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Sudden Death? 

A look at some of the stuff Washington lawmakers were scrimmaging over in the fourth quarter.

The regular session of the Washington State Legislature finally concluded at 1 o’clock on Monday morning. After 105 days, lawmakers had finally passed what they were calling the most difficult budget in state history, with a $9 billion shortfall looming and no increased taxes to help stanch the countless cuts.

Only 10 hours later, Gov. Chris Gregoire called for a special session of the Legislature to finish up the business they didn’t get to — possibly including four bills dealing with education and corrections that will have an effect on the state’s budget outlook. Sen. Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) said a special session could potentially last only a day or two. (As of press time, no details had been announced.)

In the meantime, here’s a quick look at some of the big, non-budget stuff that did go down in Olympia before the crack of dawn on Monday. 

SALES TAX

Sen. Lisa Brown seeded a political storm last month when she mentioned the possibility of an income tax for high earners. The idea went nowhere. Then the Legislature floated the idea of a sales tax to help buy back some slashed programs. The notion appeared to have some legs. But not for long. In the end, the governor will likely get just the kind of budget she promised on the campaign trail, with no new taxes (but lots of oozing wounds).

“Polling indicated there was no appetite for [taxes,]” says Sen. Chris Marr (D-Spokane). “These cuts were not real to people. It’s going to take some time. Maybe by next year, they’ll understand what [it] means, because they’ll be paying the next semester of tuition, their insurance premiums [will be] going up because of [cuts to] the basic health plan. We did a disservice by talking about the revenue piece before people understood the cuts piece … The average taxpayer is kind of curled up in a fetal position.”

GREEN LAWS

Early in the session, Senate Democrats rolled out a huge package of green bills dealing with everything from weather-stripping to providing incentives for solar energy and tax breaks for electric cars. It didn’t all pan out. And though the governor’s bill to create a cap-and-trade system may get more play in a special session, it croaked in the regular session (even losing the cap-and-trade provision).

Brown sees a silver lining. “We did get our top priority out and that was the Green Jobs bill,” she says. “That’s going to be good, and Spokane Alliance was involved in that bill. Spokane will be a site where we will be able to get going on these energy audits for neighborhoods and small businesses.” She adds that the bill will both help lower utility rates and train workers in energy audits. 

NOVELTY LIGHTERS

Pre-session, the media was abuzz about a bill that aimed to ban so-called “novelty lighters.” Usually, these kinds of novelty bills make headlines for a week or two, then quietly disappear. Not this one. Senate Bill 5011, which gives local fire districts the authority to ban lighters that have “features that are attractive to children including visual effects, flashing lights, musical sounds and toy-like designs,” made it to the governor’s desk on April 22. Hopefully Gregoire won’t close the loophole for non-musical sounds. (Nobody touches my John Cage Zippo).

EDUCATION REFORM

Even as the state Legislature took liberal bites out of the budget for K-12 education, it passed some of the most sweeping, definitive schools legislation in decades. The new rules would create longer school days, new performance standards for teachers, all-day kindergarten and more credits for high schoolers, among other things. The bill won bipartisan support, but not from Sen. Marr.

“Let’s not re-define basic education until we can pay for stuff we’re already committed to,” he says. “You don’t re-arrange the furniture when the lights are out.” 

GAY NOT-QUITE-MARRIAGE

After years of pushing for gay marriage, legislators at last passed a bill that would provide nearly everything but marriage to domestic partners. “It is the Legislature’s intent that, for all purposes under state law, state registered domestic partners shall be treated the same as married spouses,” the bill’s summary reads. The bill passed the Senate 30-18 and the House 62-35. 

TRANSGENDER ATTACKS

Under Washington law, you can be prosecuted under hate crime laws for attacking someone based on their sexual orientation. But “sexual orientation” used to mean just “heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.” As of Gov. Gregoire’s bill signing last week, the definition now includes “gender expression or identity,” or “being perceived as having a gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression, whether or not [that] is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth.” (Wish we could’ve been in Olympia to see the Okanogan Republicans squirming over that sentence.) In other words, transgender people.

BREAST FEEDING

Washington mothers now have a civil right to breast feed their children “in any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement.” Bonus points if they can cross off all four.

PAYDAY LENDING

Some 15 bills were submitted in the Legislature this session to regulate, restrict or even prohibit payday lending. In the end, only two survived — one after an 11th-hour, back-and-forth death match between the body’s two chambers. The earlier bill, signed by the governor in March, restricts the way lenders can go after borrowers. The more contentious bill, if signed by Gregoire, would limit the amount a person can borrow and create an installment plan to help them pay it back.

OTHER STUFF

The Legislature also passed bills requiring licenses for piercers and body artists, allowing felons to vote once they’re out of jail and state supervision, and giving the state’s newspaper industry a 40 percent cut in the business and occupation tax through 2015. All three measures are pending approval from the governor.

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