Dear Friends and Neighbors,
We are now in Day 24 of the special session, and until today it appeared there had been no substantive progress toward reaching agreements on the 2011-13 operating budget, the capital budget, or workers' compensation reform. If the May 25 deadline comes without an agreement on a general operating budget, the governor said she would probably send legislators home until budget negotiators strike a deal, and then call us back to complete the work.
Last night, the dynamics changed. According to a statement from House Democrats, there has been “significant movement on several key issues,” although the statement didn't indicate which ones.
We have been called back to Olympia for a Saturday floor session beginning at 10 a.m., and the plan is to meet every day through May 25th. That includes Sunday, May 22.
This is encouraging.
The special session has been frustrating for me and my Republican colleagues because it was so unnecessary. We all knew last November that the key issue for the 2011 session would be closing the estimated $5 billion budget shortfall. We had 105 days to complete our work, and our caucus offered solutions and compromises. But because of inaction and failed leadership by the majority party, we're into extra innings, and at a cost to taxpayers of about $16,000 a day.
In an April editorial, The Olympian said: “If Democrats go into overtime, it will be their third consecutive special session. Therefore, voters have a right to ask whether majority Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp, are capable of effective leadership during challenging budget times.”
The sluggish pace of things brings to mind what happened in 1991, when the Legislature didn't finalize an operating budget until the 11th hour. That was a tough year. The session opened with the Persian Gulf War in January and concluded with a 12-day teachers' strike at the end of April.
Because budget negotiations were completely stalled when the regular session ended that year on Day 105, the full Legislature took a six-week break while budget conferees continued working. Lawmakers came back to Olympia June 10 and finally passed the budget on June 30.
Hopefully, we won't see a repeat of that scenario this year. But already the governor and top officials are strategizing on contingency plans to prepare for the possibility of a potential government shutdown on July 1, which would be the first in state history.
Making Washington more competitive through workers' compensation reform
Reforming the state's workers' compensation system has been a top priority for House Republicans this year. The proposal we support, Senate Bill 5566, would create a voluntary lump-sum settlement option for workers who suffer serious on-the-job injuries, rather than a lifetime pension.
Labor is describing the bill as a benefit cut. That is simply not true. It would only create an additional option for workers. The flexible benefit option is on the books in 44 other states. It's good for workers and employers alike.
Currently, only 8 percent of people who file workers' compensation claims in Washington are on long-term disability, but they account for 85 percent of the system's costs. And the state is adding 1,000 new lifetime pensions a year. (Oregon, which is among the states with a voluntary settlement option, awarded 13 last year.)
The growing cost of the program results in higher taxes on employers, who saw workers' compensation rates increase $117 million in 2010, and $196 million in 2011. An additional double-digit increase is possible in 2012. The workers' comp reform proposal would go a long way toward promoting job growth, providing stable rates, more certainty in the future, and balancing our current budget woes.
The measure is blocked in committee, and several procedural motions by our caucus to bring the bill to a vote have been defeated. Every Republican and some moderate Democrats in the House would vote for it, if given the opportunity, but House majority leadership continues to keep it bottled up.
We had floor sessions in the House last week to vote on bills considered necessary to implement the operating budget. Here are just a few of the measures that have passed the House during the special session:
• House Bill 1795 would authorize the state's public colleges and universities to set tuition rates for all students for the next four years.
• House Bill 1981 would close the retire-rehire loophole in the state's pension system and make changes to the Higher Education Retirement Plan.
• House Bill 1738 would designate the Health Care Authority (HCA) as the single state agency for purposes of the Medicaid program. It would also assign all responsibilities of the Department of Social and Health Services for medical services programs to the HCA.
Klippert bills signed by the governor
Bipartisan legislation I sponsored that removes the state's prohibition on saddle-mounted towing combinations of more than 75 feet was signed by Gov. Gregoire on May 3.
Saddle-mounted transporter combinations — in which a truck tractor tows one or more trucks or truck tractors — have been described as looking like elephants holding each others' tails with their trunks. The trucks are linked together with only the first vehicle having both its front and rear wheels on the ground. On the other trucks, only the rear wheels touch the ground, the front resting on the truck preceding it.
State law has prohibited such combinations of vehicles to exceed 75 feet in overall length. House Bill 1358 removes the 75-foot restriction, and brings Washington into conformity with federal regulations.
Changing the overall length limit will have multiple benefits. Longer truck combinations mean fewer vehicles on roadways, less carbon monoxide emissions, and a reduction of wear and tear on our highway system. There's an additional economic benefit because fewer trips will help trucking companies lower their costs. This will help get Washington working more prosperously again, and every little bit helps. An additional bonus is the change in law has no negat
ive fiscal impact to the state. If anything, it will have a positive impact on our overall fiscal status.
House Bill 1129: This bipartisan measure requires traffic safety schools to include as part of their curriculum a 30-minute segment on safe driving among bicyclists and pedestrians. The governor signed my legislation April 11.
Developed by the Bicycle Alliance of Washington and approved by the state Department of Licensing, the curriculum has been used in driver-education classes for the past three years. Now, the same program will be included in traffic safety schools, which many cities and counties offer to motorists who receive citations for traffic-related offenses as a condition of deferral of sentence or penalty. The Bicycle Alliance will provide the materials to the driver-improvement programs at no charge.
As a law enforcement professional, I'm always on the alert for new and creative ways to protect our citizens, and that's why this proposal has been a priority of mine since last year. I appreciate the collaboration and support from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, in the House and Senate, who helped throughout the process to move this measure to the governor's desk.
If by better educating drivers about the responsibilities of sharing the road we save the life of just one bicyclist, or avert an injury to one pedestrian, this new law will have achieved what we'd hoped, as well as increasing awareness that safety cannot be taken for granted.
Eighth District students experience the Legislature through Page program
Kiona-Benton City Middle School student Sarah Vermeire enjoyed an inside look at the Legislature while serving as a House Page during the final week of the 2011 regular session. Sarah is the 14-year-old daughter of Damon and Sonya Vermeire of Benton City.
Another Kiona-Benton City Middle School student, Colby Crawford, served as a Page March 20-25. Colby is the 14-year-old son of Brad and Mary Crawford of Benton City.
Both of these young people put in some long hours, but I think they left the Capitol with a greater appreciation of the Legislature and the process by which bills become law in our state.
It was a pleasure for me to sponsor Sarah and Colby, and they did an excellent job for us.
Additional information about the House page program can be found at: http://www.leg.wa.gov/House/Pages/HousePageProgram.aspx
Keeping in touch
Providing the people of the 8th District with conscientious and dependable leadership in Olympia is my pledge and commitment. This is a critical time for the future of our state. I value your thoughts and opinions, so please contact me if you have any questions or concerns, or if our office can be of assistance.
Have a great Washington Day!