Washington Policy Blog

Ghost tax bill rising

February 10, 2010 in Blog

The ghost tax bill is moving in Olympia.  Yesterday the Senate Ways and Means held a public hearing on SB 6853.  The bill has no text.  First, it took Committee members 21 seconds to cancel their rule that bills must be available to the public for at least five days.  Later the Committee received a staff briefing on the bill - that took 35 seconds.  Then the only witness, Amber Carter of the Association of Washington Business, spoke for 65 seconds, speculating about what the bill might contain in the future.  She asked that her organization be included in any discussions if and when lawmakers decide to provide the bill with text.  Later the Committee passed the bill - that took 22 seconds. !
; The Committee's actions on SB 6853 are shown in a related blog post by Jason Mercier, WPC's government reform director.  Still unknown is what effect this tax legislation might have on Washington's economy or the jobs, families and lives of people across the state.

What does legislative transparency look like?

February 10, 2010 in Blog

Earlier today we highlighted a troubling trend of the legislature moving away from transparency. One of the examples we highlighted was SB 6853: Relating to creating the legislative review of tax preferences act of 2010.

Legislative transparency takes a beating

February 10, 2010 in Blog

The Legislature's commitment to transparency is taking a serious beating. Consider the handling of these bills:

Continuing this troubling trend, the Legislature is considering repeal of the state's Sunshine Committee while failing to act on the Committee's recommendation that the Legislature's double standard exempting lawmakers from the state's public records law be repealed.

Senate votes to retain tax advisory votes

February 9, 2010 in Blog

The Senate has voted to "temporarily" suspend the 2/3 vote requirements for tax increases enacted multiple times by voters. The vote was 26 to 23.

Instead of approving the bill as referred by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the full Senate adopted an amendment that limited its changes to only the 2/3 vote restriction. This means the current requirement for non-binding advisory votes for tax increases not sent first to the voters for approval would remain in effect.

Based on the number of tax increase proposals being considered by the Legislature, it could be a long ballot for voters in November.

Next up for the proposal is debate in the House.

Ghost bill on taxes introduced

February 9, 2010 in Blog

A strange thing happened in Olympia today.  This morning a bill was introduced in the Senate, SB 6853, which has no text.  The full bill is reproduced below.  The bill is scheduled for a public hearing in the Ways and Means Committee this afternoon.  Committee members may decide to pass it today and send it to the full Senate, going against the rule that legislation be made public for at least five days before being acted on.

This bill may make major changes in the tax code, and could result in a significant increase in the tax burden state lawmakers place on citizens, so it would be nice to know what the bill actually says.  As independent policy analysts, it is hard for Washington Policy Center, or anyone else, to make a fair assessment of a major bill when the public has no idea what it says, or how it may affect our lives.

Tolling Interstate 405 Needs a Closer Look

February 9, 2010 in Blog

House Bill 2941 was proposed during the current Legislative Session. The bill would
authorize the use of express toll lanes on Interstate 405 (I-405).1 The bill is vague and presumably
relies on a study that does not adequately compare toll lanes to a no-build option. The legislature
should request a full and complete comparison to a no-build option before authorizing the
Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to build express toll lanes on I-405.

Key Findings on HB 2941
• Defers some major policy decisions to the Executive Branch
• Fails to adequately compare tolled alternative to a no-build option or to the adopted
  Master Plan for I-405
• Underestimates performance of general purpose lanes
• Likely increases traffic congestion in the non-tolled lanes
• Appears to allow toll revenue collected from drivers to be used for public transit
• Overestimates toll reve!
nue because of the state law to reduce how much people drive
• Jeopardizes the state’s ability to bond against toll revenue because of state law to reduce
  how much people drive

Read the full Legislative Memo: Tolling Interstate 405 Needs a Closer Look

Senate moves step closer to tax increases

February 9, 2010 in Blog

Washingtonians are a step closer to seeing their taxes increased as a result of a vote yesterday in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The Committee adopted the proposed suspension of the state's 2/3 requirement for tax increases.

Voting in favor of the suspension were Senators Prentice, Fraser, Tom, Fairley, Keiser, Kline, Kohl-Welles, McDermott, Murray, Oemig, Pridemore, Regala and Rockefeller.

Opposed were Senators Zarelli, Brandland, Carrell, Honeyford, Parlette and Schoesler.

If the full Senate follows suit, this will be the third time voter approved tax restrictions have been "temporarily" set aside by lawmakers. Previous suspensions occurred in 2002 and 2005.

