Legislature completes session

June 12th, 2003

By Chris Mulick
Tri-City Herald Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA, WA-- The Legislature adjourned its 2003 session Wednesday night after approving an overhaul to the state's unemployment insurance system and a massive package of tax incentives for the state's aerospace industry.

The reform was touted as key to the state's effort to lure Boeing into building its 7E7 jetliner plant in Washington. Everett and Moses Lake are the contenders but must compete with sites in other states.

The Democratic-controlled House ended a standoff with the Republican-controlled Senate that had kept lawmakers in their seats all night Tuesday and past 5 a.m. Wednesday only to have them return seven hours later to continue the stare down.

In the end, the House conceded and approved a plan backed by Gov. Gary Locke, Boeing, Senate Republicans and two Boeing workers' unions but opposed by the rest of organized labor, including the state labor council and the United Farm Workers.

"We consider it really special for us as we look to our future decisions," said Al Ralston, a Boeing lobbyist who said the state business climate has "become a lot more competitive."

"What we've done is absolutely historic," Locke said.

Senate Bill 6097, which was approved 31-9 in the Senate and 57-33 in the House, would calculate unemployment benefits based on income earned over the last four quarters rather than the two most lucrative quarters in the past year. Boeing and other companies have argued the current system forces them to subsidize unemployment costs for industries with more seasonal work forces, such as agriculture and construction, which would be hit hardest under the bill.

"Unemployment insurance is for people who work and who lose their jobs through no fault of their own," said Granger Rep. Bruce Chandler, the ranking Republican on the House Commerce and Labor Committee. "In order to maintain this system, we have to reform benefits."

Rep. Steve Conway, a Tacoma Democrat and committee chairman, criticized the vote for being "driven by the collective fear of losing the Boeing corporation."

Unionized iron workers and union lobbyists watching on television inside a tent between the House and Senate chambers hissed and jeered as the bill was debated.

The compromise wasn't easy for other sectors to swallow, either. Senate Republicans felt their earlier version already spread the pain of unemployment costs to industries such as agriculture far enough.

"It's a matter of trying to satisfy the whole coalition, and that's tough to do," Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said earlier after passing the measure as the long morning hours were becoming not so wee.

Passage of the unemployment insurance reforms opened the door for the Senate to approve a multibillion-dollar tax incentive package that ultimately could save the aerospace industry $120 million a year if Boeing opts to build its 7E7 plant in Washington.

That plant would employ 1,200 assembly workers. It is believed about 3,400 additional jobs would be created in Washington to support the effort, plus thousands of other spin-off jobs.

The package, which includes cuts in property and business taxes plus credits for research and development, was criticized by some in the business community for focusing on one industry. But those worries were overwhelmed by fear of the consequences of inaction.

"We need to make sure our hand is strengthened," said Sen. Dino Rossi, a Sammamish Republican and lead budget writer in the Senate.

Adjournment came none too soon for giddy yet long-faced legislators after the rare all-nighter. Far less animated than usual, some were seen early Wednesday face down on their desks and easing their chairs back in deep recline.

"If we weren't all so tired, you'd see a lot more exuberance," joked Sen. Pat Hale, R-Kennewick, shortly after adjournment.


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