Skip to content
Please enable your javascript to have a better view of the website. Click here to learn more about it.

Democrats keep pushing for new voting measure

By John Stang

Senate Democrats and supporters made a symbolic push Thursday to get a state voting rights act to the Washington Senate floor.

The legislation appears doomed for 2015.

Technically, though, two similar bills are in play, one sponsored by Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland and the other by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace. The bills address situations in which minority communities might be underrepresented in their local governments.

The best example consists of a city or county with a huge minority population conducting at-large elections for a city council that consistently results in overwhelming white representation on that body. The classic remedy would be to switch from at-large to district elections, with the districts reflecting the racial makeup of an area. The bills outline how such situations would be defined and tackled.

Moscoso’s bill passed the House, with voting mostly along party lines. The Senate Government Operations & Security Committee recommended approval of both bills. The committee’s chair Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, and assistant chair Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, both recommended approval of Moscoso’s bill. That would give it a 25-vote majority in the Senate if the entire minority Democratic caucus supports it as well.
However, the Senate Rules Committee — controlled by Republicans — won’t allow either bill to go to a full floor vote. And Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R- Ritzville, contended Thursday that Roach and Benton’s support of Moscoso’s bill in committee does not mean that they would vote for it in a full floor vote.

The only way for the Democrats to get either bill to a full floor vote seems to be on a procedural vote by the full Senate. But a powerful, unwritten rule is that each legislator votes with his or her caucus on all procedural matters despite his or her personal stance on the bill in question. Caucus leaders on both sides use this tradition to keep bills they don’t like — but appear likely to pass — from going to a full floor vote. That is how the GOP senators earlier killed such an attempt to bring Habib’s bill to a full floor vote.

On Thursday, Democrats held a rally outside the Capitol Dome, and the Senate’s Law & Justice and Government Operations & Security committees held a joint work session to discuss the pros and cons of the voting rights bills with attorneys for and against the concept.

At the work session and at a press session, Seattle attorney John Safarli, who represented Yakima in a federal Voting Rights Act case, and Schoesler both described the state bills as encouraging expensive litigation. “I think there are people who don’t have the purest of motives in litigating,” Schoesler said.

Meanwhile, Habib and Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, contended that the bills stalled in the Senate Rules Committee would decrease the likelihood of litigation occurring, because those bills offer ways to set up ethnic-majority districts without going to court before a lawsuit shows up.

“This, in many ways, is a litigation prevention tool,” Jayapal said.

Under the current federal Voting Rights Act, the only way to tackle ethnic underrepresentation in local government is by a lawsuit.

However, an initiative by a jurisdiction’s residents can convert an at-large election system to district elections. This happened in Seattle. But, Habib and Jayapal argued, that route does not guarantee that the carved-out districts don’t all end up gerrymandered to have white majorities. Such an arrangement still handicaps people of color from being appropriately represented at their local government and school board levels, they said.

Cities potentially affected by a state voting rights act might include Pasco and Sunnyside, which, despite being heavily Hispanic, have overwhelmingly white city councils. Some towns in Snohomish County could also be affected, Jayapal and Habib speculated.

Washington’s most famous example is the heavily Hispanic city of Yakima, which lost a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on this issue. A federal judge has ordered the city to set up district elections this year to include two majority-Hispanic districts. The judge said there was a clear pattern of white voters suppressing Latino interests in previous elections, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported. The city is appealing that ruling.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

Lawmakers compromise on oil trains

By John Stang

Heavy on trains and pipelines, but no Puget Sound oil spill prevention measures. That about sums up a Washington House-Senate compromise on their competing oil transportation safety bills.

The Senate passed the compromise, 46-0, on Friday. Shortly after, the measure got a resounding 95-1 Yes from the House.

“It’s an above-average bill,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, just before the Senate vote. ”It’s three-quarters of a good bill.”

The legislation covers oil trains and pipelines, and addresses some other oil-transportation safety matters, such as spill-related emergency training and responses and providing information about oil train cargoes and schedules to the public and to emergency response agencies. The new bill also imposes a temporary, three-year oil-tax hike (from the current 4 cents per 42-gallon barrel to 5 cents).

House Democrats had originally pushed for a per-barrel tax of 8 cents, plus some oil spill prevention measures for tanker ships plying Puget Sound — positions they ultimately conceded. Senate Republicans gave ground too, on their original opposition to any oil tax increase at all, and on their no-pipelines stance. Both sides had pushed for improved training and planning by state and local emergency agencies.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle and author of the House bill, said the compromise was made to get some oil train and pipeline legislation on the books. Democrats hope to tackle Puget Sound-related oil-spill-prevention measures in the 2016 session.

