Taxpayers may not have got their money's worth with the recently concluded 2004 legislative session in Olympia.
That was the message hinted at late last week by three Sunnyside area lawmakers-Sen. Jim Honeyford and Representatives Dan Newhouse and Bruce Chandler. All three Republicans said the lack of action in Olympia this year came at a time when changes were needed.
Specifically, the three Lower Yakima Valley legislators are not pleased that issues such as reforming the state's Labor & Industries Department stalled, or that lawmakers couldn't even get a bill designed to curb the state's escalating minimum wage to the floor for a vote. The three Sunnyside area elected officials also noted that little was done in clearing up questions on water relinquishment and instream flows. Even less was accomplished, said the three, in addressing tort reform.
So, how did the state's lawmakers decide to deal with all these burning issues? Simply put, said the three, they were all placed on side burners and earmarked to be researched.
"You might say this was a session where no study was left behind," smirked Chandler, who operates a fruit orchard near Granger when he isn't serving his constituents in Olympia.
"There was no will to act," he continued. The lack of action by their peers "...reflects the frustration we had over the session," Chandler said, with both Newhouse and Honeyford nodding in agreement.
Next year, to avoid a repeat of the 2004 session, the three said it is imperative that Gov. Gary Locke's replacement be a Republican. Locke, a two-term Democrat, has already announced that he will not seek a third term as governor.
"The key part of the whole picture is having a Republican governor in there," Newhouse stressed. The freshman legislator, a hop grower who farms just to the south of Sunnyside, said the GOP will throw its support behind Dino Rossi of Issaquah.
Rossi, whom Honeyford said is a strong ag supporter, resigned from the state Senate this past December so he could fully commit to campaigning for Locke's position. Chandler calls Rossi "...a stellar candidate."
The three Sunnyside area politicians also note that the GOP has identified 12 key races for the state House this year. Democrats enjoyed a six-seat advantage in the House this past session. Both, Newhouse and Chandler will be seeking to retain their House Republican seats this fall. Honeyford, a retired educator, is not up for re-election to the Republican controlled state Senate this coming November.
In terms of what lawmakers did get accomplished in 2004, the three Sunnyside area legislators wincingly acknowledge that a compromise was hammered out on the supplemental budget. The budget that was sent to Locke came out of the Senate, but none of the three local lawmakers are all that thrilled that the budget includes only $305 million in reserves.
Newhouse, who said crafting a new two-year budget will be a top priority next year, is among many who are concerned that the state will have to deal with a general budget deficit in 2005.
Another area of spending that worries Newhouse, Chandler and Honeyford is the budget of the Department of Labor & Industries. They said it is almost a foregone conclusion that in 2005 employers will face another double-digit increase in the premiums they pay in to L&I.
The entire structure of L&I needs overhauling, say the three.
"Internal changes would fix 75 percent of the problems," said Honeyford. He cites the need for an annual auditing procedure, and such a bill cleared the Senate this year. Unfortunately, he said, the bill died in the House's Commerce and Labor Committee.
Honeyford, too, sponsored a bill that addressed two recent state Supreme Court cases that have increased L&I benefit costs, in essence providing administrative efficiencies. Under terms of the measure, wages would be calculated by using the highest four consecutive quarters in the last two years. Fringe benefits would not be included in the calculation of wages, and compensation would be paid for lost wages at 65.5 percent of a worker's wage. The Senate passed Honeyford's bill, but like the audit measure, it died in the House Commercial & Labor Committee. Three other L&I reform bills that Honeyford sponsored-stopping the misuse of worker and employer premiums, requiring timely reports for on-the-job injuries and giving self-insurers more authority over their claims-all passed the Senate this year, but all were killed by the House Commercial & Labor Committee.
"Major reforms didn't occur," Honeyford said. "There was no real opportunity," he added, referring to the House's actions to kill his bills in committee.
Chandler calls the Dept. of L&I "dysfunctional." He said claims are handled too slowly, the process is expensive and the state agency doesn't serve either employers or employees adequately.
Honeyford is just as frustrated with the inaction taken on water issues that came before legislators. He blames Locke for doing nothing to push the issue to the forefront. He also said too much compromise was needed to get anything accomplished, "...and then, not even a study was approved on relinquishment," Honeyford said.
The three Sunnyside area lawmakers are also deeply disappointed that nothing was done to slow down the state's escalating minimum wage. Currently, Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the nation, at $7.16 an hour. Again, the House couldn't get a bill dealing with the issue to the floor for a vote.
"I think it will be addressed eventually," said Chandler, "The question is, how many jobs will be lost before it is."
Newhouse vowed the minimum wage issue will be a top priority come next session.
Also high on the three local legislator's list of priorities is tort reform. Exorbitant insurance premiums and large monetary awards by juries and judges are bankrupting the medical industry, they say. Newhouse and Chandler said the goal is to reign in the skyrocketing premiums and limit the large settlements.
"If we don't, we won't have many physicians left practicing here in the state," said Newhouse.