Movement on Budget, Workers' Comp, Transportation Reform

As of press time on Tuesday morning it appears that the special session will end without a budget agreement (meaning a second special session looms) but it will close with a flurry of activity. Here’s a brief review:

Budget and taxes: Bottom line is that the Democrat-controlled House is easing up on some of its tax proposals while the Republican-leaning Senate is prepared to raise a little bit via taxes while insisting on certain reforms.

The state Senate approved a new operating budget over the weekend shortly after the House approved one of its own. But it’s unlikely that lawmakers from both chambers will reconcile their spending plans before the session’s deadline of midnight tonight. The new Senate budget includes some concessions on revenue — the Majority Coalition Caucus appears ready to end a tax break for residential phone services and make nonresidents apply for sales tax refunds — but only if the Democrat-controlled House agrees to pass important policy reform bills including workers’ compensation legislation (ESB 5127) that AGC has advocated. The Senate also wants the House to cap non-educational state spending give principals veto power over teachers assigned to their schools and approve a payday loan bill.

Meanwhile the House-passed operating budget drops some of the proposed tax hikes targeting employers including the “temporary” B&O tax on services but still raises taxes on bottled water companies travel agents prescription drug resellers fuel companies and high-tech employers.

Workers’ comp reform: The state Senate passed AGC-supported workers’ comp reform – again – by approving ESB 5127 with leaders from the Majority Coalition Caucus saying once again that workers’ comp reform is a key element in behind-the-scenes budget negotiations. The bill allows permanently disabled workers as young as 40 take lump-sum payments — called structured settlements — of their lifetime disability pensions. Without reform Washington employers will face $200 million surcharges each year for the next 10 years in order to make up a $2.2 billion shortfall in the state’s workers’ comp system.

Transportation reform: Little recent action has been taken with regard to transportation funding but the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge has called attention to the regulatory delays that accompany most projects. The I-5 bridge repair is moving quickly — a temporary bridge is on track to open next week — fueling interest among lawmakers to construct all highway projects with similar speed. Rep. Hans Zeiger has introduced legislation that would authorize expedited permitting and contracting for replacement work on Washington state’s structurally- deficient bridges.

“It takes way too long and costs way too much to replace a bridge in Washington state” said Zeiger R-Puyallup. “When it comes to replacing our aging and structurally-deficient bridges we urgently need to change the way we do business.” House Bill 2071 would expedite permitting and contracting for replacement work on Washington’s aging and deficient bridges and would likely bring down the costs and cut down the timeline for planning and construction.