State legislative report 0314: Budget negotiations picking up steam

Yesterday marked the 63rd day of the 2021 Legislative Session. On Tuesday, March 9, the Legislature reached a milestone—the deadline to pass bills out of the house of origin which means House Bills must be voted out of the House and Senate Bills must be voted out of the Senate. Bills that did not meet that deadline are considered dead and ineligible to move forward this year unless considered Necessary To Implement the Budget. While normally this milestone means a significant reduction of bills still being debated, the majorities in the Senate and House have not pared down the list as much as normal. The House passed 220 bills and the Senate, not far behind, passed 208.

The focus of the Legislature has shifted from approving bills on the floor of the House and Senate to meeting in committees, holding public hearings and voting on bills that the opposite chamber approved. Bills need to pass out of their respective policy committees by March 26 to continue to advance through the legislative process.

In addition, budget negotiations are picking up steam as budgets will be coming out from both chambers in the upcoming weeks. Legislators are expecting the latest revenue forecast on March 17. All indications are that budget writers will be receiving very good news—revenues are anticipated to be around $1 billion more than what was originally predicted. In addition, the state is expected to receive $4.25 billion dollars in the latest federal relief package. With this positive economic news and windfall from the feds, it is getting very hard to make the case that the state needs to raise taxes.

Agriculture overtime and retroactivity liability protection proposal passes Senate

It was down to the wire on the house of origin cutoff on the agriculture overtime issue. ESSB 5172, sponsored by Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), was the last bill to pass the Senate floor by Tuesday’s 5 p.m. cut-off. The bill was voted off the senate floor by a 37-12 vote. The current, amended version of the bill provides liability protections for agriculture employers for payment of retroactive overtime wages when state law did not require it. Additionally, the current version of the bill phases in overtime pay to certain agricultural employees beginning with 55 hours on Jan. 1, 2022; moving to 48 hours on Jan. 1, 2023; finishing with 40 hours on Jan. 1, 2024.

A tentative agreement allowing growers to choose 12 weeks a year to pay overtime after 50 hours, instead of 40, did not make it in the version passed out of the Senate, but agricultural groups will be pushing to get the bill amended in the House to include this change.

The bill has been referred to the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. No hearing has been scheduled yet.

Latest COVID vaccine distribution list includes agriculture

The latest phase of the state’s COVID distribution plan to go into effect March 17 includes high-risk critical workers in a variety of industries. The latest group eligible for the vaccine includes “critical workers” in agriculture, fishing vessel crews, food processing, grocery store/food bank, corrections, courts, public transit and first responders not covered in earlier phases. 

Low carbon fuel standard heard in committee

 Legislation that would establish a statewide Low Carbon Fuel Standard continues to move through the legislative process. Last week, E3SHB 1091, sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-West Seattle), was heard in the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee. Much of the testimony at the hearing focused on the effectiveness of the program and the impact it could have on gas prices.

The proposal faces strong opposition from the oil industry, trucking industry, business community and agriculture. Sixty-three individuals testified on the bill (36 of which opposed the measure), and more than 2,000 individuals signed in for or against the bill (without about two-thirds of them being opposed). This week, the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee is scheduled to vote the bill out of committee and forward in the process.

Additional bills heard in committee this week:

  • Paid Family and Medical Leave Expansion (E2SHB 1073), sponsored by Rep. Liz Berry (D-Seattle), would establish temporary, alternate eligibility requirements for the Paid Family and Medical Leave Program for individuals that do not meet the program’s hours worked threshold in 2020. Additionally, the house adopted a floor amendment to clarify that grants for employee leave related to alternate eligibility created by the legislation may not be funded from the family and medical leave insurance account.
  • DNR Lease Termination (EHB 1199), sponsored by Rep. Chris Corry (R-Yakima), would require the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to compensate lessees should DNR terminate a lease early on state land used for agricultural purposes. Ryan Poe, president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, testified in support of the bill at Thursday’s public hearing. The bill was unanimously passed out of the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee and will proceed to the Rules Committee for review.
  • Water Rights Transfers (HB 1385), sponsored by Rep. Keith Goehner (R-Dryden), would prohibit downstream transfers and allow upstream transfers of water rights in certain Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs). The bill also allows conservation districts in certain counties to establish local agricultural water banks.
  • Health Emergency Labor Standards (ESSB 5115), sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent), has been significantly modified from the original proposal. The current version of the bill would establish an occupational disease presumption concerning workers compensation for frontline workers during a public health emergency. The bill also creates certain notification requirements for employers during a public health emergency regarding infected employees.
  • Environmental Justice Task Force Recommendations (E2SSB 5141), sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), creates an Environmental Justice Council (EJC) to provide environmental justice guidance and review for significant actions taken by state agencies. The bill would require members of the Council be confirmed by the Senate and require the EJC to report to the Governor and legislature by Nov. 30, 2022, on its recommendations.
  • Sales & Use Tax Exemption for Farmworker Housing (2SSB 5396), sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes), would extend the current sales and use tax exemption for farmworker housing. While the initial version of the bill excluded structures that provided housing for workers on H-2A visas, the amended bill clarifies the exclusion would only apply to structures built exclusively for workers on an H-2A visas. Additionally, the bill allows seasonal farmworker housing to be rented to the general public during the off-season while maintaining the tax exemption.

Notable bills considered dead after the March 9 cutoff deadline:  

  • Enjoyment of Life and Property in the Clean Air Act (SHB 1057), sponsored by Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), was modified from the initial draft and would have created a workgroup to develop an odor control plan and best management practices for asphalt plants.
  • Bill to Eliminate the Professional Rescue Doctrine (HB 1341), sponsored by Rep. Dan Bronoske (D-Lakewood) would have eliminated the professional rescue doctrine, which affirms that a first responder cannot sue the property owner where a response occurs in the case of injury. Several stakeholders have noted concerns based on the potential effect the bill may have on liability and liability insurance.
  • B&O and Public Utility Tax Exemption for Custom Farming Products (HB 1380), sponsored by Rep. Jeremie Dufault (R-Selah), would have reinstated the business and occupation tax exemption and public utility tax exemption for custom farming and the hauling of farm products. The former tax preference expired at the end of 2020, and the proposed bill would make both preferences permanent. 
  • Unemployment Insurance Voluntarily Quit (SB 5064), sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), would have extended unemployment eligibility to certain employees that voluntarily quit because: of caregiving responsibilities to a family member, child or vulnerable adult; of relocation closer to a separated child; the employee’s usual work shifts were changed and they were unable to maintain caregiving responsibilities.