State’s 10 biggest issues - Sex offenders, tax cuts top lawmakers’ agenda this year
Olympia, WA - When state lawmakers convene for a 60-day legislative session Monday, they will be reacting in part to two events that grabbed headlines over the past year: the vigilante killings of sex predators and the dramatic surge in gasoline prices.
Those events helped shape the legislative agenda this year – an election year for most lawmakers – because they focused attention on two concerns of their constituents.
There also will be a lot of attention on what Gov. Christine Gregoire and lawmakers do with a projected $1.4 billion surplus. Legislative leaders caution not to expect much, as the primary goal is to update the two-year, $58 billion budget approved last year.
“It’s really a session to tweak and continue on the same path,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, says.
That won’t stop interest groups – many of them campaign backers – from asking for money.
Democrats again will call the shots and set most of the agenda by virtue of their 26-23 majority in the Senate and 55-43 margin in the House. But they’ve pledged to work with Republicans, and many of the issues are shared agenda items.
Here’s a glance at 10 issues to watch:
1. Sex offenders
Three sex offenders were killed in the past six months in Bellingham and Yakima.
“The people of the state of Washington have taken the law into their own hands too many times this year with vigilante crimes against sex offenders. And the reason they do that is they don’t trust that the state is doing what it can to protect their children,” said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.
Attorney General Rob McKenna has drafted a half-dozen bills. They include measures to boost the penalty for possessing child pornography, require Level 3 offenders to check in with county sheriffs every 90 days and keep sex offenders from getting within two city blocks of schools.
McKenna also wants to bar child molesters from playgrounds, day-care centers and festivals.
Some lawmakers want to go even further with proposals for execution, life prison terms or electronic monitoring for life.
2. Tax cuts
Don’t look for lawmakers to get rid of the cigarette, liquor and estate taxes they passed last year, despite the state’s growing savings account.
Most of that $200 million a year is earmarked for teacher pay raises and spending on public schools. The Democrats want to keep that money coming in to further reduce class sizes.
“You will hear from some people that we ought to cut taxes, that having money in the bank is a signal that we’ve got too much and we ought to set it aside,” said Sen. Brown. “I think that would be the wrong approach. Were we to cut taxes now, that would set us up for another round of spending cuts or tax increases.”
Voters might have a say. A citizens group plans to file an initiative petition Monday that repeals the estate tax through a public vote in November.
3. Park fee
One unpopular fee might be repealed this session: the $5 parking fee collected for the past three years at 105 state parks and recreation areas.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and DeBolt, the minority leader, say they favor scrapping the fee and replacing the money with other state funds.
DeBolt said many park visitors feel they are “double taxed” for parks via their state property and sales taxes and again through the fee.
Park visits have declined from an estimated 45 million in 2001 to 37 million in 2004. And the state parks commission spends $2 million a year to collect $3.8 million in parking fees.
But the 50 full-time employees hired to collect day-use fees also perform other work, such as minor repairs and clearing invasive vegetation, said Virginia Painter, parks spokeswoman.
Gregoire and legislators are pursuing what they call “energy independence” while conceding they cannot significantly reduce Washington’s dependence on foreign oil without national policy changes.
But they’re talking about encouraging Washington farmers to use their crops to produce biofuels that can be blended with conventional gasoline and diesel.
Chopp talked last week about building a market for the crops by requiring the state ferry system to use biodiesel.
Republicans say the flaw in the Democrats’ proposal is giving start-up grants only to conservation districts, not farmers or private companies.
Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, proposes giving drivers a sales tax break on a new car if they trade in one that’s at least 15 years old. That would help replace older vehicles with newer models that get better gas mileage and produce less pollution, he said.
Lawmakers also are looking to increase incentives for production of wind and solar energy, as well as methane from animal manure.
Nothing major is expected since last year’s gas tax increase survived a ballot measure to repeal it.
But Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he’ll try again to get rid of the Regional Transportation Investment District in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties and replace it with an agency that has a broader array of projects.
The RTID is restricted largely to building or expanding highways of statewide significance. Murray wants to give the new agency the authority to pay for transit subsidies and local roads.
Murray said the new agency would allow Gig Harbor and Kitsap County to stay out of the new taxing district at the outset but have the option to join later.
That provision takes into account the fact that those communities will start paying a $3 toll in 2007 when the second Narrows bridge opens.
6. Cheney Stadium
Tacoma is one of five cities seeking state money for repairs to minor league ballparks.
They’re asking the Legislature for $25 million over the four years from its capital budget. Tacoma’s share would be $10 million for Cheney Stadium.
Last year, local officials failed to persuade state budget-writers to give the five cities a portion of the state lottery proceeds. This time, they’re asking for a flat cash grant.
Democrat and Republican leaders alike have embraced the governor’s proposal to spend $38.5 million tutoring students who fail the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test, which students must pass to graduate beginning in 2008.
Despite all the rhetoric about “high-stakes” testing, most don’t want to throw out the WASL test but are looking at additional ways of evaluating students.
8. Gay rights
A proposal to extend civil-rights protection to gays passed the House last year but failed in the Senate by one vote.
Supporters of House Bill 1515 are trying to persuade a couple of the “no” votes to switch. Former Senate Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland, who voted against it, has since stepped down as GOP caucus leader.
Gay rights supporters say Finkbeiner might feel freer to vote his conscience. As a member of the House of Representatives, Finkbeiner had voted in favor of gay rights measures.
Then again, Finkbeiner was a Democrat at that time.
HB 1515 would prohibit discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation with respect to employment, lodging and financial transactions.
9. Pension funds
The Legislature has been shorting its pension funds for years and faces $4 billion of unfunded liability in two of its 14 pension plans.
No one is missing a benefit check. But at some point lawmakers will have to put more money into the plans that cover some school employees and some state, county and city workers hired before October 1977.
Brown, the Senate majority leader, said the state has to be careful about raising employer contributions to those retirement plans because cities and counties would be hard-pressed to come up with their share.
10. Builders vs. Realtors
The Legislature is considering giving local governments and schools the authority to raise the real estate excise tax to pay for the burdens that new developments put on local parks, roads, classrooms and other infrastructure.
The Building Industry Association of Washington supports the higher taxes – paid by home sellers – especially if they replace the developer impact fees that builders now pay to some local governments.
Last year, the Realtors started collecting $100 from each of its members to wage the war fighting the real estate tax and reportedly have a war chest of $1.5 million.
The Washington Association of Counties supports the excise tax option. Expect both industry groups to be in the mix of negotiations.
How to follow state government
Read bills, amendments and bill reports, send e-mail to lawmakers and staff, search state laws, scan a list of legislators and check the session calendar.
Keep up with the governor’s agenda.
Find real-time and archived audio and video of committee meetings, floor debates and news conferences.
Track votes: www.washingtonvotes.org
This free, independent, nonpartisan site offers a searchable database of legislation and votes.
TVW, the state government cable network, will include live programming and delayed coverage of each day’s events. Check with your local cable operator for channels and times.
The legislative hot line, 1-800-562-6000, operates 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. The hot line accepts messages for legislators and enables callers to check the status of bills and learn the topics, times and locations of committee meetings.
Reach the governor’s office at 360-902-4111.
Gov. Chris Gregoire
PO Box 40002
Olympia, WA 98504-0002
House of Representatives
PO Box 40600
Olympia, WA 98504-0600
PO Box 40482
Olympia, WA 98504-0482
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