Mind of state

State Legislature screws monorail, loves scooters, and other tales.

YOU KNOW THINGS are ugly when Democrats slash $180 million in social services, freeze state workers' wages, and chop $90 million out of education. That's just part of the fun that was the 2002 state Legislature. After many years, Democrats finally achieved their goals of controlling the House, the Senate, and the governor's mansion, only to be faced with a recession that blew a hole, projected to be around $1.6 billion, in the state budget. Recognizing the political peril of passing significant new taxes during a populist tax revolt, the Dems had to rely on the aforementioned cuts and gimmicks: We're taking $450 million in tobacco-settlement cash up front instead of around $1 billion later, and pumping up gambling by joining the Big Game, a multistate lottery.

There were other stories the Legislature told, including some outrageous highway robbery (see "Highways to Hell," p. 14). Here's a wrap-up on some of the bills we were following this session.

LOSER: MONORAIL

Everybody loves the monorail. Make that everybody except state Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, who plugged a sneaky little poison pill into the bill allowing Seattleites to tax themselves to expand the monorail. McDonald's amendment ties the monorail's taxing authority to the success of his pet project, Interstate 405. Under the language of the bill, Seattle voters can only vote to tax themselves to pay for the monorail if voters in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties approve new taxes for road projects in the three-county area. The biggest component of the regional bill: $1.77 billion for that $7.5 billion behemoth, I-405.

Belatedly recognizing McDonald's ploy, monorail advocates, including state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, had no choice but to throw themselves on the mercy of Gov. Gary Locke, pleading with him to excise the offending clause from the legislation before signing it; at press time, there was no word on whether he'd decided to do so or leave the fate of Seattle's monorail shackled to the Eastside's monster road.

WINNER: TOBACCO COMPANIES

In six months last year, tobacco companies handed out more than 30,000 free packs of cigarettes at 800 events in the state of Washington. The state Liquor Control Board, charged with ensuring that free cigarette samples don't end up in the hands of minors, inspected just seven of these "sampling" events, saying it lacked the resources to effectively enforce a state law that limits sampling to adults-only venues. A bill that would have banned the practice statewide died in the House Rules committee when state Rep. Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla, protested that the ban would hurt the rodeo in his district by cutting off a critical revenue source—sampling fees from snuff and chew producers, who hand out their products to rodeo patrons.

LOSER: QWEST

Qwest learned there are limits to lawmakers' enmity for Sound Transit. A Qwest-backed bill would have forced the transit agency to pay as much as $20 million to move the telecom giant's fiber-optic lines when the agency builds its light-rail line through the Rainier Valley. Fortunately, the bill died unceremoniously in both houses in February. Lawmakers were reportedly concerned about the precedent the bill would set, potentially forcing other transit agencies to pick up the tab for Qwest's relocation expenses throughout the state. Undaunted by critics, Qwest threatened to raise its rates for customers in Washington to pay to move its lines in Tacoma and Seattle— an announcement that must have come as news to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which has to approve all utility rate increases.

WINNER: THE SEGWAY SCOOTER

The Segway Scooter zipped right through the state Legislature, only encountering a little pothole in Edmonds. The Legislature says it's legal for the battery-driven transporter to go just about anywhere its two wheels can carry it—including streets and sidewalks—which no doubt provides a handy selling point for the company marketing the gizmo. But riders had best check their local ordinances before heading out into traffic. Thanks to a last-minute amendment by state Rep. Mike Cooper, D-Edmonds, the Segway legislation gives cities and park authorities the right to regulate where and when the scooters can be ridden within their jurisdictions. So while the state places no prohibitions on the scooter, it also doesn't prohibit the locals from curtailing use of the Segway any way they choose. Here in Seattle, a little City Hall peace brokering will probably be needed to appease the Segway-unfriendly Pedestrian Advisory Board.

LOSER: SMALL BUSINESS

Small businesses, which rarely lay off workers, got socked with higher unemployment insurance premiums so companies that have recently given thousands the pink slip—Boeing and other manufacturers—can avoid paying more for unemployment.

The state had been predicting that it would need to raise the unemployment tax because the fund is being drained by the swelling jobless ranks—a hike that could have taken another $340 million annually from Washington businesses.

The Legislature came up with a more politically palatable solution. It raised rates for specific employers to avoid a general rate increase that would have cost Boeing the big bucks, kicking in special job-training benefits for former aerospace employees to boot.

Naturally, Boeing supports the changes, claiming that the state-managed program, which dispenses benefits to laid-off workers from a trust fund paid into by employers, was taking more from the Lazy B than its terminated employees took out.

Some companies that will pay more—construction firms, notably—were arguably due a tax hike. Others just took one for the team.

WINNER: CIVIL LIBERTIES

It came down to the wire, but in the end, civil liberties won out. The House and Senate could not agree on and pass a final version of SB 6704, an "anti-terrorism" bill that would have added new crimes and penalties (including a new class of death penalty) and vastly expanded the state's ability to conduct wiretaps and surveillance. The House and Senate passed differing versions of the legislation, which expanded on similar provisions in the federal USA Patriot Act. It provoked strong opposi-tion from the ACLU and other civil liberties activists.

At the beginning of the session, a host of anti-terrorist bills, strongly backed by Gov. Gary Locke and Attorney General Christine Gregoire, promised to crack down on Washington's terrorists. Separate bills addressed wiretaps, expanded crimes and increased sentences, and weakened the state's public-disclosure laws. Only the public-disclosure legislation passed, and even that, after fierce lobbying by the Washington Newspaper Association, was left with virtually none of its original objectionable provisions.

The ACLU's Jerry Sheehan was ecstatic with the outcome. "In the end," he said when the session had ended Friday morning, "there was no political will or necessity for these bills."

Erica C. Barnett, Kevin Fullerton, Geov Parrish, and George Howland Jr. contributed to this report.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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