Washington Policy Blog

Car insurance increase proposal back on House agenda

March 17, 2010 in Blog

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hold an executive session tomorrow on HB 2365. This bill first showed up on the House agenda on March 10 as a title only bill. Once the hearing started a striker amendment was introduced which would insert the text from SB 6871 which the Senate rejected on March 8.

If the striker is adopted the bill would add a surcharge to car insurance policies to fight auto theft.

Since a bill report from the March 10 House hearing is not available, here are details from the testimony on the Senate version. State insurers testified against the bill. According to the bill report:

"Progressive
Insurance recently implemented something similar to this bill in
Arizona and found it to be complicated and costly to administer. They
had to wait until they had a significant rate revision to incorporate
into the fee and they didn't see a lot of results from the program. The
current auto theft program has only been in place a few years and there
hasn't made a measurable decrease in auto theft. If the committee does
move forward with the bill, a sunset clause should be incorporated with
reports back to the Legislature on the effectiveness of the auto theft
program. Also, the bill should allow for any fee to be specifically
called out in the insurance premium statements and the Insurance
Commissioner should not receive any portion of the funds. The insurance
industry already pays into the general fund and assessments to the
Insurance Commissioner. This bill could make insurance companies
subject to retaliatory taxes, where they will have to pay higher taxes
in other states because of this fee. This fee was looked at before to
fund auto theft prevention and it was decided at the time that law
abiding citizens shouldn't have to pay for the actions of law breakers.
Policy holders and insurance companies already pay taxes. Insurers have
to pay a premium tax that is three times higher than the B&O tax
rate. The bill is not clear regarding what policies are charged and
some carriers have annual policies and the bill needs to be clarified."

Last
year the Legislature raided millions from the state's "dedicated" auto theft account and changed the
authorized use of the funds. Here are the details from the 2009-11 budget:

Section
128 (27) - $300,000 of the Washington auto theft prevention authority
account--state appropriation is provided solely for a contract with a
community group to build local community capacity and economic
development within the state by strengthening political relationships
between economically distressed communities and governmental
institutions. The community group shall identify opportunities for
collaboration and initiate activities and events that bring community
organizations, local governments, and state agencies together to
address the impacts of poverty, political disenfranchisement, and
economic inequality on communities of color. These funds must be
matched by other nonstate sources on an equal basis.

Section
203 (8) - $3,700,000 of the Washington auto theft prevention authority
account--state appropriation is provided solely for competitive grants
to community-based organizations to provide at-risk youth intervention
services, including but not limited to, case management, employment
services, educational services, and street outreach intervention
programs. Projects funded should focus on preventing, intervening, and
suppressing behavioral problems and violence while linking at-risk
youth to pro-social activities. The department may not expend more than
$1,850,000 per fiscal year. The costs of administration must not exceed
four percent of appropriated funding for each grant recipient. Each
entity receiving funds must report to the juvenile rehabilitation
administration on the number and types of youth served, the services
provided, and the impact of those services upon the youth and the
community.

Section
945 - RCW 46.66.080 and 2007 c 199 s 27 are each amended to read as
follows: (1) The Washington auto theft prevention authority account is
created in the state treasury, subject to appropriation. All revenues
from the traffic infraction surcharge in RCW 46.63.110(7)(b) and all
receipts from gifts, grants, bequests, devises, or other funds from
public and private sources to support the activities of the auto theft
prevention authority must be deposited into the account. Expenditures
from the account may be used only for activities relating to motor
vehicle theft, including education, prevention, law enforcement,
investigation, prosecution, and confinement. During the 2009-2011
fiscal biennium, the legislature may appropriate moneys from the
Washington auto theft prevention authority account for criminal justice
purposes and community building.

Perhaps if the Legislature hadn't raided the account the funds would be available for the use intended - preventing auto theft.

Session's most notorious "ghost bill" on Wednesday's agenda

March 16, 2010 in Blog

At 11:42 this morning (Tuesday) the Senate Ways and Means Committee announced it would hold a public hearing tomorrow (Wednesday) at 12:30 p.m. The agenda for the hearing was blank until 7:28 this evening.

