Wednesday, March 17, 2004
The last week of a legislative session usually sees a flurry of activity as the House and Senate try to agree on key issues before session ends. This year was no different as the Legislature reached compromise on the supplemental operating, capital and transportation budgets, and a replacement for the blanket primary.
• The supplemental operating budget was passed 34-15 by the Senate and 84-12 by the House. There were several reasons why I voted for the budget. It adds roughly $145 million to the $23.2 billion 2003-05 operating budget. It leaves more than $300 million in the state's emergency reserve account, contains no tax increases or "budget gimmicks," and is one of the slowest-growing budgets in state history. Because it leaves a sizable reserve, it helps minimize the budget situation we'll face next year when the state is expected to have a $1 billion revenue shortfall due to necessary spending increases in necessary services and programs. However, the budget kept our commitment to the state's most vulnerable by fully funding nursing homes, supporting community mental health, enhancing domestic violence services and shelters, enhancing agencies on aging funding to lower the caseworker-patient ratio for in-home long-term care, and providing more employment and day services for people with developmental disabilities.
• Since Washington's unemployment rate is still one of the highest in the nation, it's important to protect existing jobs in our state, as well as helping to create more jobs. Early this session, the Legislature did this by extending certain tax credits to high-tech businesses. The bill (ESHB 2546) requires annual surveys regarding job creation and retention to ensure that these tax credits do as planned. We also passed a measure (SSB 6240) extending the rural county sales and use tax deferral and B&O tax credit for software job creation. Under the bill, a $1,000 B&O tax credit is available for each new software manufacturing or computer-programming job created in a rural county.
• Washington's aluminum smelting industry has declined in recent years because of lower aluminum prices in the global aluminum commodities market and local increases in the price of electricity, a major cost driver in aluminum prices. In 1998, the industry in the state employed over 5,300 people. In 2002, only 2,200 persons were employed. Late this session, the Legislature passed a measure (2SSB 6304) providing tax incentives to protect jobs in the aluminum industry through 2006. Under the bill, smelters must submit annual reports for accountability. This measure should help our aluminum companies.
• The passage of the $202 million 2004 supplemental capital construction budget marks the first time in state history that a capital budget has passed by the Legislature without new bonds. The capital budget includes funds for Klickitat County to address the tire pile problem near Goldendale.
• This year, the Legislature was forced to adopt an alternative to the state's blanket primary when it was ruled unconstitutional in federal court. Last week, the House and Senate agreed on an alternative (ESB 6453) called the Top Two system, which has one ballot at the primary election on which all candidates appear. The two candidates in each race who receive the most votes, regardless of party, advance to the general election. This means it's possible for two candidates from the same party to wind up in a general election. The bill will insert the Montana-style primary if the Top Two system is thrown out by the courts. Gov. Locke has hinted that he might veto the Top Two system, which would give us the Montana system, in which voters would have to pick one party's ballot, although their privacy would be protected.
• On the last night of session, the Legislature passed a bill (ESHB 2460) reforming the small-market health insurance system. The bill was expected to help provide more affordable health care coverage for thousands of workers employed at small businesses in Washington. The final version of the bill made some changes to the state's insurance mandates but still requires any product to cover "every category of provider." Some believe removing this mandate is the key to driving down health insurance costs for small employers.
• This year, the Legislature unanimously passed a bill (SB 6615) I prime-sponsored that encourages employment of injured workers with developmental disabilities.
• One disappointment was the failure for the House and Senate to agree on a liability reform package. This also is known as tort reform. A proposal (ESSB 5728) passed by the Senate sought to make changes to medical malpractice liability modeled after California's law.
• Skamania County this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The Senate recognized this special occasion by passing a resolution that I introduced. The resolution recognized the rich history of Skamania County and acknowledged the 150th birthday celebration on March 9 in Stevenson.
Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside) serves the 15th Legislative District.