Under the new legislation, railroads will have to provide advance notification to emergency agencies about train routes, about the volumes of oil being transported and about where oil trains traveling to western Washington’s five refineries originated. The public will be updated periodically via a website that provides a less detailed look at the oil volumes and origin of oil trains. In order to protect proprietary oil company information, the public data will not be broken down by individual trains and dates.

A similar aggregate rundown on pipelines will be made public twice a year so that the public and state will have information on which to base future regulatory actions.

The bill also requires railroads to report on whether they are financially capable of effectively responding to worst-case accident scenarios. The state will use those financial disclosures to determine whether or not to take more actions vis a vis the railroads’ financial obligations in the event of emergencies.

Environmentalists and environmentally-minded lawmakers were lukewarm about the legislation. “It isn’t a matter of if, it is a matter of when a spill or explosion will happen,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. “I am pleased we were able to finally pass meaningful legislation that will help protect our first responders and citizens. It’s unfortunate we could not ensure oil and railroad companies — not taxpayers — are held financially responsible for spill prevention and cleanup.”

“While this bill contains some important steps forward in terms of transparency and public disclosure, it leaves huge holes in the safety net needed to protect our communities and waterways from risks we face today,” said Becky Kelley, president of Washington Environmental Council, in a press release.

No doubt the issue of oil train safety and how to ensure it will be back.


Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

Class size initiative poses tough questions for legislators

By John Stang

You can add Initiative 1351 to the long list of budget items that Washington’s House Democrats and Senate Republicans will fight about as they negotiate the state’s 2015-2017 operating budget.
The Senate Majority Coalition of 25 Republicans and one Democrat wants to send I-1351 back to the voters in November for a do-over. The House Democrats believe that approach is not feasible — and fraught with pitfalls.

Approved by state voters in November, I-1351 calls for dramatically reduced teacher-student ratios in public schools all the way from kindergarten through high school. Overall, it would add roughly $2 billion in education expenses in 2015-2017. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators from both parties have cringed at that obligation, because no revenue source has been identified to raise the money.
The Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate’s budget proposals both want to mesh meeting I-1351’s obligations for Grades K-3 with their efforts to comply with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that requires improvements in teacher-student ratios in those grades. Both sides, however, want to essentially put off I-1351’s obligations for Grades 4-12 in 2015-2017, because no money is available.

On Monday, the Senate voted 27-22 along caucus lines to send I-1351 back to the voters, hoping an official campaign against the $2 billion-per-biennium price tag will convince the voters to rescind the initiative. That bill is going to the House, where it will likely stall.
The only possible way that the House Democrats might agree to that approach is as part of some grand budget bargain at the end of the legislative session.
The Senate Republicans are putting their faith in a do-over vote this fall largely because last November’s passage of 1-1351 was so narrow. The measure passed by a 50.96 percent to 49.04 percent split — 1,052,519 to 1,012,958.

“It won by a whisker,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, on Tuesday. Schoesler also noted I-1351 faced no organized opposition in 2104.
While Gov. Jay Inslee privately opposed I-1351, he did not voice that opposition publicly until the votes were counted. Schoesler speculated that Inslee’s involvement in opposing I-1351 this year might lead to its revocation next November.

However, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and one of the House Democratic budget writers, believes a November do-over of I-1351 is a bad idea. Lots of legal pitfalls exist trying to write a ballot measure that tackles linked but different issues — reducing teacher-student ratios in classrooms and deciding on $2 billion-per-biennium in extra spending, he said. Hunter said a possible referendum scenario could end up with the state’s voters clearly adding the $2 billion spending burden without saying where that money will come from.
On Feb. 17, the staff attorneys for the Senate Ways & Means Committee and House Appropriations Committee filed a joint memo outlining scenarios to tackle the I-1351 budget dilemma, both with and without bringing a referendum before voters.

The bottom lines in several scenarios boiled down to two choices. Legislators could struggle to get a two-thirds vote in each of the House and Senate to change I-1351. The advantage is that the legislators could tailor the changes in very specific ways. The drawback is it that it is extremely difficulty to get two-thirds of each chamber to agree on almost anything complicated.