Along with planning a public hearing on 7 bills and an executive session on at least 5 bills, the committee will also hold a work session on SB 6853. This bill was introduced on February 9 as title only and has the distinction of being introduced, heard in public hearing, and adopted by the committee all on the same day despite no details being available. /p>

The significance of a work session being held for SB 6853 instead of a public hearing is that only those individuals invited by the committee to be on the agenda for the work session will be allowed to participate. The general public may sit in the audience but is not usually allowed to comment during a work session.

Unlike the first time the committee took action on the bill, at least a striker amendment is now available.

Here is the updated Senate Ways and Means Committee agenda for Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.:

Work Session:  SB 6853 - Relating to creating the legislative review of tax preferences act of 2010. (If measure is referred to committe!
e.)

Public Hearing:   /div>

  1. S-5541.1 Convention & trade center. (McDermott).
  2. E2SHB 2630 - Creating the opportunity express program. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  3. HB 2694 - Regarding a bachelor of science in nursing program at the University Center. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  4. 2SHB 2854 - Making changes to the state higher education loan program. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  5. ESHB 3048 - Concerning administration of the medicaid program. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  6. ESHB 3186
    - Imposing a tax on home and community based services to fund services
    for seniors and people with disabilities. (If measure is referred to
    committee.)
  7. ESHB 3182
    - Making certain unfunded mandates optional for school districts and
    other political subdivisions. (If measure is referred to committee.)
Executive Session:  
  1. ESHB 2875 - Concerning health savings accounts. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  2. E2SHB 2617 - Eliminating certain boards and commissions. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  3. ESHB 2954 - Concerning license fees for nursing homes, boarding homes, and adult family homes. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  4. E2SHB 2956 - Concerning the hospital safety net. (If measure is referred to committee.)
  5. SSB 6766 - Concerning forest fire prevention and suppression.
Possible executive session on bills heard in committee. Other business.

Senate hearing scheduled - Agenda TBD

March 16, 2010 in Blog

With Senate rules already amended to speed up the legislative process, you may have to move fast if you want to participate at a "public" hearing scheduled tomorrow for 12:30 p.m.

The topic of the hearing?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Hearing "notice" below:

*Meeting added.

Ways
& Means - 3/17/2010 12:30 p.m.

Senate Full Committee
Senate Hearing Rm 4
J.A. Cherberg Building
Olympia, WA

Hearing content to be announced.:

Possible executive session on bills heard in committee. Other business.

National Broadband Plan: The FCC as Gatekeeper

March 16, 2010 in Blog

Today the Federal Communications Commission released its long awaited National Broadband Plan and will deliver it to the Congress tomorrow. The plan is over 350 pages and encompasses dozens of areas -- policy, economy, social, education, etc.

U.S. House to adopt health care bill without voting on it?

March 16, 2010 in Blog

Throughout the year we've highlighted the challenges state lawmakers have had with embracing a transparent legislative process. Not to be out done, the U.S. House may be poised to show it can play even bigger games than state lawmakers.

Struggling to secure the votes needed to pass health care legislation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has identified a new strategy: adopting the bill without having members vote for it.

The Washington Post has the details:

After laying the groundwork for a decisive vote this week on the Senate's health-care bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Monday that she might attempt to pass th!
e measure without having members vote on it.

Instead, Pelosi (D-Calif.) would rely on a procedural sleight of hand: The House would vote on a more popular package of fixes to the Senate bill; under the House rule for that vote, passage would signify that lawmakers "deem" the health-care bill to be passed.

The tactic -- known as a "self-executing rule" or a "deem and pass" -- has been commonly used, although never to pass legislation as momentous as the $875 billion health-care bill. It is one of three options that Pelosi said she is considering for a late-week House vote, but she added that she prefers it because it would politically protect lawmakers who are reluctant to publicly support the measure.

