By Diana Carlen
The Washington state legislative session began on Monday, Jan. 9. It is the first in-person session since the pandemic hit, and everyone is excited to be back in person. Committees are allowing both in-person and remote testimony.
The 2023 session is scheduled to last 105 days and end on April 23. The primary job of the Legislature will be to pass operating, capital and transportation budgets for 2023-2025. Budget writers have some breathing room in drafting the budgets because tax collections have been coming in higher than forecasted, resulting in increased revenue projections through the 2027 biennium.
There are many new faces in Olympia. Over two dozen new legislators were sworn into the House and Senate earlier this week as an unprecedented number of members chose not to seek reelection this fall. Democrats gained a seat in each chamber in the last election and control the House by a count of 58-40 and the Senate by a count of 29-20.
In December, Gov. Inslee released his proposed $70 billion operating budget which marks a roughly 12% increase in spending from the current 2021-2023 budget. While the proposed budget does not include any new tax increases, it does reflect two new sources of money passed by the Legislature in 2021: a capital gains tax (which is currently being challenged in the Washington State Supreme Court with oral argument this month) and revenues raised by a cap-and-trade program (CCA) that went in effect in January. The 2023-25 biennial budget is the first budget to allocate and to spend cap and trade revenues outside of the transportation budget. Because this is a market-based program, the proceeds cannot be known with certainty and may be variable over the biennium. The first auction is set to take place at the end of February. The governor’s budget assumes $1.7 billion in revenues from the CCA over the next two years.
Below are some notable priorities of interest in Governor’s proposed budget and policy priorities:
- Salmon Recovery: The Governor’s office has introduced a new bill (SB 5266/HB 1215) this year for riparian protection, but this time, it sets up a new voluntary grant program as opposed to the mandatory 200 feet buffers that were part of the controversial and unsuccessful Lorraine Loomis Act from last session. During the interim, a riparian taskforce met pursuant to a budget proviso. Agricultural groups have been actively engaged with this taskforce and support the proposed funding in the governor’s budget to continue the work of the taskforce. The legislation is an improvement from last year’s bill, but there are still some details to iron out to make the voluntary program successful. Once concerning aspect of the legislation is that it references two controversial Fish & Wildlife publications as the best available science. There is a hearing for HB 1215 in the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.
- Snake River Dams: Earlier this year, Governor Inslee and U.S. Senator Patty Murray released a study determining that the lower Snake River dams could not be removed until clean energy alternatives can be developed to replace the power these dams generate. The governor’s proposed budget provides $5 million in funding to develop a detailed replacement plan for the power. Inslee also proposes an additional $5 million for the Department of Transportation to conduct an analysis of highway, road and freight rail transportation needs and options to accommodate the movement of freight and goods that currently move by barge through the lower Snake River dams.
Legislators hit the ground running during the first week of the session with dozens of committee hearings and packed agendas. Over 700 bills have been introduced in the first week of session.
Senate Energy Committee Gets Heated Discussing Increased Fuel Prices From Carbon Policies
The big news this week was a work session that got tense in the Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee on implementation of the new cap and trade law and low carbon fuel standard that both went into effect on Jan. 1. Since the new year, it has been reported that consumers are seeing increased gas and diesel prices due to these new laws going into effect. Specifically, fuel producers have added a carbon surcharge on gas and diesel to cover their compliance obligations from the new carbon laws.
The Department of Ecology came out swinging at the oil industry at the work session when asked about fuel suppliers passing on these fees to their customers. Ecology staff at the hearing accused fuel producers of prematurely imposing a carbon surcharge on customers before they were required to comply and stated that oil companies have a reputation for price gouging. The oil industry firmly disputed Ecology’s accusations and stated that the law went into effect on Jan. 1 and that they are required to make business decisions now before knowing the results of the first auction at the end of February.
Notably, the cap and trade statute exempted fuel used for on farm use and for transporting products on public highways, but unfortunately, farmers are still being assessed the carbon surcharge since Ecology has not set up a mechanism in their rulemaking for fuel producers to implement such exemptions. The same thing is happening for the maritime industry. This is causing a lot of frustration and confusion for exempted industries and needs to be promptly rectified.
Work Session on Equity in Farming
The House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee kicked off their first hearing of the year with a work session on equity in farming and agency updates from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). During their presentation, WSDA gave an overview of agriculture in our state in addition to highlighting recent efforts they have taken to promote equity.
WSDA gave the committee a number of overarching facts about the industry in Washington, explaining that 95% of our state’s farms are family owned, with over 89% considered small farms. Additionally, the department highlighted the importance of agriculture, remarking that 164,000 individuals are employed as a part of the industry. Of interest, the department made note that Washington is one of only seven states that does not have a brand recognition program, which WSDA will be pursuing legislation on.
The department’s presentation also focused on their work to identify challenges for underrepresented farmers and ranchers and several programs the department has undertaken to promote equity in their work. One of the efforts WSDA walked through was their work to expand the We Feed WA Pilot Program, which aims to procure and distribute emergency food from Washington-based farms and food businesses.
Slides from the department’s presentation can be found here.
Other Bills of Interest That Received Hearings This Week:
- Salmon Voluntary Stewardship (HB 1076), sponsored by Rep. Mark Klicker (R-Walla Walla) would provide a voluntary option for cities and counties planning under the Growth Management Act to incorporate an additional element on salmon recovery into their comprehensive plans. The proposal was heard in the House Environment & Energy Committee on Jan. 12. Several stakeholders raised concerns with how the proposal would interact with the existing Voluntary Stewardship Program and the overseeing agency of the program as determined by the bill.
- Pesticide Advisory Board (HB 1019), sponsored by Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake) would establish a formal and permanent Pesticide Advisory Board to advise WSDA. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard the bill Jan. 13.
- Drought Preparedness (HB 1138), sponsored by Rep. Mike Chapman (D- Port Angeles) is Department of Ecology request legislation that was heard on Jan. 13 in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee. The bill primarily seeks to streamline the process to dispense grant funding to address drought conditions during the interim so that agencies and local governments can receive funding when it is needed when the Legislature is not in session. The joint legislative committee on drought mitigation can instead convene the committee to directly respond to these funding needs. The bill was introduced last session and was close to passing but died at the end of the biennium. The Washington Association of Wheat Growers supports this bill.