Politics & Government

Tax break for data centers OK'd; laws lose controversial term

Lawmakers approved a tax break Wednesday for technology companies' computer servers, the first piece of Democrats' jobs agenda to go to Gov. Chris Gregoire for her signature and one with the bipartisan support lacking for other job-creation proposals.

Lawmakers fast-tracked the measure in their special session. The House voted 91-2 a day after the Senate’s 39-4 vote to waive sales taxes for the equipment in data centers built in rural counties.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity to get some construction jobs right away,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina.

Several data centers have located in the eastern part of the state, where power is plentiful. Sabey Corp. has announced plans to build a 525,000-square-foot data center in Quincy for at least one technology company yet to be named.

LAW REMOVES CONTROVERSIAL TERM

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill into law Wednesday that removes the term “mentally retarded” from state laws, replacing it with “intellectually disabled.”

Republican Rep. Jan Angel of Port Orchard sponsored House Bill 2490, following up on an effort from last year. A couple of dozen developmentally disabled people and advocates gathered for the bill signing, including Emily Rogers of Self Advocates in Leadership, an advocacy group.

“It’s really a degrading term,” Rogers said before the bill signing. “We’ve been working hard on respectful language for a long time. This is one of the last steps in the process. … It’s just an exciting day to see the change actually happen.”

Cherie Tessier, an Olympia woman with developmental disabilities, said she was happy to see the bill signed.

“This may seem like a small thing to some people, but really, it’s something very meaningful to those in our state who live with disabilities. We had many people who joined us today for the bill signing, and I think their attendance speaks volumes to the significance of this legislation,” Angel said in a statement after the bill signing.

The federal “Rosa’s Law” has been proposed in Congress, she said.

Her bill changes language in numerous laws, such as death-penalty statutes and those dealing with parental rights, surrogate parents, state health care coverage plans, insurance definitions, hospital licensing and developmental disabilities.

‘OIL LOBBY’ VISITS CAPITOL

The “oil lobby” brought about 30 men in bright-blue coveralls to the Capitol on Wednesday, warning lawmakers who would listen that refinery jobs hang in the balance this legislative session. Some were on their own time; others were being paid for their time by the Tesoro refinery.

Their target was bills that could more than double the tax on hazardous substances. Environmentalists are pushing for passage of House Bill 3181 or its Senate counterpart, SB 6851, as a way to create a larger, long-term funding source for city and county stormwater projects.

HB 3181 would boost the tax on toxic substances such as oil and pesticides. The House increase would go from 0.7 percent to 1.55 percent and generate nearly $104 million next year for projects. It includes a tax credit for products sold out of state. A recent Senate proposal would increase it to 1.2 percent.

Refinery workers from the Tesoro plant in Anacortes, which already is facing financial challenges, fear their livelihoods are at risk. Tesoro is an independent outfit that runs seven refineries in the West, but it doesn’t own oil fields or have the retail fuel outlets that help spread costs for other refineries that could be affected by the tax, company officials say.

That was the message of Don Sorensen, the refinery manager, and Steve Garey, a Tesoro steelworker and union representative for the United Steelworkers Local 12-591.

Garey said manufacturing jobs are disappearing in the region, and he has taken his skills from shipbuilding to other industries, including refineries. He worries that the Tesoro plant would follow the path of his former employers.

Sorensen said the refinery has 360 direct jobs and 150 people who work as contractors. The industry pay average is about $110,000 a year, he said, making the jobs valuable to communities.

Tesoro lost a lot of money last year – $140 million, by Sorensen’s count – and is at risk of going under even if lawmakers don’t pass a tax increase, Sorensen and Garey said. They said an export tax credit would take away some of the possible harm.

Sorensen also echoed a complaint from House and Senate Republicans who dislike the toxics tax. They say the majority Democrats would have plenty of money for stormwater projects if they hadn’t raided the toxics accounts for $180 million last year.

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