"It's more insider and process-oriented than most people want to know," the speaker said in a roundtable discussion with bloggers Monday. "But I like it," she said, "because people don&!
#39;t have to vote on the Senate bill."

Republ!
icans quickly condemned the strategy, framing it as an effort to avoid responsibility for passing the legislation, and some suggested that Pelosi's plan would be unconstitutional.

"It's very painful and troubling to see the gymnastics through which they are going to avoid accountability," Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), the senior Republican on the House Rules Committee, told reporters. "And I hope very much that, at the end of the day, that if we are going to have a vote, we will have a clean up-or-down vote that will allow the American people to see who is supporting this Senate bill and who is not supporting this Senate bill."

One can only imagine how attractive this ploy would be with state lawmakers in adopting a budget without actually having to vote for the tax increases being relied on.

Budget writers protect $226 million of spending on Student Achievement Program (Initiative 728)

March 15, 2010 in Blog

Initiative 728 was passed by voters in 2001 to reduce class sizes, provide extended learning (after school) programs, professional development to teachers, facility improvements and other spending.  Voters did not provide a revenue source for this Initiative.  Yet legislators have used excess tax revenues to generously fund Initiative 728 spending.   

This morning I checked the status of current budget negotiations on I-728 spending, known as the Student Achievement Program.  Budget writers in both the Senate and the House have cut spending on this program in the amount of $78,352,000.  Yet they continue spending on the Student Achievement program in the amount of $226,044,000. 

This program has yielded little benefit in the form of improved student achievement.  Student test scores in Washington remain essentially flat on the gold standard of assessment, the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, with only 36% of 8th graders proficient (at grade level) in math and 34% proficient in reading on the 2007 test.

This is no surprise. The quality of the teacher is much more important to student learning than class size.  A teacher in the top quartile of effectiveness can raise a student from the lowest quartile of the national achievement distribution to the highest quartile, an increase of 50 percentiles, in just three years.  In "Technology as Our Teacher" in U.S. News and World Report, Mortimer Zuckerman describes it like this:

Teacher effects...are much stronger than class-size effects.  We would have to cut the average class almost in half to pick up the same benefit that a student gets after switching from the average teacher to a teacher in the 85th percentile.  Halving the class size would require that we build twice as many classrooms and have twice as many teachers, an impossible financial challenge.

Legislators would not harm student learning by further reducing spending on the Student Achievement Program.  

 

Senate adopts rule change to speed up votes

March 15, 2010 in Blog

Minutes after convening for special session this afternoon the Senate adopted SR 8719. The resolution makes the following amendment to Senate Rule 45:

"All reports of standing committees must be on the secretary's desk one hour prior to convening of the session in order to be read at said session. During any special session of the legislature, this rule may be suspended by a majority vote."

The impact of this change is a bill that is adopted by a committee can be voted on by the full Senate on the same day instead of having to wait until the next day.

This change is the antithesis of efforts to create a "time out" period to allow lawmakers adequate time to review proposed changes in law or budget details prior to voting.

Arguing in favor of this change to Senat!
e rules Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt said it was necessary to save taxpayers money and expedite the special session.

Which leads to an interesting question: Should providing adequate time for lawmakers to understand what they are voting on be waived for cost savings?

FCC to Release National Broadband Plan Tomorrow

March 15, 2010 in Blog

Today Politico posted what they are calling a "late draft of a Federal Communications Commission summary of its 'National Broadband Plan,' due for delivery to Congress by Wednesday."

Tomorrow is Election Day for King Co. Conservation District

March 15, 2010 in Blog

The King County Conservation District is holding its election tomorrow for the Board of Supervisors. Rather than pay to be put on the regular King County elections ballot, the District organizes its own election to save money. As a result, those who want to vote must go to one of the polling locations.

