May 29, 2013
By now you’ve likely learned that the Legislature was called back to the Capitol for what’s officially known as an “extraordinary” session – but more often is called a “special” session.
On the final day of the regular legislative session (April 28), when it became apparent that the 105 days allotted under our state constitution would not be enough for the Legislature to finish its work, I made sure to let the news media know where the blame belonged (click here to read more).
Earlier this month law-enforcement officers from Clark County and others associated with police and sheriffs joined me for the signing of Senate Bill 5264, which will make it easier for officers to respond to tactical situations (my wife Mary went up to the Capitol with me, that’s her behind Governor Inslee).
The special session, which can last up to 30 days, passed the two-week mark Monday. While the outward signs of progress on resolving the operating-budget disagreement are few, I can tell you as the Senate’s deputy majority leader that productive discussions are taking place at the leadership level.
The big news lately is the governor’s decision to pull all of the funding for the Columbia River Crossing. I’ll start this bulletin with my assessment of that surprising development.
It’s my privilege to represent you in our state Senate. My legislative office remains open just as it was during the regular legislative session, so please – if you have a question or concern or comment about government, phone me or send a message. I’m here to help!
Sen. Don Benton
17th Legislative District
Visit my website for more news and information!
‘This bridge or no bridge’ governor axes funding for CRC project?
The Legislature did get one budget through before the end of the regular legislative session: the new transportation budget for 2013-15. Everyone agreed with the description of “bare bones” for the budget because it allocates only the revenue that is expected to come in from the state gas tax and other sources. There also was no package of new revenue attached, although I suspect there will be another attempt before we adjourn for the year to bring a revenue package forward (translation: gas-tax increase).
The new budget did not include the $450 million identified as Washington’s share of the controversial Columbia River Crossing project. However, we did agree to provide $81 million toward the CRC; I made sure the budget included constraints that would steer nearly all of that toward making changes in the design and a revised environmental impact statement in the event that the U.S. Coast Guard says “no” to issuing the permits the project needs.
Governor Inslee had inherited the CRC project when he took office. He became outspoken in his support for the CRC – more so as I raised concerns, it seemed – to the point of saying it would be “this bridge or no bridge.” For that reason I have to believe the governor was disappointed that the Legislature did not come through with full funding for what I and many others view as a deeply flawed project.
Still, I did not expect he would veto the $81 million for the CRC when he signed the transportation budget this past week. Click here to read my reaction – which was basically to praise his decision, because it would seem to mark the end of this boondoggle.
Some have speculated that the governor is taking an all-or-none position on the CRC. However, if Governor Inslee believes vetoing the partial funding in the budget (or the partial collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River) will somehow lead to legislative support for full funding, then I suspect he has painted himself into a corner.
I’ve worked hard this year to explain to my fellow Senate coalition members why the CRC project as designed would be a poor investment; it’s not likely our unified opposition will be challenged successfully. As the Senate Transportation Committee chairman has repeatedly said, light rail must be removed from the design to save 6,000 Washington jobs.
As special session moves into third week, budget talks remain in spotlight
Budget negotiations continued in Olympia through the two-week break between the adjournment of the 2013 regular session and commencement of the special session on May 13. In addition to those meetings, members of our Senate Majority Coalition have been busy connecting with constituents, the news media and stakeholder groups from across Washington.
We have a positive story to tell: as Washington emerges from the recent recession, state revenues are anticipated to grow at a rate of around 7 percent, with total tax receipts for the coming two-year budget cycle anticipated to reach $32.8 billion – the highest level in state history. The Senate adopted a new two-year budget that lives within those means (so there would be no tax increases under our plan) yet invests substantially more toward basic and higher education.
The majority in the House of Representatives and the governor don’t have a story that is nearly as family- or employer-friendly – unless you think it’s friendly to want to raise taxes by more than a billion dollars.
Job creation more important than ever in light of state’s poor ranking
Speaking of our coalition’s priority on job creation – this past month the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics released its quarterly update of unemployment rates by state over the past year. Under the broadest of its measures, which takes into account "discouraged" workers who are no longer actively seeking work, Washington ranked fifth-highest in the nation in unemployment.