Alternatively, the legislators could send the issue back to voters in November. But the attorneys’ various scenarios indicated that writing a legally valid measure will be tough. And the voters would essentially face a yes or no choice, because a ballot measure like this cannot legally give voters multiple choices and rankings in their order of preference. The advantage to this approach is that a bill to put I-1351 back before voters would require only simple majority votes in the House and Senate, along with the governor’s signature. There would still be potential drawbacks, perhaps most importantly the uncertainty of the election outcome.

Hunter prefers going with the two-thirds Senate-and-House approach. Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee and GOP caucus leader, said the Senate Republicans have not ruled out going the two-thirds majority route.

There’s one longshot that could conceivably rescue the legislators and Inslee from making decisions about how to proceed. The Seattle Times reported on March 31 that a man filed a legal challenge to I-1351’s passage on technical grounds in Kittitas County Superior Court, trying get the initiative overturned. The plaintiff is represented by a former state Supreme Court justice, Phil Talmadge.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.


“Enjoy this story? Tell us more about what you like on KBCS by taking our 2015 listener survey.”

Lawmakers debate 30-plus budget amendments

By John Stang

The Washington Senate Democrats charged their Republican colleagues purposely stacked the deck in passing the GOP’s 2015-2017 operating budget proposal. Why? To protect Sen. Andy Hill, R- Redmond, from having to cast embarrassing votes.

While he has not publicly talked of running, Hill’s name has been circulated in political circles as a possible GOP candidate to face Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in 2016.

Hill’s potential career plans influenced over Thursday’s proceedings, a bitter and esoteric parliamentary battle between the 26 members of the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and the 23 Democratic senators.

Prior to debates on the amendments, the Majority Coalition’s 25 Republicans, with their one Democratic ally, installed a new rule, over the protests of Senate Democrats. That new rule, actually a revival of one killed in 2011, requires any amendment to the state’s operating, transportation and capital budgets to pass by a 60 percent vote rather than a simple majority. That means the senate needs 30 votes instead of 25 to make any change in its budget proposal.

The rule was approved along a strict, 26-23, caucus-line vote, with Hill joining the majority.

Meanwhile, the minority Democrats tried to add 51 amendments to the GOP-oriented budget proposal. (They withdrew several additional amendments prior to floor votes.) Only two of the 51 Democratic amendments broke the 30-vote mark. As a group, the Democrats had the parliamentary clout to force a roll call vote on each amendment – and they did on most.

Fifty-one is an excessively high number of amendments. It is possible that some of them were designed to paint Andy Hill into a few no-win corners.  

 Thirteen of the failed amendments were supported by simple majorities of the Senate, but fell short of the 30-vote threshold. That means some Republicans voted for them, and the amendments would have passed without the rule change.

Hill voted for four of the 13 failed amendments. One  “yes” vote was for a measure that would have required state contractors to pay men and women equally for the same job. Another amendment would have funded research into how race and ethnicity affects criminal, social services and education caseloads. The final two would have allocated $1 million for the University of Washington to conduct climate impact studies and set up statewide anti-bullying programs.

 Five other Republicans voted at least five times for amendments that received more than 25 “yes” votes, but fewer than the 30 required for passage: Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, voted for 10 amendments; Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, for 7; Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Conner, 6; Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, 6; and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, 5.

Hill, Fain and Litzow are considered moderates in the Majority Coalition. Rivers, Roach and Benton are viewed as staunch conservatives. Roach and Benton have a complicated relationship with their caucuses, and sometimes break away. Also, Roach is considered pro-labor.

 Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, called the breakaway Republicans evidence of the independence and diversity of the Majority Coalition. “I have a big tent,” he said, “and not everyone has the same heartburn.”

 Hill, the chief budget writer for the Senate Republicans, declined to comment Thursday, saying, “I’m too busy trying to get the budget off the floor to talk.”

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, charged the GOP caucus with installing the 60-percent-to-pass-an-amendment rule as a way to protect Hill and other GOP moderates, who could safely vote for some Democratic amendments without fear that those amendments would actually pass. That lets Hill and company cast themselves as moderate in any future elections without hurting the Majority Coalition’s overall agenda.

Nelson alleged that, behind the scenes, GOP caucus leaders offered withdraw that 60-percent rule prior to the floor vote if Democrats would back off their threat to force roll call votes on gender equality and climate study amendment bills.

Veteran House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has been known to employ a similar strategy, to great effect, in the House. If, for example, Chopp has more than 50 votes (a majority) lined up for a particular bill, he has been known to let Democrats from swing districts vote against the bill so they can look good for their constituents.

