Politics & Government

Under the Dome for March 6

Good morning. Today is Saturday, the 55th day of the 60-day legislative session.

QUOTED

“ABR”

– Acronym on a button worn by Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla that showed the letters on a background of blue sky and green grass. Hewitt said it stands for Anything But Reform, a slogan he is attaching to majority Democrats’ actions this session.

SPECIAL SESSION WAGERS?

The odds might be going up that lawmakers won’t make their Thursday deadline for writing a budget and going home. But Sen. Lisa Brown, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said Friday that she still thinks the Legislature can adjourn on time.

She also said she thinks she has enough time to pass an income tax on high earners, which got a hearing Thursday in committee, but she is not sure there is enough support to bring it out of committee or to the floor.

Brown also acknowledged there are differences between the House and the Senate on taxes and the budget.

“We’re fighting the clock right now with all of the issues to be resolved. But I think you can say that there is not a big breakdown here; I don’t know that there is a big breakdown over there” (in the House), Brown said in response to a reporter’s question about what might keep them in overtime. “And resolving a very serious budget shortfall in this short amount of time is challenging. It can be done. I know a lot of people are motivated to get it done.”

At the same time, Brown said, “I’m not planning any trip home, I’ll tell you that, until we give it our best shot.”

TAXES ON TAP TODAY

Lawmakers are back in session early today – at 8:30 a.m. in the Senate and at 9 a.m. in the House – and tax measures are expected to be on the agenda for both chambers.

The Senate is expected to vote on $890 million of new-tax bills that its Ways and Means Committee narrowly approved Friday. Senate Bill 6874 would add $1 per pack to the tax on cigarettes and would raise almost $86 million; Proposed Substitute Senate Bill 6143 would raise almost $805 million by repealing numerous tax exemptions and enacting a temporary, three-year sales tax increase of three-tenths of 1 percent.

The size of the Senate tax package grew smaller after Democrats, under pressure from lobbyists, removed a provision that repealed the sales tax exemption for the value of used-car trade-ins. But that and other reductions were offset in large part by a temporary business and occupations tax surcharge on services and imposing the sales tax on bottled water.

The tax package still contains a controversial repeal of the tax break given to the TransAlta coal plant near Centralia. The tax exemption became a heated point of contention as the Ways and Means Committee moved to approve the tax packages. Republicans including Sen. Dale Brandland of Bellingham argued for reconsidering the move.

Democratic Sen. Phil Rockefeller of Kitsap County said TransAlta is shifting from coal to natural gas and the repealed exemption can spur the Canadian firm to “move forward a little more aggressively and with more of a sense of urgency.’’

Republican Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield said this sends a message to out-of-state companies that “they cannot trust us’’ after making tax agreements with Washington. He said the state risks losing jobs that far outweigh the $10 million gained from cutting off the coal tax break, but an amendment to save the tax exemption failed on a 12-10 vote.

Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, predicted the tax on cigarettes would drive more people to smuggle or buy their smokes from across state lines. But Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said the state subsidizes smoking and the health care costs it causes by not taxing tobacco even more.

In the House, revenue bills are expected to get consideration today. The House was voting Friday evening on its operating budget.

EDUCATION BILLS PASS

The Senate approved a bill Friday that would send state income from multi-state lottery games into a new “opportunity pathways” account for higher education and early learning. Senate Bill 6409 also would let the state market those lottery games as a way to put money into the state’s education system, something that has generated more interest and revenue for other states.

Democratic Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup sponsored the measure and predicted that if Washington uses this approach, which is modeled after Georgia’s, it could generate $456 million in new money for higher education in future budget cycles.

The bill passed on a bipartisan 35-13 vote. It now goes to the House, which has penciled in about $30 million of SB 6409’s expected fund transfers into its own revenue package.

Kastama’s bill drew early criticism from the Washington Education Association because it would draw out funds now dedicated for public school construction. But the measure was amended to require that general fund dollars be returned to construction capital accounts each budget cycle to protect public school projects.

“We can easily quadruple our spending on higher education just by changing the way we run the state Lottery,” Kastama said in a news release. “This is crucial to making up for the severe cuts we made to higher education to balance last year’s budget and the likelihood of cutting higher education even further to balance this year’s budget. We can’t keep cutting higher education if we want our kids, our businesses and our state to thrive.”

South Sound’s four senators – Republicans Randi Becker of Eatonville and Dan Swecker of Rochester, and Democrats Karen Fraser of Thurston County and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch – voted for it.

SEX OFFENDERS ONLINE

Restrictions on sex offenders’ computer use at the Special Commitment Center cleared Friday’s cutoff, passing on a 97-1 vote in the House.

Substitute Senate Bill 6308 was a scaled-back version of the original measure that passed the Senate, prohibiting inmates’ access to computers unless the computers were deemed necessary in the offender’s treatment plan. The bill now returns to the Senate for acceptance of House changes.

Carrell, R-Lakewood, pushed for the restriction, saying he was outraged that 16 sex offenders at the center on McNeil Island reportedly were charged with or suspected of possessing child pornography during the past three years.

The House had objections that the restriction might make the Special Commitment Center look too much like a prison when the state has told judges it’s a treatment center. It took years of court fights to allow the state to imprison at the facility people who are deemed too dangerous to release, even though they have finished their prison sentences.

“It’s imperative that we not imperil the Special Commitment Center,” Rep. Christopher Hurst said.

So the House voted to ban computers only when doctors find they would harm the treatment of a particular sex offender. Other inmates still could use computers. In any case, like the Senate version, the bill would allow all inmates to use simple word-processing computers that can’t view pictures and video.

Compiled by Brad Shannon, staff writer

Staff writers Maks Goldenshteyn and Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.

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