The King County Conservation District has a budget of over $6 million and has variety of responsibilities regarding environmental stewardship outlined on their web page:

Our mission is to promote the sustainable use of natural resources through responsible stewardship. A five-member Board of Supervisors is responsible for all District programs and activities. ...We promote conservation through demonstration projects, educational events, providing technical assistance and, in some cases, providing or pointing the way to funds which may be available for projects. The KCD has no regulatory or enforcement authority. We only work with those who choose to work with us.

You can cast your ballot at one of these locations:

  • Auburn

    King County Library/Auburn Branch
    1102 Auburn Way South, Auburn WA 98002
    Poll hours 10:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.

  • Bellevue

    King County Library/Bellevue Regional Branch
    1111 110th Avenue NE, Bellevue WA 98004
    Poll hours 10:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.

  • Carnation

    King County Library/Carnation Branch
    4804 Tolt Avenue, Carnation WA 98014
    Poll hours 10:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.

  • Des Moines

    King County Library/Des Moines Branch
    21620 11th Avenue S., Des Moines WA 98198
    Poll hours 10:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.

  • Seattle

    Seattle Public Library (Downtown Main Branch)
    1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle WA 98104
    Poll hours 10:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m.

  • Shoreline

    King County Library/Shoreline Branch
    345 NE 175th, Shoreline WA 98155
    Poll hours 10:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.

  • Vashon

    King County Library/Vashon Island Branch
    17210 Vashon Highway S.W., Vashon Island, WA 98070
    Poll Hours 10:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.

Sunshine Week shines light on lack of legislative transparency

March 15, 2010 in Blog

Since this is national Sunshine Week, you will see lots of stories about open government and the importance of providing citizens with meaningful access to the activities of their government. Here is a sampling from the editorials across the state highlighting the need for legislative transparency reforms:

  • A bad example of legislative 'transparency', Olympian
    "In the waning days of the regular legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Democrat from Spokane, claimed the Legislature is much more transparent than it was when she entered the Legislature.  Brown is wrong . . ."
  • Sunshine and Clouds in Olympia, Kitsap Sun
    "The bad news is that public access to information and hearings about legislation has been ... challenging. There’s been a flurry of 'title-only' bills introduced and set for hearings, sometimes on short notice, and with no timely public information on their content. Members of the public deserve better than that — and if they want to get it, they’d better say so this fall to those who seek to represent them in the Legislature."
  • It's National Sunshine Week, but state's transparency forecast remains cloudy, Longview Daily News
    "Shutting down the Sunshine Committee less than three years after it was formed is as difficult to justify as that legislative exemption from public disclosure. It proved too much for legislators to pull off in the light of day. The Sunshine Committee was taken off the bill's termination list — less than a week ago. Sadly, that remains this legislative session's single accomplishment on behalf of government transparency."
  • State government clings to double standard, News Tribune
    "Is it any wonder that city and county officials clamor for relief from open meetings and records laws when they see their counterparts in state government behave as they do? State officials profess a belief in public disclosure. They’re just not sure it always applies to them. Lawmakers in particular hold themselves apart from the state’s sunshine laws. They caucus in secret for any reason and insist that their correspondence is somehow constitutionally protected from public dissemination. They also apparently reserve the right to skip public process in the interests of expediency."
  • Public input? Who cares?, Everett Herald
    "With increasing audacity, key state legislators are taking control from the people and seizing it for themselves. Amid the difficult process of closing a $2.8 billion budget shortfall, they’ve skirted, waived or ignored the public’s right to know what they’re up to and comment on it."

One potential solution to this problem is for lawmakers to allow citizens to vote on meaningful constitutional transparency protections. Such a constitutional amendment could:

  • Add the preamble of the state's public records act to Article 1.
    This would help re-enforce this transparency intent for any wayward
    court. The preamble reads:
"The people of this state do not yield
their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in
delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to
decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for
them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may
maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This
chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly
construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public
interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the
provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this
chapter shall govern."
  • Add a new section to Article 2 which would require 72-hour public
    notification before any bill could receive a public hearing. While the
    requirement currently exists in legislative rules, it is often waived.
  • Amend Article 2, Section 19 to prohibit title only bills. No public hearing or vote should occur on a "ghost bill."
  • Amend Article 2, Section 22 to prohibit votes on final passage
    until the final version of the bill to be approved has been publicly
    available for 24-hours. 