That undesirable ranking is proof of the continued need to focus on job creation as our state recovers from the recent recession. While there’s no magic wand legislators can wave to create jobs, there are key policy areas where improvements can lead to economic expansion.
For instance, our Senate coalition approved bills to address regulatory reform, workers’ compensation and ensuring a ready workforce. Just as importantly, as I mentioned earlier, the Senate budget does not rely on new taxes that would likely have the effect of stifling our state’s businesses and families.
The centerpiece of our job-creation agenda is Senate Bill 5127, a measure I am co-sponsoring. Approved with a bipartisan 30-19 vote, SB 5127 would help reform the state's costly workers' compensation system and avoid the major rate increases proposed by the Department of Labor and Industries for employers (to erase the current $720 million deficit in L&I’s contingency reserve). Unfortunately the measure stalled once it got to the Democrat-controlled House, to the point of being denied even a public hearing.
Job creation must be a top priority during the special session, because during the regular legislative session is seemed that only one side – ours – was taking steps to improve Washington’s business climate.
In support of pro-environment, pro-jobs bill that also respects the people’s will
Until this year legislative budget-writers would frequently balance the budget by grabbing money from a fund tied to an anti-pollution law created by the citizens a quarter-century ago.
As a staunch supporter of the people’s power to make their own laws through initiatives and someone who understands that “conservative” and “conservation” go hand in hand, I’ve long been dismayed by these regular raids (which our Senate budget this year does not repeat).
The anti-pollution law is the state’s Model Toxics Control Act, which created a hazardous-substances tax to generate money for environmental cleanup. In recent years it has become a frequent target of diversions to the general fund. Meanwhile the cleanup of contaminated sites has lagged, leaving as many as 5,000 sites around the state awaiting action.
That could change, for the betterment of our environment, if the Democrat-controlled House would join the Senate to establish the Environmental Legacy Stewardship Account. All it would take is the passage of Senate Bill 5296, which we approved on April 22 with a bipartisan vote – almost a week before the regular session ended (fittingly, it was also Earth Day).
I am proud to support this legislation for a few reasons. First, it would refocus the state’s toxic-cleanup program on the goals endorsed by the voters way back in 1988: to fund the cleanup and prevention of hazards around the state. Money from this proposed new account would go toward capital projects that meet innovation and efficiency standards spelled out in law and are specifically approved by the Legislature. Emphasis would be on renewing lands with commercial or industrial potential, and the creation of model remedies would expedite timelines for cleanup projects.
Second, it’s good for our economy. On top of the obvious environmental benefit of renewing these lands, the work means short-term cleanup jobs plus the considerable long-term economic benefit as these sites are again made available for use.
Finally, I like how SB 5296 would bring transparency, accountability and oversight to the management of a significant amount of taxpayer dollars – it’s estimated that more than $100 million per year would flow into the new account, to be dedicated to toxic cleanup.
Final budget ought to preserve money for citizen-approved performance audits
In 2005 the people of Washington approved Initiative 900, a measure I supported to give the state auditor’s office the authority to conduct performance audits of state and local government agencies and entities, including executive, legislative, and judicial agencies.
By performance audits we’re talking about more than dollars and cents – these look at the efficiency and effectiveness of each agency’s policies, management and operations as well as fiscal affairs. This work is, by law, supported by a dedicated and independent funding source: 0.16% of the state’s portion of sales and use tax collections, which goes in a special account.
The no-new-taxes budget adopted by the Senate in early April shifts some money out of that account toward other uses such as combating Medicaid fraud and compliance audits within our K-12 education system. The justification is that the account has more money than the state auditor has been able to use on performance audits alone – and tapping it helped avoid tax increases in the new Senate budget. Although it’s hard to say when a final budget will come for a vote, I’d like to see the Legislature do better at upholding the will of the people by preserving the money earmarked for performance audits.
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