Politics & Government

On your mark, get set, legislate

The 60-day legislative session that gets under way today will involve much more than the much-discussed fight over tax increases to help fill state government’s $2.6 billion budget hole.

Democrats and Republicans disagree about how to boost the economy. The GOP favors deregulation and smaller government, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, wants more retraining for workers.

Democrats also are toying with an $850 million bond issue to pay for energy upgrades at public schools and universities, and Gov. Chris Gregoire proposes an 11-step economic plan that includes a few tax breaks.

Also likely on tap are old fights over homebuyer rights, workers’ compensation reform and unemployment insurance. Add to that a few new issues: decriminalizing the possession of marijuana; requests to give more leeway to cash-strapped local governments in their use of tax funds; and a big push to streamline state government by killing boards and commissions.

“I think we’ll see other things happen too, But it will be limited. We’ll have a lot fewer bills we’ll consider,” said Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia, who serves as the chairman of the State Government Committee. Hunt plans to limit hearings in his committee but has bills in the works that affect citizen initiatives, including a boost in the fee for filing initiatives from $5 to $250.

House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said last week that generating jobs should be the priority, and he called for fewer regulations to make that happen. He wants to lift some state requirements for local governments in counties with high unemployment; House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, agrees, saying deadlines for critical-areas ordinances could be lifted temporarily.

Other possibilities:

Public schools: Gregoire wants changes in the law to show the federal government that Washington deserves $150 million to $200 million through President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top grants. Gregoire says that to qualify, the state needs to set up a teacher evaluation system, which could lead to some form of merit pay and a knockdown fight with teachers unions. The state also needs a way to deal with failing schools.

In another education matter, Rep. Brendan Williams is introducing a bill that would give parents up to four hours of unpaid leave a year from their jobs to attend to their children’s educational activities.

Government reorganization: Gregoire has a plan to eliminate 78 boards and commissions, merge a few dozen smaller agencies or functions with larger agencies, shift or consolidate natural-resource agency functions, and make other streamlining moves to save $16 million and make government more efficient. Hunt says he is looking for a few more boards to eliminate.

Liquor sales: Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County and Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon want to privatize liquor sales, but the governor and the liquor board are not so enthusiastic. Alexander says a state audit report showed $300 million in savings over five years, including fees from auctioning licenses. Alexander would start slow, farming out 25 outlets a year.

Workers’ compensation: The Association of Washington Business and allied groups say costs are too high in the system, and AWB president Don Brunell says businesses need help with rising costs in this program and unemployment insurance. The governor says stakeholders were unable to reach agreement recently on a way to find savings, but parties could return to the table. Chopp disputes claims of high costs.

Worker training: Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, want to help jobs creation by providing retraining. Chopp wants to use what he called “leftover” training money in the unemployment trust fund.

Homebuyer protections: This controversial issue returns with rival approaches in the House, which has sought contractor licensing and improvements in construction workers’ competence; the Senate wanted more legal rights for buyers. Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, has proposals to deal with definitions of “green” housing and appraisals.

Public safety: Spurred by the spate of slain police officers, Gregoire is developing a plan to deal with mentally ill offenders and offenders from other states supervised through interstate compacts. Attorney General Rob McKenna has measures to deal with users of child pornography, violators of domestic violence protection orders, and abusers of the elderly.

Civil rights: Controversial social issues such as same-sex marriage will be set aside. However, lawmakers might flirt with recognizing same-sex marriages as domestic partnerships under the state’s expanded domestic partnership law, which voters upheld in November. Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, wants to build on last year’s success by recognizing same-sex marriages and civil unions from other states as domestic partnerships in this state.

Marijuana: There are proposals to decriminalize marijuana, replacing criminal sanctions for possessing small amounts of cannabis with a $100 civil fine. This is a long shot for passage, but it could get more attention at a time when police agencies struggle to respond to crime and jails are crowded. Marijuana legalization also is scheduled for a hearing.

Local government: Temporary relief from state regulations is a possible move. Lawmakers from both parties want to provide more leeway in using tax dollars.

Distracted drivers: Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, wants to broaden the ban on sending text messages while driving, making it a primary offense so police can pull over suspected violators.

Hydro power: Initiative 937 required electrical utilities to buy a certain percentage of power from new “renewable” sources. But some hydroelectric-dependent utilities, which have support of Democrats such as Brown and Republicans such as DeBolt, want flexibility to count some hydro as renewable and to count out-of-state purchases.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688