Senate Majority Leader Schoesler scoffed at Nelson’s read of the GOP’s 60-percent-to-pass gambit. “That’s tin-foil-hat and black-helicopter thinking,” he said. But a remark overheard in the Senate chamber by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and others seems to support Nelson’s view.

Several hours into the debates, Conway says he overheard Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane and one of the GOP’s staunchest conservatives, say loudly, “We’re doing this because you guys don’t want to do a tough vote.” Conway couldn’t say whom Baumgartner was talking to, but the Spokane senator was surrounded by Republicans at the time. “About two dozen of us heard it,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.

When asked about the alleged remark, Baumgartner was dismissive. “Conway’s pretty old,” he said. “He doesn’t hear very well.”

Thursday’s debates over the amendments dragged on for nine-and-a-half tense hours with both sides unleashing arsenals of parliamentary maneuvers that angered their opponents and maybe even their colleagues. The debates finally ended at 2:15 a.m. on Friday.

The parliamentary brinksmanship elicited complaints from the minority caucus, marking the third time in 2015 that a minority caucus has charged the majority with stepping far over the line with procedural power moves.

The first instance occurred back on Jan. 12, the first day of the 2015 legislative session. In a 26-23 partisan tally, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus passed a new rule that required a two-thirds vote to pass any new taxes. That rule would have effectively scuttled a capital gains tax that the House budget writers have proposed. Lt. Gov. Bruce Owen, who presides over the Senate, declared the rule unconstitutional and void on March 1. On Thursday, Owen declared the 60-percent-amendment rule valid.

The roles were reversed on March 2 in the Democrat-controlled House. Democrats had the votes to pass a bill that would have raised Washington’s minimum wage (over four years to $12 an hour by 2019). Minority House Republicans proposed 12 amendments to that bill. Normally, House Speaker Chopp does not preside over the House’s floor action. But on that day, he did.

The House Democrats deliberately called their bill “Increasing The Minimum Hourly Wage To Twelve Dollars Over Four Years.” The narrow, carefully-worded title allowed Chopp to quickly rule nine Republican amendments invalid because they did not conform to the bill’s title, killing the amendments before any debate could begin. The DOA amendments included so-called “teen” wages, which would let businesses pay teenage workers less than the required minimum wage. House Democrats easily defeated the other Republican amendments after floor debates.

In other news from Thursday, the House passed its $38.8 billion operating budget proposal in a 51-47 party-line vote. The proposal features $1.5 billion in new taxes and some tax break closures. Following the drawn-out amendments debates, the Senate argued angrily for 45 more minutes about whether to debate and act on its own $38 billion budget bill with $40 million in tax breaks closures.

After work on a few related budget bills, senators knocked off at 4:10 a.m. Friday. They’ll be back to work on the main budget bill at 1 p.m. Monday.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

“Enjoy this story? Tell us more about what you like on KBCS by taking our 2015 listener survey.”

Praise for Selma march, but no action on election bill

By John Stang

Amid universal praise for the Selma civil rights march, Washington’s Republican and Democratic senators passed a resolution commending the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for leading the historic walk 50 years ago this week.

Then the Senate’s minority Democrats took the occasion to try to bring a stalled election bill — tailored to provide greater representation for people of color — to the full Senate floor. The Majority Coalition Caucus of 25 Republicans and one Democrat immediately defeated the attempt.

The Washington House Democrats plan to unveil their 2015-2017 operating budget proposal on Friday, which will start to point to how this legislative session will really go.

The bill by Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, addresses situations in which minority communities might be underrepresented in their local governments. The best example consists of a city or county with a huge minority population conducting at-large elections for a city council, school board or county commission that results in overwhelming white representation on that body. The classic remedy is to switch from at-large to district elections. Habib’s bill outlines how such situations would be defined and tackled.

This is the third year that a Democrat has introduced this bill, and the Democratic-controlled House appears ready to pass a similar measure as early as late Wednesday evening. This year, the Senate bill barely passed out of the Senate Government Operations & Security Committee, largely because of the support of the committee’s Republican chair, Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn. Since then, the bill has stalled in the Senate Rules Committee.

On Wednesday after the Senate passed the Martin Luther King resolution, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, called for a “Ninth Order” move to bring the bill to a full Senate vote. The “Ninth Order” is a parliamentary procedure in which some legislators move to get a majority vote of the full chamber to bring a stalled bill to a final vote by the entire Senate or House. This is generally used by the minority party and usually fails — although the losing party may still regard the vote itself as something of a victory for – arguably — embarrassing the majority or providing future ammunition to be used in election campaigns against some members of the majority.

