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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

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Levy Reform is a Civil Rights Issue

Calling it a civil rights issue, Washington Public Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn urges lawmakers to make changes so that school districts aren’t as reliant on local levies. In this raw video, Dorn explains why levy reform is just as important as new education funding, for the legislature to comply with the State Supreme Court McCleary ruling.

By  Top Story Network

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

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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

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