March 2, 2015

posted in: Legisletter | 0

Today is the 50th day of the 105-day legislative session. Last Friday marked the second important milestone of the session – the cutoff for bills coming out of the fiscal committees.


This week the main focus will be on floor action in both the House and Senate. Legislators will be working to pass their bills before the next cutoff date which is March 11. Bills must be voted out of their house of origin by this date.


House to Take up Labor Bills

Late last Friday night, House Democratic leadership pulled a group of bills to the floor calendar from the Rules Committee. Three of these bills – HB 1354, 1355, and 1356 – involve issues that Washington Farm Bureau has opposed for years:

  • HB 1354, sponsored by Rep. Cindy Ryu (D-Seattle), would open employers to potential litigation and administrative penalties regarding employee claims of retaliation.
  • HB 1355, sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle), would phase in a $12/hour state minimum wage.
  • HB 1356, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma), would require employers with more than four FTEs to provide paid sick and safe leave to employees.

These bills will add costs, risks, and regulations on farmers, and Farm Bureau strongly opposes them.


Senate Passes Transportation Reform, Revenue Bills

Last Friday, the Senate debated and voted on eight transportation reform bills that are part of a package to fund maintenance of our current roadways and pay for new projects.


Washington Farm Bureau supported the reform bills because we believe substantive reforms to transportation budgeting and project delivery need to be enacted if legislators are going to ask rural residents to pay higher gas taxes.

The reform bills, all sponsored by Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), are as follows:

  • SB 5990 would end the practice of imposing a sales tax on new transportation projects. It passed 26-23 amid concerns by Democratic senators that it would siphon money away from the state general fund and education spending.
  • SB 5991 would use funds from the Environmental Legacy Stewardship Account to make stormwater and fish passage improvements. It passed 27-22.
  • SB 5992 would reform the process used to purchase future ferries. It passed 48-1.
  • SB 5993 would adjust apprenticeship levels and implement an electronic prevailing wage reporting system. The exclusions from prevailing wage for off-site project work were amended out of the bill on the floor. It passed 48-1.
  • SB 5994 would reform the permitting process for DOT projects, making it less cumbersome. The bill passed 39-19.  
  • SB 5995 would add congestion relief and freight mobility to the list of the state’s transportation goals. The bill passed 49-0.
  • SB 5996 would formalize and streamline certain environmental permitting processes at WSDOT and would require WSDOT report certain costly engineering errors to the Legislature. The bill passed 47-2.
  • SB 5997 would encourage WSDOT to use design-build construction for projects over $10 million, providing opportunity for cost savings and expedited project delivery. The bill passed 49-0.  

Following the passage of the reform bills, the Senate took up SB 5987, also sponsored by Sen. King. That bill would impose an 11.7-cent gas tax implemented in stages over the next three years (5 cents, 4.2 cents, and 2.5 cents), as well as increase in several fees. 

After amendments were adopted on Friday afternoon and the bill seemed slated for final passage, Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver), asked whether the bill needed a two-thirds supermajority vote under the Senate rules adopted at the start of session to advance it from second reading to third reading. Senate rules require this two-thirds vote on bills that impose “new taxes.” Sen. King stated that raising the gas tax was not imposing a new tax, merely adjusting an existing tax. Further action on the bill was delayed until Lt. Gov. Brad Owen could make an official ruling on the issue.

This morning, Lt. Gov. Owen issued his ruling, which held that portions of SB 5987 do indeed constitute new taxes and, under Senate rules, would require 33 votes for passage. His ruling was followed by another question posed by Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), who asked whether the two-thirds rule was constitutional. Lt. Gov. Owen responded that, given the most recent ruling by the Supreme Court on this issue, the rule was not constitutional and a simple majority is all that is required for raising taxes.


The Senate proceeded to vote on SB 5987, passing it in a bipartisan 27-22 vote. Also, the Senate passed SB 5988, which would appropriate the money raised by SB 5987. It passed 41-8. The final transportation revenue bill, SB 5989, which would authorize bonds for these transportation projects, still needs to be considered by the Senate.