State legislative update 02/07: Buffer bill dies in policy committee

By Diana Carlen
WAWG Lobbyist

Last Thursday was the first legislative deadline for the 2022 session. All bills had to be voted out of their policy committee by 5 p.m. to remain under consideration this year. Legislation not covered by the first deadline includes bills that been referred to fiscal committees and bills that are considered Necessary to Implement the Budget. It is important to note that bills are never truly dead because their content can be amended into other legislation or rare procedural moves can occur to keep them alive.

The next deadline is today at 5 p.m. when all bills with a fiscal impact–bills which either raise money or spend money–must make it out of their fiscal committee to remain alive.

Riparian Buffer Bill Dies in Policy Committee

As previously reported, House Bill 1838 (the Lorraine Loomis Act) appears to be dead at least in its original format. In its original form, the legislation would have not only imposed a requirement to restore and protect public and private property located in riparian management zones, but also required buffers around waterways that could reach up to 250 feet in some places. The legislation would have taken large amounts of agricultural land permanently out of production while only offering limited compensation in return.

This issue is not likely going away and could still be revived in another bill or through the supplemental budget in the form of increased funding for the Voluntary Stewardship Program and CREP. It also could include a budget proviso for the Department of Fish & Wildlife to do mapping of critical waterways across the state.

While House Bill 1838 did not move out of policy committee by the deadline, another bill dealing with salmon from last session was suddenly revived. House Bill 1117, also introduced by Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow), is holdover legislation from the 2021 session where it made it to the floor of the Senate but failed to receive a vote in time. The House passed the bill off the floor, and it now heads back to the Senate for review.

House Bill 1117 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 which is undefined in the legislation. Net ecological gain is a stricter standard than the current no-net loss standard in law. Agricultural groups are concerned that any project that was funded with public money would be required to advance net ecological gain including Voluntary Stewardship Program and CREP projects. There is also concern that House Bill 1117 could become a vehicle for some of the provisions from House Bill 1838. Builders, building trade unions, the Association of Washington Business and realtors are also opposed to the bill. Local governments are neutral on the bill as long as the legislation includes funding for them to implement the bill.

Three of Governor’s Bills Aimed at Decarbonizing the Building Sector Survive Cutoff

Three out of four of Gov. Inslee’s priority bills aimed at decarbonizing the building sector survived the first policy cutoff deadline. However, the most controversial of the four, HB 1766, did not survive cutoff. HB 1766 would have restricted gas companies from offering new service to certain customers after 2022 and prohibited gas companies from extending service after 2024 without approval by the Utilities and Transportation Commission.

The bills that survived cutoff are:

  • Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Buildings (SSB 5722), sponsored by Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-Seattle), would expand the Clean Buildings Act that passed in 2019. Under current law, the Department of Commerce is required to develop energy performance standards for commercial buildings larger than 50,000 square feet and provide incentives to encourage efficiency improvements. Agricultural structures are exempt. Senate Bill 5722 would expand the act, incorporating new tiers of energy performance standards for buildings between 20,000-49,999 square feet.
  • Strengthening Energy Codes (SHB 1770), sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-Bothell), would require a net-zero ready requirement for all new construction beginning in 2034. This means each project must reduce energy use by 80 percent, use all-electric equipment and appliances, implements electrical panel capacity and wiring for solar panels, and incorporates electric vehicle charging and battery storage. Additionally, this bill would allow local jurisdictions to adopt a new statewide “reach code” for residential construction which cities, towns and counties are currently preempted from doing.
  • Targeted Electrification (HB 1767), sponsored by Rep. Alex Ramel (D-Bellingham), would provide explicit authority for municipally owned utilities and public utility districts to incentivize “targeted electrification” by offering rebates to switch customers from natural gas to electricity.

Preferable Conservation District Election Legislation Moves Forward

Policy cut off led to the narrowing of conservation district election proposals under consideration. House Bill 1910 would have required all conservation district elections to be placed on the general ballot which would have been expensive and divert money away from conservation programs. HB 1910 was strongly opposed by conservation districts across the state except for King County. That bill was not brought up for a vote by the deadline.