The failure is largely foreordained because an unwritten rule of the Legislature is that regardless of individual feelings about a bill, everyone is supposed to vote with his or her caucus on “procedural” matters, such as whether to consider bills that the majority leadership has not approved for consideration. Prior to Wednesday’s vote on Liias’ motion, Senate Floor Leader Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, reminded his side that this was a procedural vote. Liias’ motion died 26-23 along caucus lines. Despite her support for the measure in the Government Operations Committee, Roach voted with her caucus Wednesday to stop the Democrats’ motion.

After the vote, Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island issued a written statement that said: “Today we heard many speeches about the importance of equality, of justice and of fairness, but when it came time to act, when it came time to actually deliver on these fundamental American rights, words, not actions, won the day.”

She added, “It’s one thing to speak about the importance of these values, it’s apparently quite another to act on them.”

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.


“Enjoy this story? Tell us more about what you like on KBCS by taking our 2015 listener survey.”

Minimum wage passes House, heads to Senate

By John Stang

Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, unleashed the forces of science on a Washington House minimum-wage bill Tuesday, arguing that it made no economic sense.

“All these arguments are the result of economic illiteracy,” he said. Referring to criticisms of his party on climate change, Manweller added, “We get accused all the time of being anti-science. If you vote for this bill, you don’t have the right to call anyone ‘anti-science.’ This is the most anti-science vote of all time.”

Manweller’s remarks came as the House debated Rep. Jessyn Farrell’s bill to raise Washington’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2019.

Shortly after Manweller’s argument, 51 Democrats voted for the bill and 46 Republicans voted against it, passing the bill and sending it to the Senate. By the same margin, the House also passed a bill Tuesday by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to require businesses with more than four employees to provide sick leave for their workers. The amount of required sick leave would vary by the size of the company.

What reception will Farrell’s minimum wage bill likely receive in the Senate? “Probably chilly in our caucus,” said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee and GOP caucus chairwoman. The Majority Coalition Caucus of 25 Republicans and one Democrat controls the 49-member Senate.

However, one GOP senator, Mark Miloscia of Federal Way, supports Farrell’s concept. So, it’s possible that Democrats would need only one more Republican vote in the Senate to pass the House bill, or some version of it.

Farrell’s bill would increase the state minimum wage in steps. The proposal is to move the wage to $10 an hour in 2016, $10.50 in 2017, $11 in 2018 and $12 in 2019. A companion Democratic bill in the Senate died immediately. Washington’s minimum wage is now $9.47 an hour — the highest in the nation.

Farrell contended that if someone works all day, five days a week for minimum wage, they should earn enough to make a living. She noted many people are trying to support families with minimum-wage jobs.

On Tuesday, Republicans tried to introduce 12 amendments to the bill to slow down future minimum-wage increases after the $12 target is reached; to add so-called “teen” wages for teenagers that are less than the minimum wage; and, among other things, to set performance reviews to see if the new minimum wage law –if enacted — actually improves the economy.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, took the unusual step of presiding over the House floor debates, quickly ruling that nine of the GOP amendments did not fit the description, title or scope of Farrell’s bill. That killed the proposals before the Republicans could debate the Democrats on them. The Democrats easily defeated the other three proposed amendments after short debates.

Chopp and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said amendments cannot address subjects beyond what is listed in a bill’s title or language. Farrell’s bill is short — replacing three paragraphs of state law with four new paragraphs.

House Republicans cried foul over Chopp’s blocking of debate on their proposed amendments.

“How can we have a respectful conversation when half of the House is shut out of it?” asked Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “I have learned that power trumps business,” Manweller added.

In their arguments for Farrell’s bill, the Democrats argued that 85 percent of minimum-wage earners are adults, with the vast majority of them supporting families. They also said higher minimum wages circulate more money through the economy to help businesses and that the wage will reduce the number of people needing to use state services, saving money for the state.

“We’ll put $1 billion in the pockets of people who won’t be spending those dollars on Wall Street or on overseas vacations, but spending the money in local businesses,” Sullivan said.

The GOP arguments against the bill included the greater burden that would be placed on small businesses and startups. Republicans said the increase would discourage employers from hiring teenagers for their first jobs and put Washington businesses at a disadvantage to Idaho and Oregon businesses with lower minimum wages.

Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, pointed to a Green Giant plant that existed several years ago in Dayton. It hit a financial rough patch and asked the state for an exemption from the minimum wage law, and could not get it. Consequently, Green Giant moved the Dayton plant’s work to another state, removing 500 seasonal jobs from that area, Nealey said.

“The minimum wage has been in the back of my mind ever since,” he said. “It gutted our economy.”

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.


“Enjoy this story? Tell us more about what you like on KBCS by taking our 2015 listener survey.”

State House passes ‘revenge porn’ measure

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

The Washington House unanimously passed a “revenge-porn” bill Monday that would allow a victim to seek damages in civil court for posting intimate images without a person’s consent.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, would allow a maximum of $10,000 or actual damages proven by the victim, whichever is greater. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

Would a new pipeline ease state’s oil train worries?

By John Stang

As the debates increase over transporting oil by rail, Sen. Mike Baumgartner wants the state to study a potential east-west oil pipeline.

Baumgartner, R-Spokane, introduced a bill Wednesday to spend $250,000 on a study by the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council on whether a crude oil pipeline should be installed, and what would be the best route for such a pipeline. The study’s deadline would be Dec. 31.

The study would look at the volumes of crude oil entering Washington — which has five refineries — during the past five years. It would outline the federal, state and local permitting and legal processes needed to build such a pipeline. It would look at potential pipeline routes, and recommend the best one. And the study would list the technical and environmental issues that would need to be addressed.

Baumgartner’s proposal caught both Cliff Traisman, representing the Washington Environmental Council, and Frank Holmes, representing the Western States Petroleum Association, by surprise Wednesday. Neither had seen the bill and both declined to comment on its details. However, Traisman contended: “It doesn’t sound like a realistic or serious idea.” He declined to elaborate.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an east-west Washington oil pipeline was seriously considered. The Northern Tier Pipeline Co. wanted to build a 1,500-mile pipeline from Port Angeles, where Alaska crude would have been shipped, to be transported to Minnesota. Washington Gov. John Spellman killed that project in 1983, following the advice of the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The deal breaker for Spellman was that the pipeline would include a 28-mile underwater section going through Puget Sound.

Baumgartner’s concept would not cross Puget Sound, with Washington’s five refineries receiving crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields.

Concern about oil trains has risen nationally and statewide after a series of accidents, some involving fires and explosions. Oil pipelines have their own records of leaks, including one along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana in January.

A map of the nation’s oil pipelines shows one Canadian crude oil pipeline stopping at the Washington border north of Bellingham, and the nation’s northernmost east-west crude oil pipeline running from North Dakota to the Montana-Idaho Panhandle border. Some refined oil pipelines pass through Eastern Washington, and some also goes south from the Puget Sound refineries to Oregon.

Reflecting the public squeamishness about the rise in oil train traffic, the Washington Legislature has been working on – and sometimes clashing over — two oil transportation safety bills, one of which is more sweeping than the other.

A draft state report says, “There has been an unprecedented increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail from virtually none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013. The amount may reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end 2014 or during 2015.”

Even that amount could increase with construction of proposed new rail facilities and the potential lifting of a federal ban on exporting U.S. crude oil, the report says.

Nationally, the number of rail cars transporting crude oil grew from 9,500 in 2008 to 415,000 carloads in 2013. A typical tanker car holds 29,200 gallons. Washington’s five refineries process roughly 24.3 million gallons of crude oil a day, and have the capacity of processing 26.5 million gallons daily.

“We need to move oil across our state and there is a lot of concern about oil-by-rail,” Baumgartner said in a press release. “It’s time to look at a trans-Washington oil pipeline.”

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Top Story Network interview with Senator Michael Baumgartner

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

Bring back the Washington State Presidential Primary

By  Top Story Network

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman wants to resurrect the Washington State Presidential Primary. Top Story Network’s Robert Mak has the story.

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

Will Initiative 1351 be sent back to voters?

By  Top Story Network

Just three months after voters approved Initiative 1351 calling for smaller class sizes, lawmakers are thinking about sending the initiative back to voters–what would be a historic move. I-1351 passed in November with 51% of the vote.  State Senator Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, calls the initiative “irresponsible” because it directed smaller class sizes in K-12, but did not provide any funding to pay for the idea. The Secretary of State’s office says it would be the first time in state history that lawmakers have attempted to return a recently-passed initiative to the ballot. Sen. Litzow talks about the options and the status of education funding in the legislature with Seattle Top Story’s Robert Mak.

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.