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Green Sheet Special: 2016 Legislative Overview

“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future” —  John F. Kennedy

capitol

The next two years promise to be the most dramatic showdown in state politics that we have seen in over 30 years. From carbon reduction to education funding to health care reform, the agenda is broad and the proposed solutions are controversial.

Although the legislature promises to be challenging, the real action in 2016 will take place at the ballot box, the Governor’s office, and the courts. Several initiatives are queued up and both judicial and executive action are imminent.

So what can we expect in the 2016 Legislative Session? It’s a “short” Regular Session,” lasting 60 days, from January 11 to March 10. Oh, and did we mention it’s an election year? This should be fun.

Environment

 The battle over carbon reduction policy flared up last session, but behind the scenes action during the interim guaranteed that the issue will take center stage in 2016, with four comprehensive carbon reduction approaches in play.

After failing to pass legislation through his fellow Democrats in the House last session, Governor Inslee took matters into his own hands. Last week he directed the Department of Ecology to publish his Clean Air Rule, a “cap and trade” approach to carbon reduction ( http://www.ecy.wa.gov/climatechange/carbonlimit.htm ) regulating a large swath of industries. Public hearings have been scheduled and the deadline for public comment is April 8, 2016. On Monday the House Environment Committee will be briefed on this proposed rule at 2 PM.

Meanwhile, the Department is also developing a state Clean Power Plan detailing how the state will comply with federal regulation requiring states to cut carbon emissions from power plants { http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/air/permit_register/clean_power/clean_power.htm }. The initial state plan is due in September 2016 but that deadline is likely to be extended.

The CarbonWA coalition has collected and submitted 362,079 signatures to the Secretary of State, virtually assuring that their Initiative to the Legislature will be certified (http://carbonwa.org/ ). I-732 would impose a “revenue neutral” carbon tax in Washington State. The State Office of Financial Management is currently analyzing the initiative to determine the financial impact.

The 2016 Legislature may (1) pass the initiative, (2) fail to pass the initiative in which case it goes to the November ballot, or (3) pass an alternative which would then go on the November ballot together with the original initiative. Here’s the inside scoop: I-732 has environmentalists split. Coupled with existing divisions in the Legislature, the likely outcome is that nothing will pass and I-732 will go to the ballot.

For months the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy has also threatened to go forward with a not-so-revenue-neutral “cap and trade” Initiative to the People for the November ballot, but polling indicates that would be very difficult to pass with two carbon initiatives on the ballot (http://jobscleanenergywa.com/ ).

Finally, a Senate approach to reducing carbon emissions, the only one to pass out of either house last year, is expected to be revised and back this year. Senate Bill 5735 was pushed by the Washington Business Alliance. The Association of Washington Business’s Climate Collaborative supported a comprehensive list of bills that addressed different aspects of carbon reduction.

Regrettably, there is little talk of addressing conflicting goals in other laws like the Energy Independence Act, and as happens too frequently with government, unnecessary increases in carbon and costs will continue.

Adding to the pressure being applied to the employer and local government communities is a major proposed rule still under development regarding Water Quality Standards for Protecting Human Health, also referred to as the Fish consumption rates rules (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/ruledev/wac173201A/1203ov.html ). Of course, there are many other rules and changes under development.

A slew of smaller environmental and energy bills is also expected this year, beginning with a public hearing on House Bill 2346, incentives for solar renewable energy, in House Technology & Economic Development Committee on Tuesday at 10 AM.

Education

Although the Washington State Supreme Court McCleary decisions has garnered most of the headlines leading up to the session, it appears final resolution of this issue will be delayed for yet another year. A bi-partisan group of legislators working with the Office of Financial Management agreed on legislation this year: House Bill 2366 and Senate Bill 6195. These bills establish a… drumroll…Task Force to dive into data on the usage of local levies and develop a plan for teacher compensation. OFM believes this detailed plan will placate the Court for this year.

Meanwhile yet another national study came out last week, making headlines in the Seattle Times: “The performance gap between poor and middle-income students in Washington has grown more than any other state.“

Several legislative efforts will take aim at this problem, but the most significant will be Charter school legislation to save nine schools from yet another State Supreme Court decision. The first hearing on this bill, SB 6163, will take place before the Senate Early Education & K-12 Education Committee on Tuesday at 1:30 PM. See the Act Now for Washington Students coalition website for more information (http://actnowforwastudents.org/ ).

A second legislative effort, led by the Washington Business Alliance, seeks to save technical training in the K-12 system for kids who want high skill jobs but struggle in college-oriented classrooms. (http://planwashington.org/initiatives/career-tech/ ).

Budget

Last session’s showdown over the budget resulted in the longest session in our state’s history. With the adoption of the 2015-17 budget, legislators can only make adjustments via the Supplemental Budget, leaving little wiggle room. The forecast from the Office of Financial Management is that revenues are up but so are costs, and they are slightly outpacing revenue.

The big Budget question for 2016 boils down to Initiative 1366, which was approved by 51.51 percent of voters in November 2015, despite lagging support from King County. Tim Eyman’s initiative gives the Legislature until April 15, 2016, to either (1) pass a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature to increase any tax or (2) see the state sales tax cut from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent. Such a decrease in the sales tax would cost the state $1.4 billion. Opponents have alleged that the initiative is unconstitutional, thus it will go to the courts with the need for an expedited decision.

Human Resources

The biggest labor issues for 2016 are also set to be decided in November, as unions prepare to file and collect signatures for, you guessed it, an Initiative to the People on a statewide minimum wage and other labor standards. A ballot measure will be filed today that would raise the minimum wage incrementally to $13.50 and allow for up to 7 days of paid sick leave. The Raise Up Washington campaign will have to acquire the 246,372 signatures by July 8, 2016.

In the meantime there will be a flurry of smaller bills starting with House Bill 2307, requiring reasonable accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace. The House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standards will hold a public hearing on this bill on Tuesday at 1:30 PM.

Health Care

Obamacare set two different goals, a reduction in the uninsured and more affordable health insurance. Nationally the uninsured rate has dropped to 1980 levels but cost increases continue to exceed inflation, threatening the progress to date and continuing the pressure on middle class and government budgets. However, beginning January 1, 2017, State Innovation Waivers are available to states who successfully complete the detailed federal approval process. With these waivers, states have the opportunity to change many of the key elements of Obamacare and address problem areas. However, except for a couple of bills seeking minor changes, the Legislature is expected to wait until 2017 before seeking major changes.

In the meantime there will be a vigorous debate on smaller bills including the Insurance Commissioner’s request legislation seeking authority over third party administrators. House Bill 2340, beginning the debate on keeping the Washington State Health Insurance Pool, will be heard on Wednesday at 1:30 PM in the House Health Care & Wellness Committee.

Polls

As Stuart Elway explained on January 4th, “Washington voters are greeting 2016 with considerably less optimism than they welcomed 2015. The Elway Poll’s Voter Outlook Index lost nearly 40% of its value over the course of the year. The Index opens the new year at 1.19 compared to 1.94 a year ago.”

When it came to issue areas, “Education is still atop the voters’ to do list for legislators, although the issue was seen as less pressing than it was last year. One-third of voters interviewed for this Elway Poll (33%) volunteered public education issues as the “most important” thing the legislature should be working on in the upcoming session. That is down from 42% year, but enough to keep education at the top of the public’s agenda. Economic concerns were close behind at 32%, the same percentage that named the economy last year. Either education or the economy have been named as the top issue in 9 of the last 10 years.”

Interestingly, Health Care and the Environment ranked 8th and 9th on the voter’s prioritization at 6% and 5%.


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