By Diana Carlen
We have completed the fifth week of the legislative session (Feb. 5-11). Only a week remains until the first legislative deadline on Feb. 17, when all bills must be voted out of their respective policy committees to remain under consideration. Bills that do not meet this deadline will be considered “dead” for the legislative session. It is important to note, however, that bills that impact the budget are exempt from legislative deadlines (known as “necessary to implement the budget” or NTIB). Committees are focused on passing bills out of committee and hearing new bills prior to the deadline. However, the number of bills being introduced each day has slowed as the first deadline nears.
Legislation introduced to reimburse farmers for fuel surcharges
The Climate Commitment Act, Washington’s cap-and-trade program that passed in 2021, clearly exempts fuels (both diesel and gasoline) used in the production and transport of agricultural products. However, when the law went into effect on Jan. 1, fuel suppliers started assessing a surcharge for their compliance obligation, which is hitting all fuel users including those that are supposed to be exempt. This is because the Department of Ecology was supposed to adopt rules to create a mechanism for these fuels to be exempted, but failed to do so.
Two bills have recently been introduced to deal with this issue, but neither has been scheduled for a public hearing yet. In the House, Rep. Joe Schmick (R-Colfax) and Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy) have introduced House Bill 1780 that would require the state to reimburse members of the agriculture industry and maritime industry who have been assessed the fuel surcharge. Under the legislation, Ecology would be required to create a remittance program for those whose fuel is exempt from the cap-and-trade program, including fuel used for agricultural purposes and certain maritime and aviation fuels. Qualified recipients would receive reimbursement at least monthly. The bill proposes that the refunds begin as soon as the legislation is enacted. Ecology will start receiving revenue from the new program after the first auction occurs on Feb. 28.
On the Senate side, Sen. Perry Dozier (R-Waitsburg) and Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) have introduced SB 5728that takes a similar approach to HB 1780. SB 5728 requires the state to develop a process to ensure that end users of exempt fuels, including agriculture and maritime, will be compensated by the state for any fuel surcharges they paid due to the cap-and-trade program. Compensation must be paid no later than 14 days after the state receives an application for reimbursement.
Resolving this issue needs to be a priority to provide much needed relief to agriculture and honor the commitment made to exempt such fuel users from the program.
Public hearing held on bipartisan riparian legislation
On Feb. 7, the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on House Bill 1720, a bipartisan bill to improve salmon recovery and riparian habitat. The new legislation is sponsored by Rep. Mike Chapman (D), Rep. Tom Dent (R), Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D), and Rep. Joel Kretz (R).
HB 1720 would establish a voluntary, regionally focused riparian grant program. The bill specifies that the Washington State Conservation Commission will develop and implement the grant program in question. It would also establish a Salmon Riparian Habitat Policy Task Force to monitor and review the implementation of the riparian grant program.
The bill received wide ranging support at the public hearing. Multiple panels weighed in to support the collaboration that went into the legislation between the agricultural community and tribes. Farmers, including Gary Bailey, spoke to the new proposal, highlighting the importance of local programs and site-specific scientific reasoning. Tribes were generally supportive or testified as “other” wanting some further clarifications in the bill but wanting the bill to move forward. Only the Governor’s Office testified against the bill, citing concerns that the bill did not include a statewide minimum standard for buffers. In total, over 200 individuals signed in supporting the legislation, nine identified as an “other” position, and four opposed.
Senate Labor Committee hears legislation on agriculture overtime flexibility
Senate Bill 5476 was heard in the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee last week, allowing for flexibility under the recent agriculture overtime requirement. Under the proposal, an agricultural employer would be able to select any 12 weeks in a calendar year as special circumstance weeks for labor demand. During the selected weeks (which do not need to be consecutive), the employer would be permitted to schedule agricultural employees up to 50 hours before the requirement to pay overtime would be triggered. As of 2023, the requirement to pay overtime for agriculture is triggered after 48 hours worked per week with the threshold lowering to 40 hours in 2024.
Over 2,000 people weighed in on the bill, with 40 individuals signed in to testify on the bill. The hearing saw wide support from farmers and farmworkers speaking both for and against the proposal. Farmers, including Ryan Poe, argued that the new requirement puts a strain on businesses because they cannot afford to pay overtime and that they will have to cap their employees’ hours at 40 hours, which hurts the workers. Several farmworkers spoke to the highly seasonal nature of the industry, making it especially important to be able to work additional hours in the summer to support their families and ensure they do not have to pick up a second job.
