Politics & Government

Education, health care issues still alive midway

Lawmakers started the session promising to make education and health care top priorities - and they have - but they've also had to deal with attention-grabbing issues such as a proposal for a NASCAR racetrack, a new arena for the Seattle SuperSonics and what to do with the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

At the halfway mark of the session, many bills are still working their way through the system while others have died. Capitol veterans warn that nothing is ever really dead while the Legislature is in town, but many measures that fail to make the cut by March 14 will disappear for good.

"As far as I know, everything, all of the major pieces of legislation we are tracking, is moving along just fine," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. "We're still on track with our major agenda - health care, education, passing a 'rainy day' fund. We're still sticking to basics."

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, sounded equally optimistic.

"All of our caucus priorities are absolutely progressing through the process," she said Wednesday. "So far all the ships are heading the right direction and we hope to reach the dock right on time."

With majorities in the House and Senate, the Democrats are pushing through their agenda with force. Republicans say it's too expensive, expands government and that many of their concerns are being ignored.

"It's no surprise that when you have one-party rule, that sometimes the minority voice gets lost in the shuffle," House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said. "I think that's happening this year."

Education

Education has taken the forefront. A lawsuit filed by a coalition of teachers, parents, community groups and school districts in January accusing the state of failing to live up to the constitution - which defines education as the state's paramount duty - is pending.

Lawmakers are trying to do more and bills including significant budget enhancements, day-long kindergarten for more children, more college enrollment slots and measures dealing with the high-stakes Washington Assessment of Student Learning are moving along, Kessler said.

"Math and science is the big focus this year," Kessler said. "As a result of having some extra money, we're able to address some of these problems."

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education has already released recommendations for $1.3 billion in new education spending. Overall, the plan earmarks $17.4 billion for the full array of education programs, compared with $14.5 billion currently.

But Republicans say new programs and more money won't solve the state's education problems.

"I'm really worried that we're not tackling the issue that are in front of us, that we're just creating new programs," DeBolt said.

Health care has been a prominent issue this session. Measures based on Gregoire's Blue Ribbon Commission are working their way through the system but it's unclear how extensive they will be.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, which included the goal of having all Washington residents covered by 2012, has been watered down after it was criticized by insurers and business groups.

The new bill, which has support of Republicans, would still require some people and businesses to buy their health coverage through a state pool system.

Almost 600,000 of Washington's 6.5 million residents, including 73,000 children, have no health insurance and others are underinsured.

The Senate has already passed a bill th at would provide coverage to 38,000 more children in the next two years. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has said the House version of the bill would be fast-tracked and Gregoire is expected to sign the bill into law. New laws

Military funerals: The first bill Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law was a measure that restricts demonstrations at funeral services.

Medicare Part D: Gregoire also signed a measure that allows the state to offer Medicare Part D co-payment coverage to individuals eligible for Medicaid and Medicare.

Bills still alive

Health care: Lawmakers are shoring up measures based on recommendations from Gregoire's Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care Costs and Access.

Kids health: The Senate has passed a bill that would provide coverage to 38,000 more children in the next two years.

Simple majority: The Senate narrowly defeated a constitutional amendment to allow simple-majority approval of special school property tax levies, but supporters have already requested another vote, which could come at any time.

WASL: Committees in the House and Senate have advanced bills that would lessen the effects of Washington's high-stakes student achievement test.

Election changes: Senate Democrats unveiled a number of election bills, including a measure to have the public pay for state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court campaigns. A similar House proposal is awaiting a floor vote.

Domestic partnership: The Senate has passed a bill that would create domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. If it passes the House, Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign the measure.

Shield law: The House has once again passed a bill that would protect journalists from facing prison for not revealing confidential sources. The measure is awaiting action in the Senate, where it died last year.

Dogs in bars: A measure that would have allowed dogs in bars has been scaled back to allow leashed dogs to sit with their owners in outdoor seating areas of restaurants, bars and cafes for three-year-trial period.

Initiatives: Legislators killed most of the bills aimed at reining in or regulating the initiative process, including a ban on per-signature payments for solicitors. Still moving forward are measures to boost the filing fee for sponsors to $100, from the current $5, and a requirement that signature-gatherers sign each petition.

Bills on life support

Sonics arena: Lawmakers are skeptical of a plan put forward by the new owners of the Seattle SuperSonics to build a $500 million multipurpose arena in Renton - with the help of $300 million in taxpayer money.

NASCAR track: Lawmakers have been skeptical of a plan to build a $368 million race track proposed for Washington state, most likely in Kitsap County.

Iraq resolutions: A resolution asking that Congress investigate the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and possibly consider impeachment of the president and vice president had a hearing in Senate committee, but it's unlikely to make it to the Senate floor. The same is true for a resolution petitioning the president and Congress not to escalate U.S. involvement in Iraq or increase troop levels.

Bills that died

School buses: A measure that would have required school buses purchased after June 30, 2007, to include a lap and shoulder seat belt for every passenger.

Body piercing: A measure the would prohibit performing any body piercing below the neck on "certain sensitive parts" of the body for minors.

Gay marriage: A bill that would have allowed same-sex marriage.

Under God: A joint measure that requests the words "under God" remain in the Pledge of Allegiance.

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