The Ritzville Adams County Journal - Eastern Adams County's Only Independent Voice Since 1887

Legislative Commentary

 

September 27, 2018



I like a “win-win” idea as much as anyone, and its all the better when the idea has to do with farming, and the source of the idea is WSU.

So I was happy to see the recent write-up in the Spokesman-Review featuring longtime WSU faculty member Tim Murray and the research he’s doing in south Spokane County on using fly ash to improve soil quality.

I’ve known Tim for a long time, at least back to when he was doing work on perennial wheat. His project, which is another example of the world-class thinking coming out of our state’s land-grant university, could benefit agriculture while repurposing something that would otherwise go into the landfill. I look forward to his findings.

Washington exports on an upswing: Speaking of agriculture, a recent presentation from the state’s chief economist had some positive news about Washington’s trade growth. Led by an increase in agricultural exports, overall exports from our state have been on the rise for the past three quarters after 10 quarters of decline.

The report also detailed how, through July, the rate of overall job growth in Washington was twice the rate nationally. Out of seven categories, the strongest growth was in information (technology) and retail/trade.

Unfortunately, one category is lagging: manufacturing, where job growth in our state is at half the rate seen nationally.

You may recall that in 2017, a strong bipartisan vote by the Legislature would have reduced the business-tax rate on non-aerospace manufacturing, which would have encouraged manufacturers in the 9th District and statewide to grow.

But then Governor Jay Inslee and his veto pen got in the way of that sensible and fair tax-reduction agreement, and now we’re seeing the fallout.

Revenue “boom” continues: The chief economist will present his office’s next quarterly revenue forecast this coming Wednesday.

In the meantime, this past week brought the latest report of monthly revenue collections, and things are still booming: $72 million higher than expected. Over the past 3 months an additional $146 million has come in, compared to the predictions.

To quote the chief economist, consumer confidence “remains at an elevated level” while “small business optimism and sales expectations remain above pre-recession levels.”

To me, it’s also clear that the tax-policy changes made in Washington, D.C., are already showing positive results, as much as those on the political left in Olympia might not want to admit that.

I suspect some in the Legislature will see these numbers as an opportunity to push more money to K-12 education, seeing how a number of school districts have set themselves up for red ink by approving generous new contracts with teachers.

They ought to remember we have ongoing obligations to strengthen the state’s behavioral health services, like offsetting the $53 million lost to the Inslee administration’s poor management of Western State Hospital.

And as a fiscal conservative, I’d like to see more interest in providing tax relief, like another try at a fairer tax rate for non-aerospace manufacturing.

More on the cost of new teacher contracts: The Select Committee on Pension Policy met at the Capitol this past week, and as my previous commentary suggested, the agenda included the effect of K-12 pay raises on the state-run retirement system.

The committee staff did two sets of calculations, on across-the-board increases of 10 percent and 15 percent, and confirmed that “contribution rates would increase because the larger salary growth will lead to larger pension benefits which were not pre-funded throughout a member’s career.”

We were advised to be cautious about sharing potential effects until school districts supply actual salary figures, but the staff is still looking at an added general-fund cost totaling $2.8 billion. That doesn’t count the larger contributions to be made by the employer (school districts) and employees.

As we’re seeing in the Spokane Public Schools, the costs of these raises aren’t just in the long-term/pension category.

After projecting that its new teacher contracts (offering raises averaging 13.3 percent) would cause a budget deficit, the Spokesman-Review is now reporting that SPS is looking to reduce costs by reducing staff by attrition, not replacing people who retire or leave, and maybe through early-retirement offers as well.

Drop in workers’ comp rates proposed: The Department of Labor and Industries, which administers the state-run industrial insurance system known as workers’ compensation, has proposed a 5 percent reduction in average workers’ comp rates for 2019.

The proposal will go out for public hearings next month, and if the change is adopted, it would be the largest drop in rates since 2007. That would be welcome news for employers who have no choice but to pay into a system that is effectively a state-run monopoly.

The proposed decrease would have Washington workers and employers, as a group, paying $136 million less in premiums. Employers would see an average savings of about $58 less a year per employee, and employees would pay about $6 less a year for their share of the cost.

According to L&I, the reasons for the proposed reduction include a drop in workplace injuries (10 percent decrease since 2012); success with the Stay at Work Program, which pays some of the costs for employers to keep injured workers in light-duty jobs until they fully recover; reduced opioid use; and vocational support earlier in the claim.

New Fish and Wildlife director aboard: My meetings over in Olympia this month included an introductory visit from Kelly Susewind, who began as director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife in August.

He isn’t new to Washington or to state government, having spent 28 years with the Department of Ecology. That’s a contrast to the former DFW director, who had come from Idaho after 30 years with that state’s fish and game department, and resigned after just three years here.

As someone who enjoys hunting and fishing, and serves a district that has a share of Washington’s growing wolf population, I have reasons to keep an eye on WDFW beyond my position as Senate Republican leader.

Between WDFW’s wolf management and its recent proposal for a 15 percent jump in recreational hunting and fishing license fees, there was no shortage of things to bring up with the new director.

Register to vote, apply for Senate internships: October 8 is the deadline for online and mail-in voter registration, all address changes, name changes, and other updates. If you’d rather register in person, Oct. 29 is the final day to do so if you want to vote in the November 6 general election.

October 9 is the preferred deadline for college juniors and seniors to apply for the Senate intern program for the 2019 legislative session. Besides earning credits, interns get a unique look at the legislative process: it’s a civics lesson like no other.

For more information visit the intern program website, at http://leg.wa.gov/Internships/Pages/default.aspx. The final deadline to apply is Oct. 16.

 

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