We now sit with only 10 days left in Washington’s 2016 Legislative Session. With the fiscal committee cutoff Monday, February 29 and the opposite house of origin cutoff on Friday March 4, there is a critically short amount of time for policy bills to finish their journey to become law this year. While proponents of legislation still being considered are working feverishly to pass their bills, most of the attention in Olympia is now focused on the Supplemental Budget. This year the House introduced their version of the budget first. The House Supplemental Budget increases the 2015-17 general fund spending by $478.4 million. Major items include $99.0 million for recruiting and retaining teachers, a tax increase of $123.8 million and an appropriation of nearly half a billion dollars from the Budget Stabilization Account (also known as the rainy day fund) for the homeless and to help fight forest fires.
Senate Republicans claim that the House budget relies heavily on hypothetical tax increases, which House Democrats refuse to vote on. The Senate, led by Republicans, also opposes withdrawing such a large amount from the “rainy day fund” and favor waiting for next year’s budget debate to address the teacher shortage rather than pursuing a short-term solution during this supplemental budget year. The Senate’s Supplemental Budget would increase general fund spending for 2015-17 by $33.6 million. Priorities include new classroom funding, mental-health and replenishing the Model Toxics Control Act account, and $6.6 million for charter schools out of the Washington Opportunity Pathways Account.
In Transportation, reducing the I-405 congestion is a major priority for both the House and Senate budgets. Both bills fund an expansion of the auxiliary land from SR-520 to NE 70th Street and a northbound I-405 hard running shoulder from SR 527 to I-5. These projects were also in Governor Inslee’s recommendations to the legislature.
Last Thursday, a possible alternative to Carbon Washington’s Initiative 732 was sent out to legislators. The alternative carbon tax proposal, commonly known as “732 B”, differs from the original I-732 in several key ways:
• A lower carbon tax, starting at $8 in 2017 and gradually going up to $35 by 2035.
• Contains a phase in for natural gas, allowing for an untaxed transition period.
• Does not apply to coal-fired power that is being phased out of use.
• Assumes that unspecified power is natural gas, therefore, exempting it for the same transition period.
• Offers “Alternative Compliance Agreements” for energy intensive trade exposed businesses.
After the dissemination of the 732B draft, the Department of Ecology announced a redacting of its Clean Air Rule, an agency email stated: “Some of the updates and refinements now being considered for the draft rule are significant enough that we have withdrawn the proposed rule. This is an opportunity for us to continue working with stakeholders and will allow more time to integrate suggestions before holding public hearings.” The rule resulted from a directive from Governor Inslee. In Housing, the preservation tax exemption bill, 2SSB 6239, has been amended by House Democrats to only include property tax exemptions for nonprofits if they agree to make their units affordable. The bill initially offered property tax exemptions to all owners if they agreed to make 25% of their units for fifteen years. Seattle politicians are working with House Democrats to, hopefully bring the bill back to its original, agreed upon design. As a controversial bill, with potential fiscal impacts to local governments, the legislation will stay alive until the last day of session.
In other legislative news, The Voting Rights Act was amended and may finally be viable for passage by the Senate after stalling for the past two years. The final passage of Senate Bill 6195, which was the first bill signed by the Governor this session on Monday, officially kicks the can down the road for complying with the State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on school funding. Last Thursday, a huge rally on charter school funding took place at the capitol in response to the House’s refusal to vote on Senator Steve Litzow’s, R-Mercer Island, bill to fund charters out of the Opportunity Pathways Account. Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos’, D-Seattle, has HB 1541, addressing the opportunity gap between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is making its way through the Senate.