Legislative session headed for a close finish as budget and tax measures remain in dispute.
This year’s 60-day state legislative session is scheduled to end at midnight tomorrow, March 8th. Lawmakers have been busy passing hundreds of bills in lengthy floor sessions, including a rare Saturday session last week, but key issues remain unresolved.
Two versions of the supplemental state operating budget for 2017-19 (SB 6032) passed each chamber by close, mostly partisan margins last week, and the differences still need to be worked out in conference committee between House and Senate leaders.
Meanwhile, a controversy has arisen as a result of the Senate Democrats' plan to spend money from the rainy day reserve account by using a simple majority vote, rather than a 60 percent vote as required by the state constitution.
In 2007 the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment that created the Budget Stabilization Account, generally referred to as the rainy day fund. Each year, the State Treasurer deposits one percent of general state revenues into this constitutionally created fund. As a safeguard, spending from this account generally requires a 60 percent vote in each house.
Senate Democrats want a new property tax plan (SB 6614), which would redirect money that should be headed for the rainy day fund to lowering property taxes. They say that this would eliminate the 60 percent majority requirement, making Republican support unnecessary.
Senate Republicans objected to the move, and the bill was held over for possible action today. They say this is in violation of the state constitution that requires a 60 percent vote to draw down from the state’s savings account. According to news reports, ranking minority member on the Senate Ways and Means Committee Sen. John Braun said that, since the state already has surplus tax money, he sees “no reason to raid our state’s rainy day fund.” He added that “this sham will result in over $700 million in additional revenue for them (Democrats) to spend on free stuff that they can give away to their supporters.”
A much-anticipated effort to provide some relief to vehicle owners hit by exorbitant Sound Transit car tab fees is also stalled in the legislature. It was revealed that Sound Transit officials use an outdated valuation formula. This method inflates a car’s value and results in much higher fees — to the shock of vehicle owners.
Both chambers passed bills to require that car tab fees be calculated based on true market values. Sound Transit says that means car-owners would save $780 million over the next 11years, money the agency would like to have instead. House and Senate Democrats have opposing views on how to deal with the projected revenue losses.
House leaders told the Everett Herald that they would be willing to pass a bill providing car tab relief and deal with the revenue shortfall later. Senate leaders say they don’t want to wait to solve any funding shortage for Sound Transit, because it would jeopardize projects in Snohomish and Pierce Counties. House Bill 2201 is currently still in the Senate Transportation Committee. SB 5955 is on the House floor calendar, awaiting further action.
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