March 1, 2013
Dear Friends and Neighbors,
It’s been quite a week here in Olympia with deadlines, votes and a landmark Supreme Court ruling. I’ll share highlights on all of those topics in this week’s Eastsider’s Report. Before we begin, I have to take a moment to highlight some special guests that visited the Capitol this week.
On Wednesday, I had the privilege of meeting with a group of Eagle Scouts from across the state. I have fond memories of my time as a Boy Scout when I was young, and I have immense respect for this great group of young men for the work they put in to become Eagle Scouts.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate had the pleasure of welcoming Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to the Capitol. After a resolution was read congratulating the Seahawks on their season, Coach Carroll addressed the Senate and spoke about the team’s commitment to community outreach and his youth-violence prevention program. He’s a dynamic individual and it’s easy to see why he gets such good results on the football field.
As always, I appreciate all of the questions and feedback I’ve received from you on the issues facing our state. Please continue to stay in touch and let me know if I can be of assistance to you and your family. You can email me anytime or call me in Olympia at (360) 786-7630.
Thank you for the continued opportunity to serve you in the state Senate.
Sen. Mike Hewitt
(Report follows below the fold)
Supreme Court strikes down two-thirds tax threshold
All eyes were on the state Supreme Court yesterday as they announced their much-anticipated ruling on the constitutionality of the two-thirds threshold for legislative approval of new taxes.
In a 6-3 decision the court found the higher bar for taxes to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Susan Owens noted that the decision was “not meant to be a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for the passage of tax legislation,” but was rather their finding that the constitution’s requirement that a bill must receive a majority vote to pass into law was meant as “both a minimum and a maximum voting requirement.”
In his dissent opinion, Justice James Johnson countered that taxes often need approval by a special threshold to pass (there are currently 22 such examples in the state’s constitution). He also pointed out the irony that a court claiming to be acting out of fear of “tyrannical minority control” was making a decision based on six votes to overturn the will of 1.75 million voters.
Personally, while I am disappointed in the decision, it is a reminder for me of the importance of the bipartisan majority coalition governing in the Senate. Our coalition is effectively now the last line of defense between the Legislature and tax increases our state doesn’t need and the public doesn’t want. My focus will continue to be on balancing the budget within existing revenues.
Of course, the Legislature does not have to stand idly by and accept the two-thirds threshold being struck down. There are several measures currently before the Senate that would cement the will of the people for a raised bar for tax increases in the state’s constitution. I’m pleased to report that yesterday the Senate’s budget committee, which I serve on, approved one of those bills and sent it to the Senate Rules Committee, which is the last stop before a vote on the Senate floor.
It’s not easy to amend the constitution – it requires two-thirds approval of the House and Senate and ratification of voters in the following election – but I’m committed to respecting the will of the people and will continue to fight for the two-thirds requirement.
Tranportation package proposed
In 2003, the Legislature adopted a transportation package funded by a five-cent increase in the state gas tax called the “Nickel Package.” To choose projects for that package, a process was created to rank projects based on criteria of improving safety and/or congestion. That was followed by a second package in 2005, which increased the gas tax an additional nine cents. In the eight years since that time, transportation investments have largely been financed through existing revenue.
Coming into this session some legislative leaders, including both our outgoing and new governor, had expressed support for a new transportation package to continue existing projects and begin new ones. Last week, Democrats in the House of Representatives unveiled the proposal they’re bringing forward. Here’s a brief summary:
- Raises nearly $10 billion over 10 years to build new transportation projects and continue existing ones. Also funds mass-transit programs
- Projects chosen are intended to improve freight mobility. For example, completing “Puget Sound Gateway” area that includes SR 167 and I-405 would allow goods from across the state better access to ports and markets.
- Revenues would be generated primarily through:
- A ten-cent gas tax increase (phased in as two-cent increases over five years), which would raise taxes an anticipated $2.53 billion over ten years
- A new motor vehicle excise tax of 0.7 percent of the value of a vehicle, due annually when renewing vehicle registration. Would raise an anticipated $2.1 billion over ten years
- $3 billion in bonds ($1.5 billion each in years five and seven of the package)
It’s important to note that this is only a proposal, which is being brought forward by Democrats in the House of Representatives. At this point it’s too soon to know how things will play out.
From my perspective, I can tell you that there is a lot of concern in Olympia over the cost of transportation projects in our state. Items like our state’s prevailing wage policies and permitting costs drive the price of projects higher than they have to be. Those high construction costs are the reason that some of the projects from the 2003 and 2004 packages were never completed.
Further, in light of the recently-discovered debacle with cracked pontoons in the construction of the 520 bridge over Lake Washington in Seattle that will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, I think it’s clear that increased accountability is needed in how projects are designed (if you’re interested in learning more about that issue, a link to a Seattle Times story can be found here).
If a package does mover forward this session, I will work to ensure that it be sent to voters for final approval, rather than being enacted by the Legislature. In recent years, my caucus has approached issues like this with the mantra of “reforms before revenue,” which means getting the program right before providing new funding. That’s the mindset I’m bringing to any new transportation proposal, and my inclination is that public confidence would have to be restored before voters would be willing to support new taxes.
Preserving clean, reliable, renewable hydropower
Today is the cutoff date for bills to be approved in fiscal committees (Transportation and Ways and Means in the Senate) and we’re now moving into the portion of session dedicated to voting on bills on the Senate floor. One of the measures we’ll be considering is Senate Bill 5648, by Senator Sharon Brown from Kennewick.
SB 5648 is an important bill for southeast Washington and the entire state. It would modify the state’s current law on renewable energy, which requires a certain percentage of the power consumed in our state to come from renewable sources, but doesn’t count hydropower as renewable.
When it was adopted in 2006, the economy was firing on all cylinders and the law made assumptions about energy consumption and population growth based on anticipated demand. But the economic downturn decreased demand for energy and now utilities are in the position of having to purchase alternative energy they don’t need to meet the law’s requirements. In 2016 the percentage of energy utilities provide from renewable sources increases from three percent to nine percent. That means utilities will need to begin planning for the conversion in the coming year, and if the law doesn’t change this year, it may be too late and we would be locked in to higher power bills.
SB 5648 would allow utilities greater flexibility to meet conservation and eligible renewable targets and consumers’ energy needs in the most prudent and cost-effective manner. It would prevent Washington’s low-cost hydropower from being shipped out of state, only to have us turn around and buy more expensive alternative energy from those same states.
A public hearing was held on SB 5648 last week. Several representatives from our region testified in favor of the bill, including Martin Valadez, president of the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In his testimony, Martin was speaking to how the issue would affect Hispanic families, but I think he summed it up well for everyone when he noted that, “Our families in the Hispanic community work hard to put food on the table and pay their electrical and other utility bills. So why would we want to raise these electrical rates simply to fulfill a mandate that is sending big dollars to developers and taking money away from our families? While we support efforts to increase renewable energy, we do not want this to be done on the backs of hard-working families.”
Washington State Wire covered the hearing and a link to their take on it can be found here.