This type of constitutional sunshine protection would not be unique to Washington if enacted. Florida's Constitution (Article 3, Section 19) requires a 72-hour public review period for appropriations bills before they can be voted on. Hawaii's Constitution (Article 3, Section 15) requires a 48-hour review period before any bill can be voted on for final passage.

The question that remains, will the Legislature provide the people the opportunity to enforce meaningful transparency on the legislative process?

Legislature: In WA, congestion relief is still not a goal

March 15, 2010 in Blog

Once again, the Washington State Legislature chose not to make relieving traffic congestion a priority. Washington currently has five policy goals:

Preservation: To maintain, preserve, and extend the life and utility of prior investments in transportation systems and services.

Safety: To provide for and improve the safety and security of transportation customers and the transportation system.

Mobility: To improve the predictable movement of goods and people throughout Washington State.

Will Treasurer be forced to use short term borrowing to pay bills?

March 12, 2010 in Blog

Governor Gregoire has officially called a special session to start next Monday. One of the bills to be considered will be the state's supplemental budget. Based on language currently in the House version of the budget, the state Treasurer may be forced to use short term borrowing to pay the state's bills, even if a "balanced" budget is adopted.

Consider Section 904 of the House budget:

"For purposes of RCW 43.88.110(7), any cash deficit in existence at the close of fiscal year 2010 shall be liquidated over the remainder of the 2009-2011 fiscal biennium."

The inclusion of this section seems to imply that House budget writers acknowledge the possibility that their budget could result in a cash deficit in the current fiscal year.

This would trigger the requirements of ="http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=43.88.110" target="_blank">RCW 43.88.110 (7):

"If at any time during the fiscal period the governor projects a
cash deficit in a particular fund or account as defined by RCW 43.88.050,
the governor shall make across-the-board reductions in allotments for
that particular fund or account so as to prevent a cash deficit, unless
the legislature has directed the liquidation of the cash deficit over
one or more fiscal periods . . ."

By ordering the liquidation of a cash deficit over the rest of the biennium, the Legislature would avoid the requirement that the Governor issues across the board reductions. It may not, however, help the Treasurer pay the state's daily bills if a cash flow problem occurs.

Last December the Treasurer warned he may have to resort to short term borrowing to pay the state's bills if cash liquidity wasn't improved.

I've contacted the Treasurer's office to see what would happen if a cash deficit does materialize as warned by Section 904 of the House budget. 

I'll post the reply once I receive it.

Ten most expensive transit projects of the decade: Sound Transit is #2

March 12, 2010 in Blog

The Infrastructurist just released a report showing the ten most expensive transit projects in the last ten years. Our very own Sound Transit is number two. As other (more expensive) segments come on line, I expect Sound Transit will be on this list for the next three decades.

(h/t Larry Ehl, WSDOT Blog)

Labor benefits from proposed budget language

March 12, 2010 in Blog

Budgets are complicated and long piece of legislation, which is why hardly anyone actually reads them. But the devil is in the details, as they say, and two things in particular stand out in the House's version of the Senate's proposed supplemental operating budget. These two concerns would benefit labor at the expense of businesses and taxpayers.

First up, as pointed out by AWB's Jocelyn McCabe and Kris Tefft over at OlympiaBusinessWatch.com, a slimmed-down version of the employer gag rule was inserted into the budget. The language looks innocent enough, but there is reason to be concerned. The language in SB6444 (sections 205 & 206) says,

"No employer, provider, or entity receiving state funds to provide long-tem care services or services to the developmentally disabled may use these funds to assist, promote, or deter union organization."

Seems innocuous. The problem is the language is illegal due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court case where the Court invalidated a similar California statute that prohibited private employers that accepted state program funds from doing largely the same thing. Even if the language was not invalid due to the Court case, it would set a dangerous precedent from prohibiting employers from exercising their First Amendment rights simply because they accepted state program funds.

