Legislative “Progress” – Early March

Cupola of the Legislative Building

Cupola of the Legislative Building

Each Legislative session has a rythym all its own. This one is waiting expectantly for something to happen. I think you’ll see a flurry of activity towards the end of the month as budgets start to get released.

At the beginning of the session I said we had three priorities this year: balancing the budget for both 2013-15 and 2015-17, funding the education improvements required by the McClary decision from the Supreme Court, and implementing the expansion of Medicaid made possible under the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) also known as “Obamacare.” I still believe these are the correct items to focus on, though a stretch goal would be to implement a reasonable package of road and transit improvements.

We’re making progress on all three fronts, though I think some new items have raised their heads and required attention.

  • Gun safety, for obvious reasons. Advocates came in with an expansive agenda, but seem to have focused for this year on finally closing the “gun show loophole” that allows people to purchase guns from private sellers without undergoing background checks. HB 1588 is a reasonable response, creating a way for background checks to take place on almost all sales without creating a centralized database of gun ownership, something very concerning to some people. I support the bill and am a co-sponsor.
  • Mental health treatment improvements. We trail the nation in the number of community mental health hospital beds, and don’t have a very strong system of providing support for people who have dangerous mental health issues. The ACA will change some of this, giving many more people access to care in reasonable ways, but we are going to need to strengthen both our civil involuntary committment procedures and our forensic system, closing some awkward gaps. More below.

I’ve also had a lot of questions about the Supreme Court’s ruling the Eyman initiatives requiring a 2/3 vote for tax increases unconstitutional. The ruling was pretty unequivocal – all bills pass with a simple majority in the Legislature, as the constitution intended. I’ve written a response to the many emails on this topic that I include below.

I’m going to write about the education bills in a different post because otherwise this one will get too long.

Higher Education

Higher education is one of the areas at greatest risk in our budget process this year. There are a couple of issues to address to have a rational plan.

First, we have to get a handle on tuition. Our colleges and universities face real inflation in the goods and services they need to purchase, including salaries they have to bargain with their staff. Both tuition and state funding need to keep up with inflation to make sense, but we can’t depend on increased tuition to make up for a lack of state support for the long run. Over time tuition growth should not exceed inflation, and we have greatly exceeded that in the last several years.

Second, the liability we created in the GET program by raising tuition so fast has to be addressed. Some lawmakers are pushing to end the program, which I think is a terrible idea. It’s an important way for middle class families to save for their children’s future. Less aspirationally, a recent actuarial analysis shows that if we eliminate the ability for universities to charge extra “differential” tuition and hold general tuition increases to zero this year and track inflation after that we practically eliminate the unfunded liability. If we do this and don’t provide the funds to the higher ed system to protect them against inflation we are effectively cutting them by hundreds of millions. I voted for house bill 1043 that eliminated the differential tuition idea, our first step on this journey.

Making an investment in the future to ensure that all Washington kids can get the education and credentials that allow them to participate in the modern economy and move out of our basements will require an infusion of funds we do not know how to provide. I’m working on this, but am struggling to find a great solution that works for the rest of the state as well.

Budget

We’re in a quiet period for the budget. Later this month we recieve critical updates on both the “caseloads” and on the amount of revenue we can expect. Caseloads are estimates of the number of people who will qualify for services we are requried to offer them. For example, there will be more children than we had planned for enrolling in our K12 system for reasons that are not yet clear. We have to adjust our budgets to account for this. We think these costs could be $300 to $400 million higher than expected last year – a serious problem.

The revenue forecast is affected by a number of factors and is harder to predict, which is why we hire a PhD economist and a staff of 4 or 5 to do forecasts. While ours were wildly off during the recession, they were better than all the other states. The sequester affects this number, and could reduce GDP by half a percent or so, which affects our revenue projects. We get this number on the 21st, and are waiting expectantly. There may even be some pools as to what the number will be…

Once the forecasts are out the two chambers release their budgets. We alternate who releases first and it’s the Senate’s turn this year. Typically they would come out on the first Monday following the forecast, and we would follow about a week later. Since neither chamber releases a budget until they believe they have the votes to pass it, sometimes these releases are delayed… This may be a difficult year.

As we get past the forecasts I’ll write more about this. I know the Senate is trying to write a no-new-revenue budget that meets our obligations under the McCleary decision. While this may be technically possible I don’t believe they will be able to do a budget that is a reasonable reflection of the values of Washingtonians. We will see.

Supermajority Requirement Unconstitutional

I had a handful of voters write in suggesting we approve a constitutional amendment establishing the 2/3 voting requirement, and almost 100 suggesting that this would be a bad idea. Here’s what I’ve been sending out in response to these emails. (I use the same response for both sides – I’m not smart enough to say different things to different people and remember what I said to them the next time. It’s easier to have one opinion.)

Thanks for your note about amending the Washington State Constitution. I’m quite happy with our constitution as it is and don’t see a lot of need to change it. Almost 125 years ago (in 1889) the framers of our state constitution met to hammer out the basic working structure of how Washington would be governed. They based their work on a document exactly 100 years old at the time, the US Constitution. The framers of the US document spent months working through voting requirements and balance of power issues and came out with a document that has really worked well for the entire life of our great country. The Washington document looks very similar in key measures, and voting requirements are one of those.