Though billed as a "temporary" suspension, the full effect of the proposal will result in the 2/3 vote restriction likely never being triggered. This means the Legislature will not have to vote to suspend the law again while not being restricted by the original intent of voters.

Consider Section 2 (D) (ii) of the bill: "Any action or combination of actions by the legislature that
raises taxes may be taken with the approval of a majority of members
elected to each house of the legislature if the revenue is for the
purpose of funding a voter-approved initiative."

Rather than continue the current cycle of voters being forced to reenact the 2/3 vote restriction only to have it disregarded by lawmakers, the Legislature should put to rest this debate once and for all by referring the question to voters as a constitutional amendment.

Regardless of the outcome, the intent of voters will no longer be in question and the 2/3 vote protections will not be subject of legal debate or legislative shenanigans.

As noted by Crosscut this morning, of those states with a supermajority requirement for tax increases, Washington is the only one without constitutional protections

Are the Green Police just a Cheap Trick?

February 8, 2010 in Blog

During last night's Super Bowl, Audi's ad portrayed a fictional future when the green police check to ensure that each of us is being environmentally correct. Once scene features the green police going through people's garbage and when a man tries to throw away an orange peel, he is cited for a compost violation.

These advertising folks sure have a creative mind! Where would they get such an absurd view of the future?

Bolden is an inspector for the city of Seattle and after the new year starts on Sunday, he'll start issuing fines to businesses that violate the city's law by mixing their recyclables with ordinary trash.
- Seattle Times, December 31, 2005

Oh. Well, certainly the part of the commercial where they arrest the guy for owning incandescent light bulbs would never happen.

Turn out the lights on traditional incandescent bulbs. A little-noticed provision of the energy bill, which is expected to become law, phases out the 125-year-old bulb in the next four to 12 years in favor of a new generation of energy-efficient lights that will cost consumers more but return their investment in a few months.
- USA Today, December 16, 2007

Maybe being an ad man is easier than I thought.

P.S. If anyone can find a link to a carbon-sniffing aardvark, please pass it along.


The Environmental Cost of the Governor's Climate Executive Order

February 5, 2010 in Blog

"Communities would continue to be exposed to air pollution, new or expanded businesses face stricter pollution control requirements and the state might suffer federal sanctions..."

"Slower response to businesses and industries that need air quality permits to start or expand operations..."

"Won't be able to identify, assess and respond to toxic hotspots; won't be able to develop response to and reduce risks from toxics like benzene, chromium and formaldehyde;..."

These are just a few of the impacts the State Department of Ecology says will result by shifting $1.6 million from current projects to implement the Governor's executive order on climate change, signed last spring.

When the legislature rejected the Governor's bill on climate change, she signed the order which included elements that, in then Ecology Director Jay Manning's words, "go beyond the bill’s requirements." To fund these efforts, the Department of Ecology moved funding from a number of current activities, shifting it to implement the Executive Order. Last June, the Office of Financial Management itemized where the funding would come from and what activities would not take place as a result of the funds sweep.

The spreadsheet, which can be read here, outlines cuts to a number of current projects. The impacts range from failure to respond to toxic hotspots, reduced work on improving air quality and increasing the wait time for businesses to receive permits.

What is remarkable is that the Governor's executive order does nothing to reduce carbon emissions in the near future. It is a laundry list of planning efforts, including "Continue to participate in the Western Climate Initiative," "develop emission benchmarks, by industry sector, for facilities the Department of Ecology believes will be covered by a federal or regional cap and trade program," "develop by September 1, 2010, recommendations for forestry offset protocols," and the like.

Contrast the speculative impact of those planning processes to the near-future impacts on environmental quality by shifting the money, not only to the projects listed above, but to other projects that face the chopping block in this tough budget. Cliff Traisman of the Washington Conservation Voters told Publicola last month that there were a number of important environmental projects facing cuts this year, including:

  • Hazardous Waste Cleanup, Department of Ecology:  $500,000

  • Solid Waste Cleanup, Department of Ecology:  $273,000

  • Funding to prevent long-term storage of mercury, Department of Ecology: $300,000

  • Air Quality Activities, Department of Ecology:  $300,000

  • Water Quality Cleanups, Department of Ecology:  $204,000

  • Water Quality Monitoring, Department of Ecology:  $200,000

All of these combined add up to $1.77 million, just over the amount being diverted to the legislatively-rejected climate policy.