Secondly, the Evergreen State College's Labor Center is being relocated from the Evergreen State College to South Seattle Community College and at least $164,000 of state funds are being set aside to pay for its operations. The problem? An internal audit found the Labor Center guilty of 10 violations including violations of state ethic laws and the audit questioned whether or not the mission of the Labor Center is illegal. WPC's Jason Mercier researched this subject a year ago and reported the audit stated that:

A review of the Center’s mission statement and by-laws found that the revised documents currently used by the Center have not been reviewed and approved by Senior Management, the College’s legal counsel, or the Board of Trustees.  This created a lack of clarity of the activities and work allowed for the Center and boundaries for staff.  The Center’s mission creates close and strong ties with labor unions and in several instances, the members of the Center’s advisory board request and report on work to be done or which has been performed for labor unions. !
; A lack of a clear and approved mission and ambiguity related!
to the College’s relationship with these organizations provides the appearance of possible ethics issues.  Other possible ethics violations included:

  • The website provided readers with two petitions:  one asking U.S. Congress and the President to declare the birthday of Cesar Chavez a national holiday and another asking reader to stop patronizing Burger King.  RCW 42.52.180 specifically prohibits use of State resources for political purposes.
  •  In one instance, the website announces collections for an outside organization during a Center sponsored activity.  An announcement for a Farm worker’s Justice includes a wish list for Bellingham Cooperative and states donations for the cooperative will be collected as part of the event.  Collection during a campus event and announcement of this item on the Center’s website is a violation of the State Ethics Law prohibiting use of resources for an outside organization (RCW 42.52.160)
  • Both Center newsletters available on the College’s websites and minutes of the advisory board include numerous references to efforts to oppose federal agencies, a rally held as part of a Center managed workshop, political work of the union in several industries, and the Center’s partnerships with special interest groups, all of which provide the appearance of potential violations of RCW 42.52.180 prohibiting use of State resources for political purposes.
  • A review of the minutes for the advisory board meetings found several discussions about support of special interest groups.  In the October 29, 2006, minutes, a member suggests participation with an organization called “U.S. Labor Against the War”.  The committee agreed to advise the center to join the group and directed the Center’s Assistant Director to make a membership payment to the group in possible violation of the Ethics in Public Service Act. 

It remains to be seen if these provisions will survive the special session and upcoming budget re-writes. The first problem is one of legality, so that should take care of itself. The second problem is one of ethics, so who knows if the Labor Center will clean up its act or if the funding for it will be yanked. 

Update: City B&O Tax and Spokane

March 11, 2010 in Blog

pan style="BACKGROUND-COLOR: #fcfae1; FONT-FAMILY: Helvetica; FONT-SIZE: 14px">mischaracterization of what he was trying to say. Cooley says his comments were simply a metaphor to highlight the economic value of Riverfront Park.

 

The City of Spokane’s Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley, in no-uncertain terms indicated he wants the city of Spokane to consider increasing taxes and mentioned once-again imposing a city-wide Business and Occupation tax.

 

While discussing options for how to pay for the purchase of the Downtown Spokane-Riverfront Park YMCA building, Cooley said the city needn’t accept an offer from Spokane County to buy the facility. Council members are trying to figure out how to pay off the $4.4 million debt they incurred when they bought the property and building.

 

Cooley said the city should look at increasing hotel taxes, selling parks or boosting property taxes. He then went on to remind the council about a B&O tax that once existed in the city to help pay for Expo ’74 improvements.

 

Never mind that both Spokane and Spokane County face enormous deficits, and that officials are already asking for higher property taxes for a new Spokane County jail. In addition, the B&O tax would only push more small business people to the brink and outside city limits. If Spokane wants to attract new businesses and new jobs, and keep the ones it already has, adopting higher taxes, and especially a new city B&O tax during a recession is not the way to do it.