Legislative update: Senate regains majority

Friday was the 28th day of the 2017 Legislative Session and the end of week 4. There have been 1721 bills introduced thus far. The first legislative deadline is Feb. 17 when all policy bills must pass out of their policy committee to remain alive.

Senate republicans regain their majority after a temporary tie

Last week, the Senate was temporarily tied after Sen. Brian Dansel (R-Republic) resigned to take a position in the Trump administration. After the Senate democrats tried unsuccessfully to force a vote on the floor on an education bill a week ago Friday but failed to have quorum, county commissioners in the five districts impacted by the vacancy in the 7th Legislative District acted swiftly to fill the vacancy. On Monday, Jan. 30, Rep. Shelly Short (R-Addy) was appointed to fill the vacant seat and was sworn in on Tuesday. Sen. Short will serve on the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee and as chair of the Senate Local Government Committee. On Thursday, Feb. 2, Sen. Short’s former legislative assistant, Jacquelin Maycumber (R-Republic), was appointed to fill Short’s position in the House of Representatives. Rep. Maycumber’s committee assignments have not been made public yet.

Senate passes education funding plan

Recently, the Senate Republican Caucus released their education funding plan (SSB 5607) to comply with the Supreme Court’s order to fully fund basic education. The plan passed out of the Senate on party grounds 25-24 on Wednesday, Feb. 1, with only one democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon (who caucuses with the Republicans), voting in favor of it.

The plan replaces local school levies with a statewide uniform rate earmarked for schools guaranteed at $12,500 per student statewide. The plan also increases starting teacher salaries to $45,000 and allows teachers to get incentive bonuses.

Republicans proposed a new, permanent state property tax to fund public schools. It would be capped at $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed value. That new levy would be added to the current property tax levy which is about $1.90 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2017. At the same time, Republicans would eliminate the current local maintenance and operation school levies. Republicans say that while some property owners would see a modest increase to their property taxes, others would see a modest decrease.

Republicans say the plan would raise an additional $1.4 billion per biennium for education. The proposal would also contain a referendum clause requiring voters to approve the plan in November.

The governor and jointly the House and Senate democrats have released their own education funding plans. Both rely on additional revenue and include a carbon tax as a possible revenue source. Negotiations will now begin between the Senate and House.

Senate energy committee holds public hearing on carbon tax

Last Thursday, Feb. 2, the Senate Energy Committee held a public hearing on one of the carbon tax proposals being considered this session. SB 5385, sponsored by Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), would impose a carbon tax equal to $15 per metric ton of carbon content of fossil fuels extracted, manufactured or introduced into Washington. Unlike other carbon tax proposals introduced so far, the tax does not contain a price escalator. The legislation directs the carbon tax revenue be spent on storm water projects, fish barrier correction projects at state highways, renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, student transportation and highway maintenance and preservation. Unlike the governor’s proposed carbon tax, the revenues would not be partially directed to education funding.

The bill would also repeal any other state agency policy that sets a greenhouse gas emissions standard such as the Clean Air Rule. If the U.S. federal government adopts a statute, rule, tax, regulatory limit or standard on the emission of greenhouse gases that is imposed broadly, the carbon tax established in SB 5385 would expire on the date of federal enactment.

At the public hearing, the sponsor of the legislation explained that while he recognized that many groups had concerns with his proposal, he was trying to propose a compromise position on a carbon tax since he believes that if not addressed in the legislature, a ballot initiative proposal would be more onerous. Indeed, there was only one person who testified in support of the bill and the rest were in opposition or other. While the proposal did not have much overall support, people weighing in on the bill thanked the sponsor for the following provisions in the proposal: a flat fee that is predictable and without a price escalator; prohibition on the state adopting other greenhouse gas reduction laws or rules; and repeal of the tax if the federal government enacts carbon reduction laws or rules.

Testifying in opposition or other included the Association of Washington Business, Cascade Natural Gas, PacifiCorp, NW Food Processers, Clark PUD, Avista, Pacific Propane Gas Association and the Washington Trucking Association. WAWG signed in opposed to the bill.