Gregoire plans for 7-day special session

Politics: Lawmakers' work remains undone

March 12, 2010 

The Washington Legislature adjourned at 8:42 p.m. Thursday after a grueling 60-day regular session, but its hardest work might lie ahead in an overtime period.

The session begins at noon Monday, and Gov. Chris Gregoire said she hopes lawmakers can finish up in seven days. But on a day Gregoire praised lawmakers for taking action on her education priority – a bill helping the state qualify for federal Race to the Top grants – she also marked them down for failing to finish on time.

“If I was a teacher and they were my students, they get an incomplete here,” Gregoire told the TVW public affairs network in an interview.

The overtime period can run up to 30 days and became necessary after the Democrat-controlled House and Senate failed to reach agreements on a tax plan to cover falling state revenues, and their budgets for operations and capital construction remained far apart.

But while Gregoire cut Democrats slack for facing up to the worst economic situation in 80 years, Republicans took shots at the majority party for its failure to agree on a way to bridge the state’s $2.8 billion budget shortfall. House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt accused Democrats of a lack of leadership.

And the Senate GOP led by Sen. Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla put out a statement that said: “This is a costly and embarrassing mistake for majority Democrats. They control every aspect of state government but still couldn’t reach agreement among themselves and with the special interests that pull so many of the strings in Olympia.”

Gregoire also still wants a jobs package that could include a voter referendum on school renovations this fall or a hazardous-substances tax for stormwater projects. But tax and budget negotiators were more worried about getting the nuts and bolts of a compromise into order before lawmakers all show up in droves.

“The key thing for us is to nail down what the shape and size of the revenue package is, to get that box” decided, said Rep. Ross Hunter, the Medina Democrat who drafted his chamber’s $680 million tax package, which relies heavily on closing tax loopholes and adding the sales tax to sales of bottled water, candy and such services as elective cosmetic surgery.

Once the revenues are decided, budget decisions could become easier, several tax and budget writers have said.

“I’m working on it now,” Hunter said, pledging to work through the weekend from home.

The tax increase that Democrats settle on might end up roughly halfway between the Senate and House targets – just below $800 million.

“We’ve pretty much agreed we’ll split the difference,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said. “We’re in broad agreement on the size of it, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what’s in it.”

But lawmakers appeared very far apart on details, and it was hard to say how much time they need to bridge the differences.

“I think the worst-case scenario would be 10 days,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon.

Thursday’s final day was full of starts and stops, and its biggest activity came in the late afternoon and evening when the two chambers reached agreement on a package of education bills Gregoire demanded before letting lawmakers go home.

One measure – House Bill 2893 – would let school districts collect extra levy dollars from local property owners. State law limits the share of levy funds to 24 percent of a district’s funding, but the bill would let districts calculate their percentage as though they were receiving state support at the level before lawmakers took a series of deep cuts to public schools last year. It also would let districts with voter-approved levies that now exceed the lid to collect the full levy amount approved by voters up to 28 percent of their budgets.

The measure Gregoire wanted the most was SB 6696, which she says is needed to qualify the state for a share of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top grants for public schools. The bill would move toward a new evaluation system for teachers and principals and would set up a way for the state to intervene and require better performance by failing schools.

REFLECTIONS ON LAST DAY

The final day of the legislative session was busy and brought victories for many lawmakers.

Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, saw passage of her top priority – a crackdown on driving while talking on the phone. Her bill, which lacked votes in the House to pass last week, won easy approval there Thursday evening, 60-37.

The House passed the tougher Senate version of the bill, which would allow police to pull over drivers for using a phone handset to talk or send a text message. Both already are illegal but are secondary offenses, meaning police only can ticket drivers for them if they’ve pulled them over for speeding or some other violation. They will become primary offenses if Gregoire signs the bill. Voice-operated phones would remain legal.

Last week, the House voted to make texting, not talking on a phone, a primary offense. But it backed down Thursday, with many Democrats and some Republicans supporting a full ban. Both versions also ban all phone use in cars for teenagers, including for voice-operated phones.

Supporters said police lobbied hard in the past week, and lawmakers’ constituents chimed in too with calls and e-mails.

“The public-safety community in this state stepped up and fully engaged,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and a consultant to wireless and cellular companies, who pushed the bill in the House.

The session’s final day saw more progress on an effort by environmentalists to increase the state’s toxics tax from 0.7 percent, which voters set in 1988 through an initiative. The oil industry and refinery operators are strongly opposed and have been lobbying hard against it.

But Democratic Reps. Timm Ormsby of Spokane and Hans Dunshee of Snohomish are working on a bill that would raise the tax to 1.55 percent, raising $104 million for local-government stormwater projects for local governments while offering refineries a tax credit for oil products sold into other states. In the Senate, Democrats have moved a bill out of committee that raises the tax to 1.2 percent but has no credit.

Many cities and counties favor the tax to help them meet federal stormwater containment requirements.

In other last-minute activity, Carlyle won passage of a reform bill he thinks will bring an “enterprise” mentality to the state’s purchase of information technology, which costs taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.

Carlyle said HB 3178 could save at least $20 million this year and perhaps $30 million overall, and longer term could lead to more private-sector handling of IT business for the state, which he thinks can be cheaper and more effective.

Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, welcomed the possible savings through more efficiency, but he was one of three lawmakers voting against it. Williams said it opens the door to outsourcing of jobs.

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