Washington Policy Blog

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.
SB6853

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. 

New study: advanced treament removes drugs from environment

January 28, 2010 in Blog

A new study by the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Municipal Wastewater and their Removal by Nutrient Treatment Technologies, shows the benefits of utilizing advanced technologies to remove trace elements of pharmaceuticals and personal care products from the environment.

The following key findings were pulled from the study:

“Secondary treatment alone achieved high removals for hormones and steroids.”

“Approximately 21% of the 172 analytes were reduced to below reporting limits by conventional secondary treatment, whereas 53% were reduced to below reporting limits by at least one advance nutrient-removal technology.”

“Roughly 20% of the 172 analytes (mainly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) were found only in the biosolids and not the wastewater samples.”

In conclusion the study finds that, “Results of this screening study indicate that the combination of enhanced biological nutrient removal and filtration processes provides the greatest PPCP removal.” Though many wastewater treatment facilities that discharge to the Puget Sound do not utilize these methods today, the study also found that , “other options…may further reduce PPCP and nutrient concentrations in municipal discharges.”

Previously we have shared with the Legislature our report: Drug Take-Back Programs: What Will They Solve?

Below are a couple of the key finds from that report.

1. To date, no science has been provided to show that take-back programs reduce the amount of drugs in the environment. This, in part, is because the drugs being found in the environment come from human and animal excretion after the use of drugs. As a side note, all of the take-back programs, including the B.C. program, as well as others in the U.S. and across Europe, were designed to deal with drugs in the environment and not drug abuse. Comparisons to other programs should be limited to their effectiveness on the environmental protection, which we have shown is not supported by science.

2. The EPA and White House have issued a clear directive for the disposal of unused or unwanted drugs. The federally established standards, “are designed to reduce the diversion of prescription drugs, while also protecting the environment.” These standards call for the disposal of unused or unwanted drugs by placing them in landfills, not flushing them.

Before the Legislature adopts any policy to mandate producer led take-back programs several key questions still need to be resolved, such as what is the source of PPCP’s in the environment? What is the cost for removal? And will take-back programs effectively achieve the current policy goals being considered?

Is it time to restructure higher education?

January 28, 2010 in Blog

The legislature is currently considering numerous proposals to grant higher education institutions expanded tuition authority. The proposals have received mixed support from the state's 4-year institutions.

In light of the state's long-term budget outlook, serious consideration must be given to reforming the way the state finances higher education. The Washington Policy Center believes the state's four-year universities need to be empowered to have more control over their budget and finances and be less dependent on taxpayer subsidies.

One potential model is to allow the state's universities to transition to business enterprise status. In 2004, Colorado and Japan moved in this direction.

Here is what Colorado lawmakers decided:

!

"The general assembly finds that greater resource flexibility for state institutions of higher education can enhance more educational opportunities, as well as increase educational excellence.

The general assembly hereby finds and declares that:

(a)  The provision of higher education services is a business and;

(b)  For the purposes of determining whether an institution or group of institutions may be designated as an enterprise, it is sufficient that the institution or group of institutions receives less than ten percent of its total annual revenues in grants from all Colorado state and local governments combined and the governing board of the institution of higher education or group of institutions has authority to issue revenue bonds on behalf of such institution or group of institutions." />

Here are details on what occurred in Japan:

“The Japanese higher education system has recently undergone a dramatic change. Reforms, passed in 2004, granted independent corporation status to the 87 national universities. While they will still be part of the public sector, they are to be independently managed with their staff no longer being civil servants. They will also be able to set their own tuition fee levels, but may not exceed 110 percent of the standard tuition fee set by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance.” (Source)

“Even after reform, the new National University Corporations remains basically ‘national’ in the sense that the state remains responsible for their functions, providing the maj!
or part of the funds that they need. Their personnel and other operational costs will be covered by ‘operational grants’ from the government. The grants will be ‘block grants’ which can be used at the discretion of each university without designated applications. It will be also possible to carry the grants over to subsequent years. For facilities of national universities, ‘capital development funds’ will be allocated separately.” (Source)

In Japan, the majority of universities are private versus public.

Moving to a high tuition/high financial aid model while providing the smaller state universities with the type of "block grants" used in Japan to help with the transition, may hold promise for restructuring how Washington partners with the four-year universities.

Not High Speed Rail: $590 million to help Seattle/Portland train be on time

January 28, 2010 in Blog

Washington to get $590 million for high-speed rail improvements

Only two-thirds of passenger trains run on time on the 3 ½-hour trip
between Seattle and Portland, and the state is trying to boost that
number to 90 percent.

Let's be more clear. This money is not to build a high-speed rail system between Portland and Seattle. This money is only to help Amtrak reach better on-time performance. And Amtrak trains are already highly subsidized, losing an average of $37 per passenger.

WPC completed a 30 page study on the government's supposed attempt to build HSR. Here are the key findings:

• Initial funding commits the nation to a program whose eventual costs could exceed $1 trillion. This doesn’t count overruns, operating subsidies, and rehabilitation costs.
• Outside of the Boston-to-Washington and Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg routes, Amtrak short distance trains lose an average of $37 per passenger and Amtrak expects the states to cover most of these operating losses.
• A hidden cost of rail is that it must be rebuilt about every 30 years.This means construction could />leave states obligated to fund billions of dollars in rehabilitation costs.
• The fact that American freight railroads are profitable while European passenger lines are not suggests that freight, not passenger, is the highest and best use of a modern railroad in most places.
• It is far more cost-effective to save energy by encouraging people to drive more fuel-efficient cars than to build and operate high-speed rail.
• Considering the energy required for rail construction, improvements in auto and airline energy efficiencies, and the high energy cost required to move trains at higher speeds, highspeed rail will have little to no environmental benefit.
• Upgrading the 280 rail miles in Washington to 110-mph standards would cost nearly $1 billion.
• The average Washingtonian will take a round trip on high-speed rail once every 8.5 years.
• For every Washingtonian who rides high-speed rail once a month, more than 100 Washington res!
idents will never ride it.

You can read th!
e full report here:
Why the U.S. and Washington Should Not Build High-Speed Rail