Instead, the more flexible legislation supported by the Washington Association of Conservation Districts and the State Conservation Commission passed policy cutoff. Substitute House Bill 1652, introduced by Rep. Laurie Dolan (D-Olympia), aims to implement the recommendations from the Conservation Commission’s Joint Committee on Elections by updating districts in several ways:

  • Lengthening the term of a conservation district supervisor to four years.
  • Requiring all conservation districts hold elections during the same month and holding elections in odd numbered years.
  • Allowing a board of supervisors to opt into moving the district’s election to the general ballot.

The policy committee also amended the bill to require candidates to disclose campaign contributions and expenditures and file a financial affairs statement.

Flexibility for Overtime Requirements Stalls Before Cut off

Following the passage of last year’s agricultural overtime requirement, House Bill 1750, introduced by Rep. Larry Hoff (R – Vancouver) and supported by the industry, was introduced at the beginning of session to address the realities of seasonal labor. The proposal would have allowed farmworkers to work up to 50 hours per week for 12 weeks of the year before overtime provisions kick in. This legislation would have provided agricultural employers limited flexibility to shape work schedules during a narrow window of time to best fit the peaks of labor demand, thereby providing them some ability to weather the unpredictability of agricultural work.

Unfortunately, the bill did not even get a public hearing, let alone voted out the Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, by the deadline.

Transportation Update

House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Marko Liias have disclosed that they have come to an agreement on how to fund a transportation investment package for this session. However, they have not yet shared details. The funding for a package will likely be a combination of Climate Commitment Act dollars, general operating funds, federal funds and various transportation fees. The package is not expected to include bonding, thereby needing only a simple majority to pass, and requiring no Republican support. The chairs have emphasized prioritizing spending categories such as ferries, culverts, preservation and maintenance, and funding newly discovered funding gaps within the Connecting Washington package. There are many details that have yet to be confirmed and will likely be addressed once an initial outline is shared more broadly.

Paid Family and Medical Leave Facing Funding Hole

Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program provided a shocking update during a legislative work session on Jan. 18–the program is running low on funds and could hit a deficit as early as March. While the Governor’s budget proposal appropriated $82 million from the state general fund to cover the deficit, Employment Security Department (ESD) officials were not sure if that would be enough and estimated they would need between $125 million and $405 to cover the deficit that is expected in the spring.

Additionally, ESD estimates that a solvency surcharge will be needed next year, which put the total premium rate at 0.8 percent. To avoid levying the surcharge and keep the premium at 0.6 percent, ESD estimates that the fund would need an additional $397 million in 2023. Finally, ESD estimates it would need between $231 million and $511 million to create a one-month reserve for the program.

The ESD announcement apparently caught most legislators off guard. In response, two pieces of legislation have been put forward. Last week Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver) introduced Senate Bill 5959, proposing the state use $125 million from the federal coronavirus state and local fiscal recovery fund to bolster the program. In addition to funding proposals, the Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee modified Senate Bill 5649, sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-Everett), to address a number of the concerns that arose from the program’s recent announcement. The changes aim to increase transparency of the program in order to avoid further issues moving forward. The changes include creating a legislative task force, mandating new actuarial and reporting requirements for the program, and asking PFML applicants to disclose whether their leave is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerns About Water Study Proposed in the Governor’s Budget

A number of water-use stakeholders have raised concerns regarding a provision in the Governor’s proposed supplemental budget that calls for a sweeping review of state water law. The proviso would appropriate $709,000 to the Department of Ecology to conduct such a review. Prior to session, water users were unaware of the proposal, and are still unsure of its purpose and origin. The provision raised alarm for several interested parties as there are already a number of important water policy initiatives underway that require Ecology’s attention.

Further, the proviso outlined a very short turn around time calling for an update by the end of the year and a full report of recommendations by November 2023. The hasty review is of concern as it may not allow for full vetting and could instead reinforce preconceived notions.