A handful of farm labor worker union representatives and farm attorneys testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that this undoes the legislation that was negotiated in 2021. They also argued that the workers who were testifying in support of the bill were either being manipulated or did not understand what the legislation did.
The chair of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee, Sen. Keiser, has indicated that this bill is unlikely to be voted out of committee.
Other Notable Bills that Saw Action last Week:
- Food Environmental Stewardship (SB 5484), sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham), would create the sustainable farms and fields advisor program at the Conservation Commission. Under the program, advisors would assist farmers and food processors implementing practices that utilize green energy, energy efficiency and carbon sequestration. The bill was heard in the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.
- Supporting WA Farms & Livestock Through Methane Capture (SB 5551), sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham), directs funding for cost-share grants for the Sustainable Farms and Fields Program to improving climate-smart agricultural waste management and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The bill also establishes an advisory committee administered by the Commission and WSDA to guide grant awards and notify the agricultural community about opportunities to participate in various carbon emissions reduction programs. The bill was heard in the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.
- Drought Preparedness (HB 1138), sponsored by Rep. Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles) is Department of Ecology request legislation, and may look familiar as a similar proposal was introduced last session. The bill would provide permanent funding to prepare and respond to drought emergencies, including unanticipated and sudden droughts. The bill would appropriate $2,500,000 from the general fund into the State Drought Preparedness Account at the beginning of each biennium and, at the issuance of a drought emergency order, require the state treasurer to transfer an amount necessary to bring the balance of the newly established Emergency Drought Response Account to $3,000,000 from the general fund. The bill was heard and voted out of the House Appropriations Committee.
- Climate Change Planning (SB 5203/HB 1181), sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-Bothell) in the House and its companion legislation sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes) in the Senate, was requested by the Office of the Governor. The legislation amends the Growth Management Act to incorporate goals and provisions related to climate change. Both bills were amended and voted out of their respective policy committees.
- Tax Preferences for Dairy, Fruit and Vegetable, and Seafood Processors (SB 5277 /HB 1573), sponsored by Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver) and Rep. Alicia Rule (D-Blaine), would extend the expiration date of business and occupation tax preferences for dairy, fruit and vegetable, and seafood processors for a decade. The expiration date would be moved from July 1, 2025, to July 1, 2035. Both bills were heard in their respective fiscal committees.
- WA Food & Agricultural Products (SB 5341), sponsored by Sen. Ron Muzzall (R-Oak Harbor) directs the Washington State Department of Agriculture to establish an advisory committee of food production organizations to submit recommendations concerning a voluntary, location-based program to brand and promote local food and agricultural products in Washington state. Following the submission of such a report, the legislation allows the WSDA director to adopt rules necessary to implement the program. The proposal was supported and requested by WSDA. SB 5341 was heard in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.
- Personnel Records (SB 5061), sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue), requires an employer to provide an employee with a complete copy of their personnel file at no cost within 14 days of a request. Additionally, an employer would be required to provide a former employee with a signed written statement with the effective date of discharge, whether the employer had a reason for the discharge, and if so, the reasons, within 14 days of the written request. This week the bill was amended and voted out of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee. Amendments include specifying the employer is only required to supply already created records and does not need to create records as well as adding a former employee to the private right of action.
- Paid Leave Data (SB 5586), sponsored by Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), would provide employee PFML claim information to employers necessary to implement the program such as claim duration, payments and type of claim. This week the bill was amended and voted out of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. Amended language allows the Employment Security Department to investigate unauthorized use of obtained records.
- Conservation District Elections (HB 1567), sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-SeaTac), would direct the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to conduct a study of the costs and potential non-monetary benefits associated with shifting conservation district elections to the general election ballot. The bill was heard and passed out of the House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee this week on Friday. The amended version that passed out changes the due date for the final report to June 30, 2024, but specifies that the WSIPP must provide as much information as possible to the Legislature in a preliminary report by the original due date of Dec. 1, 2023. Permits the study to consider only the past 6 years of voter turnout, rather than the past 20, if the district only has such data.
- Voluntary Stewardship Program(SB 5353), sponsored by Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro-Woolley), would allow additional counties to join the Voluntary Stewardship Program and be eligible for program funding. The bill also requires the Conservation Commission to determine which watersheds in the new participating counties received adequate funding to implement the program every two years and requires county action if adequate funding is not received. The bill was voted out of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.
- Estate Tax Exclusion Amount (HB 1484), sponsored by Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-Kalama), received a public hearing in the House Finance Committee this week. The proposal would increase the exclusion amount for the estate tax to $2.659 million beginning August 2023. The bill was heard in the House Finance Committee.