After writing the US Constitution the country was absorbed in the process of ratification. Every state had to adopt it, and the politicking was fierce. Three of the original drafters (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay) wrote a series of long articles they published as pamphlets to help convince the public that the document would work. These have been collected into the “Federalist Papers,” an important part of American history.

In Number 22, Alexander Hamilton speaks passionately about super-majority voting requirements and why they are a bad thing. He was reacting to the requirement in the Articles of Confederation that required super-majorities for almost any action of the national government.

But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. …

This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

It is not difficult to discover, that a principle of this kind gives greater scope to foreign corruption, as well as to domestic faction, than that which permits the sense of the majority to decide; though the contrary of this has been presumed. The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods.

Super-majority requirements allow special interests to buy off small numbers of legislators and block action by the “respectable majority.” I’m happy to stand as part of the respectable majority, and I wish I could write as well as those guys did.

Mental Health

Unfortunately some fraction of the population will acquire a mental health issue a some point in their life. For most people they will get some help from their medical provider, will see a therapist, pastor, or some other professional and resolve the issue. Washington is a mental health parity state, so if you have medical insurance it will cover mental health issues as a normal part of your coverage.

Some people and issues don’t fit neatly into this description. They either need more significant care thn their insurance will provide, they need to be secured in an institution to ensure either their own or society’s safety, or they commit crimes because they are ill and need to be incarcerated in a facility that can give them some treatment.

We provide a system of care for the indigent and those who have been judged mentally incompetent, or a risk to themselves or others through a set of mental hosptials (Western and Eastern State Hospitals) and a collection of resources in the community that provide outpatient, or sometimes inpatient care. Our system has been ravaged by cuts over the past 4 years as we tried to balance our budget in times of decreasing resources and increasing need.

In 2015 we are expanding the situations where someone can be involuntarily committed to a mental instititution because they are a danger to themselves or others. We have tried to reduce utilization as part of balancing the budget and this may have turned out to be a bad decision. We are looking at speeding this up, but it’s expensive.

There is concern about a category of patients called “felony flips.” These folks are arrested for a significant crime and send to a mental hospital for evaluation. THey are found to be so ill that they cannot stand trial because the law views them as not competent to make decisions and don’t know right from wrong. They are then sent to the “civil” side of the hospital to be evaluated for long-term residence under the involuntary committment act, but aren’t quite sick enough for this. They get released and some of them tend to commit additional felonies and the cycle repeats. We’re looking at synchronizing the tests so that someone who is not competent to stand trial would be much more likely to be committed if they commit a felony. This is expensive, and may require us to open a new ward at bost Western and Eastern State.

Transportation

Rep. Judy Clibborn, Chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, released a plan for a transportation package funded through a gas tax increase.  There is a lot of interest in funding improvements to our transportation infrastructure.  I share this interest and will be happy to support a package that does the following:

  1. Funds completion of the west end of 520. We’ve always assumed that this would require imposing tolls on I-90, but I’m open to other solutions. I can’t see how we would pass a state-wide program that didn’t finish this project key to our economy.
  2. Balances our need for investment in roads, bridges, etc. with allowing counties and transit agencies to adequately fund the transit options we increasingly need in our more urban district. A larger and larger fraction of commuters are coming to Microsoft and downtown Bellevue on the bus and we need to make sure we don’t lose this due to Metro’s revenue problem.
  3. Invests in several key projects in the district, or that affect our district in deep ways – the 405 expansion project and several interchange upgrades in Bellevue and Redmond.

I’m not willing to approve new revenue for transportation before we finish work on the operating budget and have mapped out and approved funding for public education and the McCleary expansion as I think it’s a distraction from our paramount duty.

I have other thoughts here as well – the $25 bike fee seems a little silly and hard to implement for a variety of reasons. One of my fellow legislators went viral this week with an email comment to a constitutent that bikers contributed to global warming because they breathed harder while riding and created a lot of carbon dioxide. Despite being ridiculous it probably killed the fee politically. We bikers need to contribute to the construction of infrastructure we use, but I’m not sure this is the best way to do it.

Other Bills of Interest

Constituents have written in about a large number of bills. Those that have gotten substantial interest are:

  • 1229 – Spay Neuter Assistance. The bill collects a fee per bag of animal food in order to pay for spaying and neutering pets for low-income owners. This would help to reduce the feral populations, but didn’t make it out of the agriculture and natural resources committee.
  • 4001 – A resolution to Congress asking them to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizen’s United case and restrict campaign contributions. I agree that the decision allowed a flood of money into campaings in often unsavory ways, but I’m not sure that sending Congress a letter is going to do much. They can’t even pass a budget, let alone compromise over how elections should be run in a civilzed manner. I’d probably suport it if it came up, but I don’t see it getting them to act.
  • 1404 – the Reproductive Parity Act. I received a lot of mail about this bill that enusres that women in Washington will continue to be able to receive reproductive care after the implementation of the ACA.  It passed the House a few weeks ago and is in the Senate. I beleive the votes exist to pass the bill but the odd political power arrangement over there may hinder its passage.

About Ross

I'm proud to represent Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, Medina, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, and Yarrow Point in the Washington State House of Representatives. I am chairman of the Appropriations Committee, responsible for crafting biennial budgets. I also chair the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.
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