It’s Saturday morning, and at 8 a.m. our Senate Ways and Means Committee will begin public hearings on four pieces of legislation. Three of the bills have come over from the House of Representatives; the fourth is a Senate Democratic bill that responds to the state Supreme Court’s recent and controversial ruling on drug possession – a bill that is controversial in its own right. All stand to affect the new state budget, so they are exempt from the session’s established voting deadlines. (Click here if you’d like to view the committee meeting.)
The 2021 session calendar makes tomorrow (Sunday) the deadline for each chamber to complete its voting on bills passed by the other chamber (with, as I mentioned, an exception for bills that may be considered part of the budget package). For that reason we’ll be on the Senate’s virtual “floor” later today, and I expect to be back there tomorrow.
Come Monday, the Legislature will move into the “concurrence” phase, which means the Senate must decide whether to concur – or agree – with changes made by the House to Senate-approved bills. The House, in turn, will look at the changes the Senate made to bills it sent across to us.
The session is scheduled to wrap up two weeks from Sunday. Considering one party controls both chambers of the Legislature, there would be no excuse for going into overtime.
Wilson bill receives governor’s signature
My first bill to clear both houses of the Legislature this year was signed by the governor on Wednesday. The law created by Senate Bill 5338 confirms fire-protection districts may offer worker-safety classes, and for me there’s a very local focus – it ensures Clark County Fire Protection District 5 has the authority to provide worker-safety classes at its Northwest Regional Training Center in Vancouver. This is a great example of homegrown legislation because it responds to a concern brought to me by Roy Rhine, commissioner at Fire District 5. If you have an idea for legislation, I hope you’ll share it!
A one-two punch to the gut: ‘cap and tax’ and ‘high-cost fuel standards’
Two big new taxes are wrapped into the Senate operating budget that was passed April 1. One is the tax on income from capital gains, approved by the Senate Democrats more than a month ago. The second new tax didn’t come before the full Senate for a vote until Thursday afternoon. It’s the “cap-and-tax” bill, Senate Bill 5126. This isn’t a tax in the same way as the income-tax bill, but it sure would function as a tax, if it becomes law – as a gas tax that does nothing to maintain or improve our roads!
You may have heard other states or nations using the term “cap and trade” when it comes to regulating carbon emissions. I prefer “cap and tax” because that’s closer to the truth. Under SB 5126, certain businesses that emit carbon as part of their operations would essentially pay a tax to state government in exchange for credits that allow them to continue emitting.
SB 5126 is among the most complicated pieces of policy I’ve seen come through the Senate. The text alone is 58 pages long, and the “fiscal note,” which details the financial effects of the proposal, is 113 pages long. It reminds me of what the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives said years ago about the passage of the Affordable Care Act – about needing to pass the bill so we know what’s in it! One thing is already clear – this is expected to be a profitable arrangement for the state, because the annual take is projected at $500 million!
Should it become law, the cap-and-tax bill is expected to cause an instant 26-cent increase in the price of a gallon of gas. It also gives the Department of Ecology a tremendous amount of control over our economy. This is a huge problem, because we’ve seen over the past year what happens when the Legislature steps aside and lets the executive branch call all the shots. It’s a big mistake to let the unelected bureaucrats at Ecology make the rules and dictate how the cap-and-tax program would work without any oversight from the people’s elected representatives.
I was surprised that the Democrats who so often speak ill of big corporations are granting special favors to those same big corporations. I also can’t see how this plan would deliver the promised environmental benefits as long as other nations continue their current practices. But again, this scheme is wrapped into the Democratic budget, and that outweighs Republican concerns.
After passing the cap-and-tax bill after 8 p.m. yesterday, my colleagues on the majority side came right back by forcing a vote on House Bill 1091. The proponents say the bill would impose low-carbon fuel standards. I’d suggest “high-cost fuel standards” is more accurate. It would change how motor fuel is blended, increasing production costs, which translates to higher prices at the pump. Also, adding more ethanol to fuel would make it weaker, and weaker fuel also means you’ll be filling up more often. Because Washington isn’t a big producer of the corn commonly used to make ethanol, don’t look for any new jobs for our state’s agricultural industry.
If HB 1091 becomes law, you can add another 29 cents per gallon to the pump price of gas. That’s 55 cents per gallon between these two bills, and it’ll probably end up being more! On top of that, when fuel costs go up so does the cost of everything that is moved by truck. These policies will therefore hit every consumer in Washington, and because they function as regressive taxes, SB 5126 and HB 1091 would be particularly hard on those in historically marginalized communities – poor people, rural residents, and communities of color. I didn’t hear the proponents of either bill admit any of those things during Thursday night’s debate.
I realize the Senate budget relies on SB 5126 to balance, but the alternative budget put forth by Senate Republicans does not rely on it or any other tax. We don’t need cap-and-tax. We also don’t need the high-cost fuel standards. It’s very disappointing, and the people of our state will be shocked when they can’t figure out why their paychecks aren’t going as far as they used to.
Will there be a new package of transportation projects?
Every two years the Legislature approves a new transportation budget, which appropriates money generated by the state gas tax and an array of transportation-related fees. The state transportation budget funds the construction and maintenance of Washington’s transportation system, including highways, bridges and ferries. It also funds transportation-related agencies, including the Washington State Patrol, Department of Licensing and Department of Transportation.
In 2003, 2005, and 2015, the Legislature approved a package of additional projects, supported by a package of additional revenue sources. The gas tax went up 5 cents through the 2003 package, another 9.5 cents from the 2005 package, and 11.9 cents from the 2015 package. Other fees were increased as well.
Six years after the most recent transportation package was approved, I could make a case for funding additional investments in transportation maintenance and construction. The cap-and-tax and high-cost fuel standards bills would purportedly bring in money that could be used for transportation, but I’d hate to think there was some backroom deal about this on the Democratic side – meaning passage of SB 5126 and HB 1091 were prerequisites for supporting a new transportation package. However, the newest Democratic senator hinted Thursday night that such an agreement existed.
Here’s a better approach: instead of causing the pump price of fuel to rise by at least 55 cents per gallon, as SB 5126 and HB 1091 would (not counting a direct increase in the gas tax, which is also being discussed), let’s do what Senate Republicans have suggested. Move the tax revenue from vehicle sales into the transportation budget, which is logical and would mean around $25 billion for projects over 16 years.
Wilson-sponsored legislation remains on House voting calendar
I expect the House will work both days this weekend like the Senate, and three bills I’m co-sponsoring remain alive ahead of tomorrow’s voting deadline.
- Senate Bill 5245 – Introduced by Republican Sen. Sharon Brown of Kennewick, this would expand the Department of Corrections’ victim- and witness-notification program. The program must give certain people 30 days’ written notice that a particular inmate will be paroled, released, put on community custody or placed on work release. It’s a bipartisan bill and was approved unanimously in the Senate more than a month ago.
- Senate Bill 5368 – This rural economic-development measure has sections on annexation and sales tax credits, and assisting rural counties in dealing with the state Growth Management Hearings Board. It’s an all-Republican bill but received a strongly bipartisan 44 votes in our 49-member Senate.
- Senate Bill 5383 – This bipartisan bill (7 Democrat sponsors, 4 Republican sponsors) is about expanding broadband services. It too received a strongly bipartisan 43 votes in the Senate.
I’m sorry I can’t invite you to come and visit me at the Capitol, but if you have a question or concern, please contact me by email, letter or phone. To make an appointment for a virtual meeting, please sent me an e-mail! Stay safe!
Yours in service,
To read this e-newsletter in other languages, click here to visit my Senate news page and find the “Select Language” menu in the upper left corner!