Salmon saver or farm killer? Either way, it’s in trouble

Here’s what’s happening on Day 19 of the 2022 session of the Washington Legislature.

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2022 Washington Legislature, Day 19 of 60

Everett Herald political reporter Jerry Cornfield: | @dospueblos

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OLYMPIA, Jan. 28 — Happy Friday. Welcome to the end of Week 3.

The pace is quickening as lawmakers face a Feb. 3 deadline to get their policy bills out of committees. If they fail, it’s wait till next year.

Gov. Jay Inslee knows he’s suffering at least one setback. One of his major initiatives to boost salmon recovery — dubbed the “farm-killer” bill by opponents — is dead. At least as written.

House Bill 1838, also known as the Lorraine Loomis Act, called for creating large buffer zones along the edges of rivers, streams and waterways. It aimed to improve the ecosystem for salmon by keeping those areas free of development, ag operations and other uses.

It ran into a wall of opposition too high for the athletic governor to scale.

“I don’t think there’s cause for optimism on that one as currently drafted,” he told reporters Thursday. He hopes a revised version will emerge, such as one requiring mapping “the areas where it makes most sense to restore habitat along the river bed.”

Critics in the agricultural world didn’t argue with the goal. They got seriously peeved Inslee wrote it without talking to them. They would have told him the breadth of its impact.

As Don Jenkins reported in the Capital Press, the mandatory riparian buffers he proposed could consume more than 11,000 acres of farmland in Skagit County and nearly 5,000 acres in Lewis County. There’s 37 other counties.

Warning: Red ink ahead

“We have more money going out than we have money coming in.”

Those worrisome words came from Carole Holland, chief financial officer of the Employment Security Department, as she described the financial plight of the state’s paid family program to representatives of employee unions and business groups. She delivered the same bleak news to legislators in recent days.

“I’m looking at cash on a daily basis to make sure we can pay benefits,” she told them. “We were excited because we got some employee premiums in the last two days.”

Here’s the agency slide presentation.

Inslee knew trouble loomed. He earmarked a sum in his proposed supplemental budget to keep the program out of the red. It could get there as early as March.

Lawmakers said they didn’t know. They’ll likely have to put in a larger amount to ensure a longer period of stability, then find a long-term solution.

Thanks, but no thanks

Most of those getting drug possession convictions erased due to the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision are owed money for fines they paid.

Sen. Manka Dhingra wants the Department of Revenue to be the “refund bureau” where they can go to get their dough. She wrote it into Senate Bill 5663, which aims to provide a road map for handling cases and refunds.

But agency leaders don’t want to do it.

They say their team is tapped out with other big chores like setting up the Working Families Tax Credit and capital gains tax. Inslee — to whom they answer — is backing them up.

“We do not have the bandwidth to also take on a refund bureau,” Steve Ewing, Revenue’s legislative liaison, said during a Senate hearing on the bill this week. “And if something as complex and important as the refund bureau is to function as intended and serve Washingtonians expeditiously, it needs to be housed in the right department.”

Dhingra isn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer. The Law and Justice Committee passed the bill 9-0.

“I completely understand the bandwidth issue — unfortunately everyone in government these days is thinly stretched and struggling with the same resource issues,” she wrote back to Ewing.

Ballot drop box battle ends

When the Legislature passed a law in 2017 requiring more ballot drop boxes, the counties put them in. Then they billed the state for reimbursement. But counties didn’t get paid and subsequently sued, arguing that the law violated Washington’s unfunded-mandate statute.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state. In a unanimous ruling, they said it was not an unfunded mandate and the state only needs to pay a portion of the tab of the 39 counties, as is done with other election costs.

“The Counties’ claim of entitlement to full reimbursement pursuant to the unfunded mandate statute is best described as a mere expectation,” Justice Mary Yu wrote for the majority.

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