Surplus leaves most lawmakers smiling

OLYMPIA – Nearly every lawmaker and lobbyist left the 2006 Legislature with a smile.

They have victories to share with constituents and clients, because few departed Olympia worse off than when they arrived in January.

Thank the $1.6 billion surplus for that.

A year after increasing taxes to balance the budget, legislators had the cash to pay unforeseen bills, invest in education, expand health care programs, launch a new biofuel industry and provide business tax breaks.

“It made it easier,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said as the session ended Wednesday night. “We are lucky, because the economy is growing.”

With money to spend, they could repeal the nursing home bed fee and the $5 parking charge at state parks. Both take effect as soon as Gov. Chris Gregoire signs the measures.

There was also enough money to buy peace on two long-standing issues:

* $200 million for water storage facilities and commitment to managing resources on the Columbia River.

* Laid-off workers will see unemployment benefits rise, and businesses will see unemployment taxes decline.

The surplus also spurred spending for more inmate beds at state prisons and more classrooms at community colleges, including Everett Community College.

State Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said: “Everyone across the board was a winner. This was a great session for citizens of Washington state.”

Nonstop action

Lawmakers sustained a furious pace during the session, opening with a floor fight on sex offenders in the House of Representatives.

“We hit the road running and just kept going,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everet.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature teamed up with Dem- ocratic Gov. Gregoire to carry out an agenda of progressive policies topped by a new law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“In a short session, we were able to accomplish so much,” said Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds. “I think both parties believe we did a good thing.”

The Republicans’ oft-repeated concern was over the level of spending. They wanted more of the surplus saved.

“Taxpayers didn’t come out too good in this because of the significant increased spending,” said Rep. Chris Strow, R-Clinton.

Though the rural district of Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, fared well, he worries about the future. Programs started this year will require more spending next year. “Long term, I’m very concerned,” he said.

Gregoire asserted herself throughout the session. For example, she helped unite doctors and lawyers on a breakthrough pact to find a long-term solution to medical malpractice insurance rates. Though criticized by Republicans as “minimal” for its lack of immediate payoff, it signified her willingness to use her bully pulpit to legislate.

She did it often, the last time on regional transportation, huddling for hours with lawmakers in the waning hours of the session. They crafted a law with the goal of getting road and transit projects built in a coordinated fashion in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

Gregoire was an impassioned proponent of an emerging biofuel industry during the session, meeting often with lawmakers to have the state pay for equipment while guaranteeing a market for producers of biodiesel and ethanol. The budget pledges $25 million for the effort.

“All the things I knew would probably come up, we passed them. I mean, gay rights, whoa!” said Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park. “I’ve seen three governors, and Gregoire is the first I’ve seen that acts like a governor. That woman takes over.”

Defeats and victories

The list of losers is short.

NASCAR was one. Proponents of a Kitsap County stock-car racetrack couldn’t even start a conversation on state help, because none of the 147 lawmakers would listen.

Big Tobacco was another loser. Companies can no longer give away free product samples.

Convicted sex offenders will now face longer prison sentences, more monitoring and fewer places where they can live and visit as a result of a plethora of new laws.

The Seattle SuperSonics came away empty-handed, but their friends in Olympia invited them back in 2007 if they can work things out with the landlord of KeyArena.

Quantitatively, legislators introduced more than 2,300 bills, and more than 200 new laws are headed to Gregoire’s desk.

Legislators outlawed a fetish and a thrill by criminalizing bestiality and hanging off the back of a moving boat.

They boosted penalties for those convicted repeatedly for drunken driving; those convicted for the fifth time in 10 years will be charged with a felony. Meth cooks will spend more time in jail, and the places where they cook will be cleaned up faster.

Attempts to bestow official state recognition on the Garry oak and the Lady Washington tall ship failed.

Making the Walla Walla sweet onion the official state vegetable began a stink from those wanting the designation for the potato. Senators amended the original law to make the onion the official “edible bulb” and the russet potato the official “tuber.” Still, it failed.

Advocates for the military and poor did not get the crackdown on payday lenders they sought. But lawmakers beefed up funding to help veterans get into college, find a job and buy a home. They also poured another $500,000 into health services, including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

For seniors and families surviving on low incomes, the state increased aid to help them pay their heating bills and prescription drugs. State-run health care programs for the poor will add several thousand more children and adults.

Organized labor failed to win passage of its “fair share” bill targeting Wal-Mart. Labor did win collective bargaining rights for child-care providers and instructors at Western Washington University.

Education was among the biggest victors. Teachers received larger than expected pay raises, high school students will get help passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests, and college-bound students will have more opportunities to into two- or four-year colleges or vocational programs.

Also new will be a Cabinet-level Department of Early Learning, which will unify disparate departments that now provide services to infants and young children.

“We’ve laid a solid foundation for building early learning opportunities for young children in this state,” said Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park.

Those looking to improve the conduct of elections won a key victory with an agreement to move the primary up a month, from September to August starting in 2007. A bill allowing online voter registration failed.

Cities and counties did not get their top priority – a restructuring of how sales and use taxes are distributed in the state. But they secured changes in land-use and housing policies, and the transportation budget steers millions of dollars into communities for road improvements.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, seemed impressed by what transpired.

“Usually you’re semisuccessful around here,” he said. “We got the toughest sex offender law in the world; we did biodiesel; we got $900 million in the bank; and we did great things for education.”

Writer Blythe Lawrence contributed to this report.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield; 360-352-8623 or

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