Too often, environmental priorities are set based on the latest political fad without consideration of what is lost or the alternatives. By signing the executive order, the Governor committed the state to cutting projects designed to defend air and water quality, help businesses create jobs while meeting environmental regulations and clean up toxics and hazardous waste. Of course the rejoinder, even from the environmental community, will be that we need to fund all of these things. That, however, is exactly the attitude that rejected setting priorities and led us to the current situation. Whether they want to admit it or not, if projects aren't economically sustainable, they aren't environmentally sustainable.

Until we change the approach to setting environmental priorities, we will continue to fund politically-motivated projects at the expense of projects with real environmental benefit.

Audit: School districts owe state $699,000

February 4, 2010 in Blog

The State Auditor's Office released two audits this morning on K-12 school districts' compliance with state law. The audits found that school districts owe the state at least $699,219 due to reporting errors that resulted in overpayments. Reporting errors also resulted in just under $118,000 in underpayments to school districts. The state also overpaid an additional $463,000 to school districts for the Learning Assistance Program (LAP) in 2008.

According to the State Auditor:

"School districts receive state funding based on their enrollment, certificated instructional employees' education and experience (referred to as staff mix) and student transportation. These three areas constitute 70 percent of the money districts receive. It is critical that school districts accurately report this information to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

At the direction of the !
Legislature, our Office verifies the accuracy of what districts report to OSPI. This report includes the detailed results of our audits of the reporting in those three areas for fiscal year 2008.

For fiscal year 2008, we recommended districts repay at least $699,219 to the state. We also found reporting errors that led to a total of $117,676 in underpayments to districts. OSPI will make the final determination on the amount to be recovered."

Here are the audit reports:

Bill introduced to amend I-960

February 3, 2010 in Blog

Nine Democratic Senators (Prentice, Murray, Kohl-Welles, Regala, Fairley, Ranker, McDermott, Kline, Keiser) introduced a bill today to amend the provisions of the voter approved I-960.

Here are the details on SB 6843: Preserving essential public services by temporarily suspending the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases and permanently modifying provisions of Initiative Measure No. 960 for improved efficiency and consistency with state budgeting:

  • Section 1: Changes the ten-year reporting requirement for the impact of tax and fee increases to include only those fiscal years in the biennium the tax or fee would first take effect and the subsequent four fiscal years. The fiscal analysis is restricted only to bills scheduled for public hearings.
  • Section 2: "(c)(ii) For legislation enacted between the effective date of this section and July 1, 2011, any action or combination of actions by the legislature that increases taxes may be taken with the approval of a majority of members elected to each house of the legislature.

    (d)(i) The legislature also finds that voter-approved initiatives may fundamentally change the services which the state provides, increase service levels of current programs, or mandate the state to provide new services. The legislature further finds that many of these voter-approved initiatives lack a dedicated funding source, which impacts the legislature's ability to fund other services. It is therefore the intent of the legislature to provide a means for the legislature to raise new revenue to fund voter-approved initiatives so existing education, public safety, health care, and safety net services for the elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people may be preserved.
    />(ii) Any action or combination of actions by the legislature that raises taxes may be taken with the approval of a majority of members elected to each house of the legislature if the revenue is for the purpose of funding a voter-approved initiative."

  • Section 3: Allows the legislature to permanently "modify" tax preferences with a simple majority vote.
  • The bill also eliminates the requirement for advisory votes on tax increases not ratified by the voters. 

Here are additional details on past suspensions of the state's 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases and the need for constitutional protections.

Should tax increases require a 2/3 vote?

February 2, 2010 in Blog

The worst kept secret of the 2010 Legislative Session is the majority party's plan to "suspend" the state's 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases.

Refocus Department of Commerce on...wait for it...Commerce!

January 29, 2010 in Blog

In early 2009, the State Legislature passed EHB 2242, changing the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED) to the Department of Commerce.

Dept. of Ecology says we reduce CO2, trust us!

January 29, 2010 in Blog

This morning the House Ecology and Parks Committee is holding a public hearing on HB 2772, which requires state contractors to contractually provide performance standards for reducing greenhouse gasses. The act would also require climate expenditures, prior to implementation and expenditure, to provide information on estimated cost and reductions of greenhouse gas.

Of note is the fiscal note provided by the Office of Financial Management and the state’s Department of Ecology.  In part the note reads:

“The costs of this bill are indeterminate but expected to be significant…. Ecology cannot at this time estimate the future number or scope of individual agency activities that would reduce greenhouse gases or the time and staff resource required to calculate specific emission reductions or the cost of CO2e reduced for each activity.”

If Ecology is unable to measure or account for the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then how will policymakers know that their policies are effective and responsible?

However, this is the point of HB 2772, to bring accountability, ensuring that the states goals to reduce greenhouse gasses are achieved.