April 2, 2023
Greetings from Olympia! Since my previous report the Senate has voted on two budgets, and another important deadline has come and gone. Also, we’re now just three weeks away from the scheduled end of the session. That means the biggest decisions are just around the corner, and most all of them fall into the public-safety category one way or another.
In the meantime, the state Supreme Court weighed in on what Republicans have viewed as the new state income tax. It’s hard to figure out how the justices came up their ruling – keep reading for that.
One ‘yes,’ one ‘no’ on Senate budgets
Let’s take the budgets first. The capital budget is mostly about construction – building, fixing and remodeling things – and other physical assets, like parks, land for recreation and wildlife habitat, and facilities for community activities. It is rarely controversial and often is passed unanimously.
I don’t know exactly how the Democrats go about providing input for that budget, but in the Senate Republican caucus we offer a list of requests based on discussions with constituents, and our capital-budget team fits in as many requests as it can.
I voted yes for the Senate’s version of the capital budget for 2023-25 (SB 5200), which contains nearly $10 million for projects throughout our legislative district. The biggest single item for our area is a major investment in behavioral health capacity, but there also would be support for library improvements, fish-passage projects, parks, recreational facilities, local schools and much more.
From a statewide perspective, the Senate capital budget would invest more than $500 million toward affordable housing, via the state’ Housing Trust Fund. That’s a far better approach to dealing with Washington’s shortage of housing (for prospective buyers, renters and people who are without homes) than the $4 billion housing referendum the governor has been pitching.
I haven’t looked in detail at what the House capital budget would offer locally, but over the next few weeks the negotiations between the two chambers will produce a final package for us to consider again.
The Senate operating budget is a different story. I like the fact that the majority Democrats were very inclusive of Republican ideas this time around, and as a result, the budget reflects our strong emphasis on restoring public safety, dealing with the affordability crisis and supporting some specific needs in K-12. As a member of the education committee, I am particularly glad to see a significant investment toward addressing K-12 learning loss ($70 million) and the extraordinary level of additional support it offers to special-education students and their families ($800 million!).
I also appreciate that the spending increase in the Senate budget is kept to 8% — which is still a lot, but far less than the average growth in spending over the past few cycles. Also, it balances without new taxes, and leaves a solid amount in reserve. Republicans deserve much of the credit for that restraint, which is tremendously important considering the uncertain times ahead for our state economy.
In the end, however, I had to withhold my support for this budget, even though it passed with a strong bipartisan vote. The $500,000 in the Senate budget for yet another state study involving the four lower Snake River dams was the main deal-breaker. To quote my southeast Washington neighbor, 9th District Sen. Mark Schoesler, the Snake River dams in Washington have to be the “most studied dams in America.” Because they are federal dams, however, the state has no control over their future. I see no point in sinking taxpayer dollars into having the Department of Ecology look at how to support irrigation in our region should the dams be removed – because they should not be removed.
On top of that, there’s nothing in the budget to address the issue I and other Republican senators tried to get at with Senate Bill 5728. The state (Ecology, again) has failed to implement an exemption that would protect farmers, trucking companies, and barge operators from the higher costs connected to the majority Democrats’ so-called “Climate Commitment Act.”
As with the capital budget, the Senate and House will negotiate a final version of the 2023-25 operating budget for each legislator to consider. And within the next week we should see proposed transportation budgets from the two chambers.
Major public-safety decisions still at hand
I’m very concerned that majority Democrats in the House are trying to derail the effort to strengthen Washington’s drug-possession law after two years of a disastrous social experiment.
Early this month I was among the majority in the Senate to support Senate Bill 5536, which would make possession and use of hard drugs a gross misdemeanor. In 2021, Democrats responded to the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision by knocking possession of fentanyl, meth, heroin and other controlled substances down to only a misdemeanor (from a felony) and only then on the third offense!
That lax approach is why so many people across Washington are dying from overdoses, and our homelessless situation is among the worst in the country. There’s no real leverage to compel people to seek and complete substance-use treatment.
This past week brought the deadline for policy committees in both chambers to complete their work. Before voting to move SB 5536 forward, the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee changed the bill to preserve much of what is in the failed current law – like a misdemeanor charge, and no mandatory penalty for failing to get treatment. That’s a huge disappointment.
Here’s the catch, with the end of the session coming soon. The weaker law passed in 2021 expires in July, and without a new law to replace it, the possession of hard drugs will automatically become legal in our state. Our families and communities cannot afford to have the Democrats fail them again.
The effort to reform Washington’s police-pursuit law, which was also seriously weakened by majority Democrats in 2021, is faring somewhat better. SB 5352 moved forward from the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee this past week, with minor changes. Although I didn’t support SB 5352 in the Senate, as it would not get at the auto-theft epidemic in our state, it’s still somewhat harder on criminals than the current law. I would consider voting yes if the bill comes back to the Senate.
The question is whether the bill will reach the floor of the House for a vote – because if not, there’s no chance of another vote in the Senate. This falls on the speaker of the House, because she already blocked a vote on a bipartisan pursuit-reform bill from House members. We’ll know the answer by April 12 when the deadline for the House to vote on Senate bills (and vice versa) arrives.
Amazingly, Supreme Court overturns 2022 ruling,
upholds new ‘excise’ tax on capital-gains income
On March 24 our state’s highest court weighed in on whether the capital-gains tax passed by the majority Democrats in 2021 is constitutional. I never saw the tax as being legal, and a superior-court judge had tossed it out a year ago. But our Democratic attorney general disagreed and appealed the decision.
Arguments in the case were made here in Olympia in late January. By a 7-2 vote, a majority of the justices bought the argument that the capital-gains tax is not an income tax but an excise tax. Washington is now alone in taking that position, as the rest of the world views the income from capital gains as taxable income.
The silver lining here is that the court did not hand the majority Democrats the prize that was admittedly behind their adoption of the tax two years ago: a ruling that would declare income is property, which would open the door to a full-blown income tax in our state. But watch out: the tax now is 7% on the portion of capital-gains income over $250,000, and doesn’t apply to assets like real estate. No one should expect it to stay like that, as Democrats can begin changing the rules to make more people pay the tax. We also should look for another attempt to get the income-tax question before this particular court.
Participating in YOUR state government
Now that legislators are back to meeting in person, there are many events, hearings and activities happening on the Capitol Campus. Additionally, we will continue to offer virtual options which may be more convenient. To help you navigate the legislative website and external resources, I have provided the following frequently used links to make your participation in the legislative process a little easier:
Watch legislative hearings, floor sessions and press conferences – https://www.tvw.org/
Testify in a committee – https://leg.wa.gov/legislature/Pages/Testify.aspx
Provide remote testimony – https://leg.wa.gov/House/Committees/Pages/RemoteTestimony-RegisterToTestify.aspx
Comment on a bill – https://app.leg.wa.gov/pbc/
Visit my website – https://perrydozier.src.wastateleg.org/
Senate Page Program. If you know a teen (between the ages of 14-16) interested in spending a week in Olympia learning about our state government, have them apply here – https://leg.wa.gov/Senate/Administration/PageProgram/Pages/default.aspx
Please remember I am here to serve you. Although we may not always be able to meet face to face, I encourage you to reach out to my office and to share your thoughts, ideas and concerns on matters of importance to you. Please, if you don’t already, follow me on Facebook. I look forward to hearing from you.