After 176 days and three special sessions, the Legislature finally adjourned Friday to bring the longest legislative session in state history to a close. While I share your frustration with how long it took to complete our work, I am also greatly encouraged by many of the things we were able to accomplish as a Legislature. Below, you will find a summary of my thoughts on the following:
- 2015-17 operating budget
- 2015-17 capital budget
- $16 billion transportation revenue package
- My JCDREAM legislation that became law
- Bills I introduced to protect consumers this session
2015-17 operating budget
The $38 billion 2015-17 operating budget signed into law June 30 moves us further in the direction of serious reform and sustainability. The budget makes record investments in K-12 education while cutting tuition for the first time since the 1970s. It also funds cost-of-living adjustments for our teachers, who serve our students to give them the best possible education and prepare them for the future.
What is not in the spending plan should also be recognized – the approximate $1.5 billion in tax increases initially proposed by House majority leadership. With our economy still recovering, a budget free of any major tax increases is a big win for the taxpayers of Washington state.
While there are a number of policies in the budget with which I have concerns, I believe it is a good budget overall. It protects taxpayers, fully funds education, protects our most vulnerable, and keeps our economy on a steady foot by not raising taxes.
2015-17 capital budget
The Legislature also passed a $3.9 billion capital budget, which will provide much-needed community projects and infrastructure improvements throughout our state. The 2015-17 capital budget provides funds for K-12 and higher education school construction, increases mental health bed capacity, prioritizes housing for veterans and other vulnerable individuals, offers mitigation for the current drought and funds fire hazard reduction efforts. It also includes an additional $200 million to address smaller class sizes, as well as an accelerated collection and audit of needed school building data to ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent.
I spent much of my life in negotiations in the months leading up to the floor vote on the capital budget, and can truly say this budget is going to have a lasting impact on our communities and the state. From the beginning, House Republicans and Democrats worked on behalf of all Washingtonians to achieve bipartisan agreement in addressing key priorities within the existing bond capacity. I am grateful we were able to come together in compromise to provide funding for much-needed infrastructure improvements and community projects.
Transportation revenue package
While I was pleased with the operating and capital budgets, I was extremely disappointed with the passage of a transportation revenue package that will raise the state's gas tax by an additional 11.9 cents. There are some good projects in the transportation package, yes, but we as a legislative body should have done more to control costs. We also should have allowed our constituents to decide if they wanted to have the second highest gas tax in the nation in order to fund the projects in the package. The amendment to put that question to voters was defeated with a 52-46 vote before the transportation revenue package passed 54-44.
Along with one of the largest tax increases in state history, the package also includes increases in weight and registration fees. Additionally, while there are a number of reforms in the package, I didn't feel they were strong enough to warrant a 'yes' vote. I believe we could have done much better had we waited to develop a package that was free of tax increases and included much stronger reforms.
JCDREAM becomes a reality
In late June, the Legislature passed my House Bill 1897, which establishes the Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth-Abundant Materials (JCDREAM).
JCDREAM will be the first of its kind in the nation, with the declared goal of accelerating the development of next generation clean energy and transportation technologies, using reliably accessible earth-abundant materials that can be acquired in environmentally responsible processes. This is a national security and energy independence priority. In our pursuit to deploy clean technologies, including wind, solar, electric/hybrid vehicles and other consumer products, we have become almost completely reliant on foreign supply chains for needed rare earth elements and difficult-to-source earth components. The often abhorrent legacy of mining practices overseas and the human and environmental toll is unacceptable (please see this BBC article).
JCDREAM is a collaborative partnership between the state's three major research institutions – Washington State University, the University of Washington, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). I crafted House Bill 1897 in cooperation with researchers from each of the three institutions. Research will be conducted at these institutions and the administrative offices of JCDREAM will be established at WSU North Puget Sound in Everett. All research will also involve the private sector to ensure the findings stay tied to projects that will grow local businesses and create jobs in Washington state. Our state has the opportunity to lead by putting forward a compelling vision and framework to advance the use of earth-abundant materials in clean technologies. I could not be more excited about the establishment of JCDREAM.
Working to protect consumers
A person's energy usage is valuable to third parties who want to profit, but that is personal information and MUST remain private. My bill makes sure the government provides adequate consumer protections by extending data privacy policies to public utility districts and other services collecting energy data within homes.
I also introduced House Bill 2225 this session, which was an effort to protect Washington utility ratepayers from unknown and potentially significant costs related to the closure of a Montana coal plant. While my bill never received a hearing, my efforts will continue.
Puget Sound Energy has been asking the Legislature and governor for special legal treatment that would allow it to acquire an additional stake in a four-unit coal plant in the town of Colstrip, Montana for the purpose of having a greater say in when to close two of the units. The way the coal plant closes could make a difference of billions of dollars on the utility bills of Puget Sound Energy's 1.1 million ratepayers.
My bill would have required a comprehensive study on all potential costs and benefits of closing units one and two of the plant, with a report due to the Legislature by December 2015. It also contained a “golden rule” clause, requiring information from Montana to be sought and evaluated in the same way Washington would want its input sought and evaluated if another state were passing legislation to shut down a large employer here.
We have yet to see reliable information and estimates about the extent of the costs involved in shutting down these coal plant units, so ultimately, ratepayers could be stuck with massive costs and increased utility bills. Legislators need solid information from utilities experts about the best way to promote the early retirement of a coal-fired electric generation plant if that is the direction ratepayers want to go, but that did not happen. During the interim, I will continue to insist on transparency and accountability.
Although the legislative session has adjourned, I will continue to send out periodic email updates from now until the start of the 2016 legislative session. I am here to serve you year-round, so please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or concerns at any time. My contact information is below.
It is an honor to serve you.