Submitted by Trent House, Trent M House Government Relations
With less than two weeks remaining in the 2020 Legislative Session, the list of ideas that may become law becomes even shorter. The deadline for a bill to pass its policy committee in the opposite chamber was Friday, February 28. Fiscal committees worked this weekend, as the deadline for bills to pass that hurdle in the opposite chamber is tomorrow, Monday, March 2. The two chambers will then spend the next two weeks voting on the floor and negotiating concurrence and the budgets in advance of Sine Die on March 12.
Majority Democrats must now decide which issues they will advance in an election year in which all 98 members of the House of Representatives and 25 of the 49 Senators will appear on the ballot alongside a divisive presidential race, all statewide elected officials, and possible initiatives to the people. Soundbite issues for election hit pieces abound in bills and floor amendments and include guns, sex ed, car tabs, prescription drug prices, property taxes, child and nursing home care, and a low carbon fuel standard.
On the heels of a revenue forecast showing an unanticipated $606 million revenue increase last week, both chambers spent committee and floor time this week passing preliminary versions of the capital, operating, and transportation budgets.
Senate Democrats proposed nearly $1 billion in new operating spending bringing the $52.4 billion operating budget total to $53.6 billion, while House Democrats proposed $1.2 billion in new spending, bringing the proposed new budget total to $53.7 billion. Neither operating budget imposes significant new taxes, nor do they impart noteworthy tax cuts, something both Senate and House Republican budget leaders criticize, arguing the new and unanticipated revenue should be used to provide tax breaks instead of new spending.
Both operating budgets proposed $318 million in one-time money, which is suspected to be the outcome of taxing the estate of the late Paul Allen. The Senate uses that amount for one-time spending on three areas. $115 million in the Senate operating budget is proposed to address homelessness through affordable housing and shelter capacity. $100 million is allocated to Governor Inslee and other state officials for yet to be named “climate resiliency projects” that improve forest health, reduce ocean acidification, increase salmon habitat, and protect endangered species.
The last $100 million is proposed for the UW Behavioral Health Hospital to replace the $35 million appropriation from last year, freeing up some of the state’s bond capacity for other projects, including the renovation of the Washington’s second oldest state-owned enterprise (after the University of Washington), Western State Hospital. Western State is Washington’s largest psychiatric facility at nearly 850 beds, and as part of Governor Inslee’s plan to decentralize psychiatric care, is transitioning to serving forensic patients rather than civil patients. The Senate Operating Budget was voted off the House Floor late on Friday, February 28 in a 55-39 vote.
The Senate supplemental capital budget received a 49-0 floor vote on Wednesday, February 26. The proposal authorizes an additional $278 million in capital projects including $25 million for housing and homelessness, $31 million for toxic cleanup and stormwater, and $58 million for K-12 school construction.
The House supplemental transportation budget was released on Monday, February 24, increasing spending by $350 million to $10.19 billion from the $9.84 billion passed last spring. Part of the increase was due to use of unspent funds from the 2017-19 biennium. The $10.5 billion Senate transportation budget was released Tuesday, February 25. The budget assumes an underrun of $402 million, with trigger language that restores $121.7 million in reductions should the initiative be overturned. Both budgets rely on a variety of one-time balancing methods such as fund transfers to cope with already declining gas tax revenue and the unresolved Initiative 976 court battle. Unless invalidated, 976 will eliminate $453 million in funding for the budget. Budget leaders stressed these one-time actions cannot be done in the next biennium and additional funding sources must be found. The House budget passed the floor 96-1 on Friday, February 28.
Aerospace B&O Tax Benefit On Tuesday and Wednesday, the House Finance and Senate Ways & Means Committees heard the bills to suspend the aerospace tax benefit, 2945 (Sullivan, D-Covington) and 6690 (Liias, D-Mukilteo) respectively. The request to repeal the incentives should pave the way to resolving a trade dispute between the United States and the European Union, home to Boeing rival Airbus. The necessity to pass the bill to avoid $22 billion in retaliatory tariffs threatening not just aerospace but the state’s exports of agricultural products, is not disputed. The real point of deliberation is whether the lower tax rate would be restored when the U.S. and E.U. reach agreement. Labor leaders hope to add language for workforce accountability including Washington job retention, expansion of apprenticeships and training, and a requirement that Boeing commit to building its next new airplane in Washington.
On Tuesday, the House Finance Committee heard 2947 (Valdez, D-Seattle), the new version of the high capacity magazine ban that includes a buyback program funded by eliminating the tax exemption on precious metals and bullion. Like its predecessor 2240 (Valdez, D-Seattle), the policy aspects of the bill are opposed by the National Rifle Association and other local gun enthusiast groups. It is supported by the Offices of the Governor and Attorney General, as well as the PTA , Alliance for Gun Responsibility and others. Removing the sales tax exemption on precious metals and bullion is opposed by precious metal dealers who contend precious metals are held as an investment rather than a currency and like stocks, bonds, and real estate should remain exempted from sales tax. The bill has not yet been scheduled for executive action.
The House Public Safety Committee passed 5339 to repeal the death penalty on Thursday, February 27. The bill, if passed by the full legislature, will remove capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder and mandate instead a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. This would make permanent a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that struck down capital punishment as arbitrary and racially biased. Earlier this week, the committee heard emotional testimony from committee member Rep. Jenny Graham (R-Spokane) whose sister was murdered by the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway. Her mother also spoke tearfully in opposition to the bill, which they say is unfair to victims and removes a negotiating tool for investigators. Daniel Mueggenborg, Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Seattle, spoke in support of the bill. Governor Inslee is poised to sign the bill if passed by the House.
The House Education Committee passed the divisive 5395 (Wilson, D-Federal Way) in a 9-8 vote, which phased in over two years, will mandate comprehensive sexual health education in grades K-12. The bill has inspired several new parental rights groups. When the Senate bill was heard in the House Education Committee on February 20, 755 people signed in on the bill, 634 of whom were against. Legislators report receiving thousands of emails about the bill, both for and against.
The House Finance Committee heard 2948 (Springer, D-Kirkland) on Thursday February 27, the new version of 2907 (Macri, D-Seattle), the proposal to grant King County the authority to impose a payroll tax to generate revenue to address affordable housing and homelessness. The bill has been scheduled for executive action on Monday, March 2.
On Friday February 28, The Senate Ways & Means Committee heard testimony on 2638 (Peterson, D-Edmonds), the bill to allow sports betting in Washington’s tribal casinos. The sticking point on this bill is the insistence of Nevada-based Maverick Gaming that gambling on sports also be allowed in non-tribal card rooms. After the hearing, Maverick CEO Eric Persson vowed to spend $20-30 million in this election cycle, having already put $1.5 million into a PAC it controls. Persson says his PAC will focus on House and Senate campaigns involving lawmakers that supported an emergency clause in the bill. Persson added, “Nothing’s off the table. We’ll do everything we can. Litigation, lobbying, TV ads, whatever it takes to get the message out there.”
Important Dates March 2 – Opposite House Fiscal Cutoff March 6 – Opposite House Floor Cutoff March 12 – Sine Die