ Bill of Rights, allowing patients to sue for harm, seek a third party review of claim denials, and protect patients’ privacy. This bill passed after it was watered down to the liking of the insurance industry. For example, it does not provide any time limits on how long the third party review would take. (E2SHB 2331/SB 6199)
–Individual health insurance bill, an outright concession to insurance companies. It skims off the 8% of the sickest people (who need health insurance the most) from the individual market and dumps them into an expensive high risk pool. People with pre-existing conditions will now have to wait nine months (instead of three) before they can get individual insurance coverage. Even worse, insurance companies can cancel a person’s policy even if that person has been paying his or her premiums. This disastrous bill provides more profit for the insurance industry, but it pushes health care reform back to the Dark Ages. Call or write to Gov. Locke and ask him to veto it (see below). (HB 2362/2SSB 6067)
–A provision for part-time teachers to earn sick leave similar to full-time teachers in proportion to the hours they work. Many part-time instructors currently have no sick leave benefits at all or earn only a few sick leave hours, even though they work a full 40-hour week at a variety of different job sites. This bill is long overdue. (2SSB 6811)
–A bill to enforce current law and notify tenants when their Section 8 housing will expire and/or the building they live in will come up for renovation or sale. This will give low-income tenants more time to make arrangements to move, and it will make it easier for non-profit groups to buy former Section 8 housing to preserve the low-income housing stock. (HB 2789/SSB 6663)
–A bill that would allow people in the welfare-to-work program to count educational internships as valid work under the WorkFirst program.
–Hunting cougars with dogs. This was voted down by the people once before, but this time Gov. Locke stepped in and gave it his backing, and the legislature went along. Locke will sign this one; contact him to express your disapproval (see below).
–Race profiling. This is a bill that encourages (but doesn’t require) local police departments to keep track of the number of people of color pulled over for traffic citations. (SB 6683)
–A major cut in the state’s unemployment tax. It’s worth noting that tax breaks for you and me have to survive the budget process, but a tax break that will save businesses $600 million over six years can fly through the legislature with little debate. Tacked on to this bill is a sweetener that provides $140 million for retraining unemployed loggers, fishermen, and laid-off Boeing workers. The two don’t belong together. Call Gov. Locke and ask him to kill it (see below). (HB 3077)
Many important bills never made it to a vote on the House floor. In particular, two bills that were blocked by Republican House Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard brought down the justified wrath of organized labor on the state capitol. Steel workers and state employees sat down together and blocked hallways in the capitol building on Thursday and Friday chanting “Take the vote, Clyde!” The two bills in question: 1) to grant state employees collective bargaining rights, and 2) to grant unemployment benefits to locked-out Kaiser Aluminum workers. Legislative staffers affirmed that there were more than enough votes to pass both bills on the House floor if Ballard would only allow it (he didn’t).
To voice your support or dislike of any of the bills that have been sent to Gov. Locke, contact his office at 360-902-4111, http://www.governor.wa.gov/contact/contact.htm, or write to Governor Gary Locke, Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 40002, Olympia, WA 98504-0002. To reach your legislators, you can call toll-free at 1-800-562-6000 or visit http://www.leg.wa.gov.