Hello Friends and Neighbors,
I hope the arrival of fall finds you and your loved ones doing alright – or at least getting by. The pandemic and soaring price inflation have been a real one-two punch to families everywhere, especially here in Washington. While other states are providing tax relief and refunds, our current state-government leadership shows no interest in letting people keep more of their own money so they can better afford necessities. Even worse, the governor and others seem intent on making the cost of living in our state even higher. Please keep reading for more detail.
End to state of emergency is long overdue
Governor Inslee said this past month that his COVID-19 state of emergency will end Oct. 31. Depending on how you count, that’s 975 or 976 days. Either way it’s far too long.
I can understand if people have forgotten we’re still living under a state of emergency. After all, it’s been about a year since Inslee last issued a COVID-related order affecting large numbers of people (that was “Large Event COVID-19 Vaccine Verification”). It’s also true the individual orders remaining in place until the end of this month are generally focused on health-care facilities, but still – by allowing the state of emergency to continue, the governor has been preserving his ability to sidestep the legislative branch, and the constitutional approach to governing, whenever he felt like it.
We really, REALLY need to fix Washington’s emergency-powers law, and bring it into this century. Here’s how I put it in a joint statement with Senate Republican Leader John Braun after the governor’s announcement that the state of emergency will end:
“Our state’s emergency-powers law is more than 50 years old and doesn’t account for the technology that now allows legislators to meet and make decisions remotely. For the past two years Senate Republicans proposed sensible reforms that would complete an update of the law and finally allow the legislative branch to serve as a full check on executive-branch actions once an emergency goes beyond 30 days. The governor showed no interest in our ideas, nor did his allies in the current legislative majority, and I heard nothing from him today to suggest a change of heart.
“The children and families of our state deserved better than they got from Governor Inslee during this pandemic. He shut not only them but also their elected representatives out of the process of responding. I’m glad the state of emergency will be over, but it will be critical for the Legislature to reflect on the errors that were made and take steps to make sure our laws are ready for the next emergency.”
No tax relief, but big pay raises for some
All year long, as the inflation rate kept rising to levels never seen by people younger than 40, I and other Republican legislators tried to provide at least some tax relief. I introduced a bill to permanently lower property taxes (SB 5463) and was a leading sponsor of another bill to immediately provide temporary relief from the state gas tax (SB 5897) – a savings of nearly 50 cents per gallon!
Our Democratic colleagues blocked our efforts, with one budget leader saying the state shouldn’t make short-term decisions that have long-term implications” due to the “volatility and uncertainty” tied to supply-chain concerns, the attack on Ukraine, etc. Governor Inslee has shown zero interest in inflation relief, hinting only that he might support something in 2023.
With that background, imagine how I felt after learning about the labor agreement the governor negotiated for 2023-25 with the biggest of the state’s public-employee unions. We’re talking a 4% raise next year, a 3% raise the following year, $1,000 retention bonuses for those employed as of July 1 who don’t quit before next July 1, a $1,000 COVID “booster bonus” and more. No wonder the union brags that it’s the “largest ever compensation package.” That sure sounds to me like a short-term decision with long-term implications, and another example of misplaced priorities. Senate Republican Leader John Braun said the fact that California is sending tax refunds to many of its residents while Washington rewards a select group makes Democrats in Olympia “look heartless.”
Decisions the Legislature makes about spending are done in the open. The governor, however, is allowed to secretly negotiate labor agreements, despite knowing those contracts end up putting taxpayer dollars into the hands of groups that are potential (and current) political donors. Republicans have tried to shine some light on this conflict of interest, with no luck.
The Legislature used to have a direct hand in setting pay and fringe benefits for state employees. That disappeared in 2002 with the passage of a collective-bargaining law; now legislators only get to vote yes or no on whatever is negotiated behind closed doors by the governor’s office. That same law created a Joint Committee on Employment Relations that is to be advised by the governor about the elements of any agreements negotiated; also, the governor is required to “periodically consult” with the committee regarding funding to implement the agreements. Well, I’m a co-chair of the JCER, and don’t see that law being followed.
