By Diana Carlen
Friday marked day 19 of the 2021 Legislative Session. While there has been a sharp decline of new bills being introduced, committees are busy hearing, amending and voting out bills. The first deadline is fast approaching which is Feb. 15, when all bills must be voted out of their policy committee or they are dead for the year.
Senate Labor Committee Hears Agriculture’s Priority Bill This Session
While there are so many alarming bills that have been introduced this session that could detrimentally impact agriculture, there is at least one bright spot in Senate Bill 5172 which would protect agriculture from liability for payment of retroactive overtime wages when state law did not require it. As has been previously reported, a recent Washington State Supreme Court case held that dairy workers must be paid overtime and overturning a state law in place since 1959 that exempted all agriculture from paying overtime. The ruling did not address whether workers in the case were eligible for retroactive pay, possibly totaling three years of overtime compensation.
The Senate Labor & Commerce Committee held a public hearing on the bill last week. More than 1,000 people signed up to have their position on the bill noted for the record, with a little more than half supporting the bill.
Nicole Berg, a Benton County farmer, was one of the many testifying in support of the legislation, arguing it is unfair to penalize farmers for following a law that was well established and on the books for more than 60 years. All the guidance over the years from Labor & Industries, the agency responsible for enforcing overtime requirements, has clearly spelled out that agriculture is exempt from paying overtime. To all of a sudden have a court throw out that exemption and farmers be threatened with liability for retroactive overtime when it was not required by law is blatantly unfair. She urged that the industry needs clarity and leadership from the legislature on this issue. You can read Berg’s testimony here.
This bill must be voted out of the Senate Labor Committee by Feb. 15 to remain alive and eligible to be passed by the Legislature this session.
You can watch the full hearing here
Democrats Announce $2.2 billion COVID-19 Relief Package
At the end of last week, the House and Senate Democrats jointly introduced a $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief package (Senate Bill 5344/House Bill 1368) that is funded by a combination of federal relief funds. Notably, $365 million is allocated to the Department of Commerce to administer an emergency rental and utility assistance program in the form of grants to local housing providers.
Other highlights of this proposal include:
- $688 million is allocated to the Office of Superintendent Instruction and a directive for school districts to update their reopening plans.
- $618 million is allocated to COVID-19 public health response, including vaccine administration and distribution.
- $240 million is allocated for small business grants.
- $50 million is provided for childcare assistance.
- $30 million is provided for an eviction rental assistance program.
House Bill 1368 was voted out of the House Appropriations Committee on Jan. 28, by a vote of 25-8. The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate budget committee on Feb. 2. The proposal is likely to be accelerated through the legislative process.
Senate Transportation Revenue Package Released
On Jan. 28, Senate Transportation Committee chair, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), released his transportation revenue proposal that aims to invest $18 billion over 16 years in state and local transportation systems. Notably, his proposal included the option of two different carbon pricing models: 50 percent of the state’s assumed revenue from a cap and trade program or a carbon fee of $20/ton. Both options also include a six-cent gas tax increase. A brief summary of the revenue proposal can be found here. A summary of the expenditures can be found here.
As reported last week, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) unveiled his transportation revenue proposal that would invest $26 billion over 16 years. Rep. Fey’s proposal relies on a carbon fee of $15/ton starting in 2021-2023 and increasing to $25/ton in 2025-2027, as well as an eighteen-cent gas tax increase. Over the next several weeks, the transportation committees in the House and Senate will further refine their proposals and contemplate the merits of a cap and trade approach versus a carbon fee.
Legislature Passes Unemployment Insurance Legislation
Senate Bill 5061, legislation that would both prevent a drastic increase in unemployment taxes for businesses and increase the minimum weekly unemployment benefit for workers, passed the legislature this week.
On the one hand, the bill would halt $1.7 billion in automatic unemployment insurance tax increases from taking effect from 2021 to 2025, including $920 million this year. The increased tax rates are the result in the increase of unemployment claims due to the pandemic and the unprecedented fraudulent claims paid out by the agency.
In addition, the bill would increase the minimum weekly unemployment benefit amount from 15 percent to 20 percent of the average weekly wage passed. Sen. Curtis King was able to get the bill amended to cap the minimum benefit wages to prevent individuals from earning more through unemployment than they did while working.
The bill passed both the Senate and House last week and will be delivered to the governor for his signature.
WSDA Bills Increasing Pesticide Registration and Licensing Fees Heard
Two fees increase bills brought by the Washington State Department of Agriculture were heard in the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee last week. The first raises pesticide registration fees (SB 5317), and the second raises fertilizer fees (SB 5318). Both fees have not been raised since 2008.
While agricultural groups testified that fee increases are a bit challenging at this time due to the economic challenges, most were generally supportive because they agreed having a robust pesticide safety program is essential.
Other Bills Action Last Week:
- DNR Lease Termination (HB 1199), Sponsored by Rep. Chris Corry (R-Yakima), was heard in the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee. The bill would require the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to compensate lessees should DNR terminate a lease early on state land used for agricultural or grazing purposes. Farmers from across the state and DNR signed in to testify on the bill, only speaking in support of the proposal. Ryan Poe, WAWG president, testified in strong support of the bill. You can read his testimony here.
- Net Ecological Gain (HB 1117), sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow), would integrate salmon recovery planning into local comprehensive plans under the Growth Management Act. As part of the new requirements, public projects must make considerations to achieve net ecological gain.
- Green House Gas Emissions from Flourinated Gases (HB 1050), sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-West Seattle), would build upon the legislature’s work in 2019 to phase out Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are industrial chemicals primarily used for cooling and refrigeration. The proposed substitute was voted out of the House Environment & Energy Committee on Jan. 26 by a vote of 8-5 and included two amendments. While an amendment to delay the start date on restrictions for stationary refrigeration systems was proposed, it failed to have enough votes to pass out of committee.
- Modifying GMA to include Climate Response (HB 1099), sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-Bothell) would create a new requirement for certain cities and counties to plan for and work to achieve greenhouse gas (GHG) and vehicle miles travelled (VMT) reductions. All cities planning under GMA would have a new climate goal to help achieve statewide GHG and VMT reductions and address resiliency to a changing climate.
- Wildfire Prevention (HB 1168), sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) and DNR, would establish a dedicated funding source for wildfire and forest health totaling $125 million per biennium. The bill in turn lays out investments in the state’s wildfire response through firefighting and expanding the state’s air fleet; building forest restoration by funding DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan and strengthening local fire district and workforce development; and providing funding for fire protection activities for homes, properties and communities.