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Dear Friends and Neighbors,
After a 105-day session, and an extra 30-day special session, the 2011 Legislature finally wrapped up its work last week. While I'm happy to be back in the district after a strenuous session, the disappointment at the slow pace and the end result of the legislature's work lingers.
Budget writers from the majority party in both the House and Senate finally agreed to compromise on the few items of contention that were holding up the final budget compromise. I voted against the $32.2 billion spending plan for several reasons, including:
* It relies on 49 new or increased fees, costing taxpayers about $248 million more in 2011-13;
* It makes deep cuts to education without needed reforms, continuing the deep divide between rural and urban school district;
* It puts public safety at risk. There will be 2,119 fewer offenders on active community supervision;
* It fails to protect the most vulnerable by reducing Medicaid funding, sharply reducing programs that help our developmentally disabled find work, and harms our long-term care facilities;
* It funds a program that pays people to drive to work together;
* It cancels the sale of the governor's airplanes; and
* It expands a program that pays the rent for recently released felons.
With an additional $4 billion of revenue expected over the previous biennial budget, I'm very disappointed that once again they failed to prioritize spending.
Workers' Compensation Reform
Much of what was holding up action on the operating budget was an impasse on discussions over workers' compensation reform. The Senate passed a bipartisan measure, Senate Bill 5566, which included a voluntary lump-sum settlement option. A similar measure, House Bill 2109, was introduced in the House. Unfortunately, the state labor unions did not like the lump-sum settlement option because they were worried that all the cash would be spent up front and the worker would not have any money left over for later. Despite the fact that the legislation contained ample protections for workers, union bosses – and government bureaucrats – don't trust employees to do what's best for themselves and their families. House Speaker Frank Chopp, who has allied himself with the unions, would not allow the workers' compensation bills to advance in the House.
We needed workers' compensation reform this year for several important reasons, but primarily this: The state-run system has been both costly and inefficient. The state auditor has said there is a 95 percent chance our system will become insolvent in the next five years. That means only two options: much higher rate hikes against employers to support a failing system – or comprehensive reform of the system. At a time when profit margins are so thin and many employers are on the razor's edge of keeping their doors open, unaffordable double-digit workers' compensation premium increases well into the future could easily seal their doom. To keep the system solvent and help businesses keep their doors open, we had to move forward with reforming our state's workers' compensation system.
To help reach a compromise, we suggested a method called “structured settlements.” This is a process that pays out settlements over time so that all the money cannot be used at once. The conferees negotiating reform legislation agreed this would be the best method. It broke the logjam that had held up workers' compensation reform and the budget. The new legislation, House Bill 2123, authorizes claim resolution structured settlement agreements initially for workers age 55 or older, then age 53 or older beginning in 2015, and age 50 or older beginning in 2016, and establishes minimum and maximum periodic payments. The bill also creates a “stay at work” program that authorizes employers to receive a wage subsidy and reimbursements for employing an injured worker at light duty or transitional work. I voted in favor of this legislation and am glad our employers will see some relief from excessive workers' comp costs.
Debt Limit Legislation
I have been working with a bipartisan group of House members to support “The Debt Reduction Act of 2011.” Senate Joint Resolution 8215, which passed out of the Senate, would phase down the state's debt limit from 9 to 7 percent over the next decade. This would have reduced debt payments by more than $3 billion over 20 years. Unfortunately, the House majority party leadership did not allow this solution to move forward.
A negotiated compromise emerged last week. Senate Bill 5181, which I voted for, will result in a smaller capital budget that reverses the state's trend of increasing debt. It will also create a state commission to study and recommend changes to the state's debt capacity. Senate Bill 5181 doesn't go as far as Senate Joint Resolution 8215, but is progress toward better fiscal responsibility.
While many of the bills we proposed in our “Let's Get Washington Working Again” plan failed to pass the Legislature, one of our proposals passed and was signed into law by the Governor. House Bill 1150, which I co-sponsored, will give small businesses a seven-day grace period to correct violations before fines are imposed.
A much-needed and much-anticipated new ferry will be built to serve the Keller Ferry run and the surrounding communities. Rep. Joel Kretz and Sen. Bob Morton and I worked to see that the state's transportation budget included funds to replace one of the state's oldest and non-Puget Sound ferries.
The decision to fund a new boat was made only after a thorough analysis was done and every other option explored. We looked at purchasing a used boat and retrofitting it to meet our needs; we looked at completely refurbishing the existing boat. But in the end, the safest and most cost-effective long-term solution was to build a new boat
The new boat will be in the same “under 100 ton class” as the current boat. It will be an open deck design large enough to carry 20 cars or two semi trucks. The transportation budget includes about $12 million while the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are expected to contribute around $2 million.
My bill requesting that Congress adopt an “Honor and Remember Flag” for fallen United States Armed Forces members passed the Legislature earlier this session.
House Joint Memorial 4004 was part of a nationwide effort to have an “Honor and Remember Flag” displayed as an official flag on military holidays alongside the current United States flag and the Missing in Action/Prisoner of War flag. The national campaign was started recently by the father of a soldier killed while serving in Iraq and has since spread to several states. This proposal had good bipartisan support as well as the support of several military families from our district. Thanks to all who helped this legislation pass.
Also, one of my bills was amended onto another bill that passed the Legislature and was signed into law by the governor. My bill, House Bill 1611, allows for due process for child care facilities that have been found in violation of an existing regulation or rule. Currently, a child care facility can be placed on probation for just about any rule infraction, including a missing parental signature or a notice being in the wrong place. The language in my bill creates sort of a “time out” in the process and makes the Department of Early Learning work with the facilities to correct the problem before taking the large, onerous step of probation.
This proposal stems from some of the problems that child care facilities in our district were having. In some cases, it appears that facilities may be unnecessarily targeted by the department.
While my bill didn't pass, the language of my bill was amended onto Senate Bill 5625 which did pass the Legislature with bipartisan support.
I want to thank you for all the encouraging words of support from home this session. Your phone calls, e-mails and letters mean a lot. Your input helps guide my decisions while in Olympia. I'm looking forward to getting back into the district and seeing many of you at our community events throughout the summer. And please remember, I'm here if you need me.
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