State looks to require EV charging plugs in new homes
The voting members of the State Building Code Council, all appointed by the governor, are still going down the path of banning natural gas heat from every new building in our state. It’s already been decided for commercial construction, and residential construction is next. Electric heat is more expensive, but no matter – Governor Inslee has made it a climate issue, and California is doing it… so Washington must. The same reasoning (or lack thereof) is behind the plan to ban the sale of new gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2030.
Now the SBCC is looking to add even more cost to home construction by requiring charging plugs for electric vehicles in every new home.
If you want to buy an electric vehicle and hire someone to install a charging system at your home, great. That’s your choice. But I don’t think this should become a government mandate. Beyond that, what sense does it make to push electric heat and electric vehicles when there’s no assurance the electricity will be there when people need it to charge their vehicles or heat their homes? As I recently wrote in the Battle Ground paper, California’s power problems should serve as a warning for Washington. Republicans will be making that point to the SBCC (click here to see the letter from members of our caucus).
Costly outlook for Paid Family and Medical Leave program
Created in 2017 by a Republican senator’s bill, Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program began collecting premiums from eligible employers and employees in 2019 and began paying benefits in 2020. In 2021 alone it provided $1 billion in support so people could care for newborns or sick family members.
The PFML program is very popular and pro-family, but it’s also a reminder that government just isn’t very good at administering programs. The Employment Security Department wasn’t ready to process the initial volume of claims when it launched in 2020, leading to a major backlog. The overall contribution rate started at 0.40% of covered payroll from the start of 2019 (before claims were allowed) through the end of 2021, then climbed to 0.60%, divided into employee contributions of 0.44% and employer contributions of 0.16%.
Those of us serving on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, were taken aback in January when testimony from ESD admitted a cash-flow problem that could put the program in a cash deficit as soon as March or April – which DID happen. We took steps to stabilize the program financially and called for a third-party actuarial analysis, as I requested in a bill this past session.
The resulting report was presented to me and other members of a PMFL task force this past week. It projects that by the end of this year, the PMFL fund will have decreased to a negative $8.7 million, from $123 million on Jan. 1. That’s a drop of approximately $132 million in 12 months. The fund is also expected to slip into a cash deficit this month.
What’s the remedy? The actuarial report also presents scenarios for returning the PFML fund to a positive ending balance, and as you might expect they include rate increases ranging from 0.73% to 0.79%. ESD, meanwhile, is looking at a much larger increase – somewhere between 0.90%, meaning a 50% hike, and 1.20%, which would be double the current rate! Add this to the list of things legislators must address in 2023.
Apply to be a legislative intern in 2023!
The workload for a legislative office always jumps during a session, between the increased contact with constituents and all the activity related to policy proposals. The dozens of college students who come to the Capitol to work as session interns become invaluable, albeit temporary, members of the teams that help keep things moving. With the 2023 legislative session about three months away, the Senate and House are now recruiting candidates for internships. The folks who head the intern program are reaching out directly to Washington’s universities, but maybe you also know a college junior or senior who might want to work for the Legislature as a staff intern. Applications are being taken now for the 2023 Legislative Internship Program. Applications are at www.leg.wa.gov/internships, and due no later than October 23 (applications received October 19 or earlier will receive priority consideration for the 70 or so positions available).
Political experience is not necessary, and students of all majors are encouraged to apply. They must be in good academic standing, able to receive academic credit for their time as an intern, and attending a four-year college or university in Washington or a Washington resident attending an out-of-state college or university. Interns will receive a stipend of $2,400 monthly. Those selected are matched with legislators in the Senate or the House of Representatives based on interest areas and political ideology. The program also has opportunities for interns to serve as caucus staff, focusing on policy or communications.
All applicants are welcome to apply for the Rosa Franklin Legislative Internship Program Scholarship (SB 5431), which was established a year ago to remove barriers and support interns who demonstrate financial need. The scholarship helps interns with costs associated with relocation, housing, food, childcare, professional attire, and more.
Don’t forget to vote!
The 18-day voting period for this year’s general election begins Oct. 21. Make sure to fill out your ballot and turn it in on time!
I’m your senator year-round, not just when the Legislature is in session. Keep the messages coming!
Yours in service,
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