Mid-Columbia lawmakers looking out for the little guy

Geoff Folsom, Herald staff writerJanuary 12, 2014 

State Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, will be starting her first session as an elected legislator on Monday in Olympia.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Now that the state has spent billions to keep Boeing operations in Washington, Mid-Columbia legislators want to do more for small businesses.

State Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and other area lawmakers have some plans for the 60-day session of the state Legislature, which begins today.

Brown sponsored several bills to streamline business regulations during last year’s session. She plans to continue pushing for legislation to allow people applying for business licenses to fill out one form for multiple agencies, she said.

“It’s really frustrating to me that many agencies have these silos, and we need to bring these silos down and get the agencies working together,” she said. “There’s a lot of duplicate, redundant regulations out there.”

Brown is working with Kennewick Mayor Steve Young on a bill to help attract business and industry to the Tri-Cities, but said she can’t give any more information yet because she is still looking for supporters.

Washington has a $40 billion agriculture industry, is the country’s fourth largest exporting state and has large employers like Boeing and Microsoft, but still has the country’s 29th lowest unemployment rate at 6.8 percent, Brown said.

“It gave a $9 billion tax break to Boeing, what are we going to do with the rest of the businesses in the state?” Brown asked. “Small businesses are the backbone of this country. We’re quashing our entrepreneurial spirit by not fostering the smaller companies.”

The issues the state faced when Boeing considered moving production of its 777X jumbo jet out of Washington were telling, Brown said.

“When you have seven other states actively pursuing a company with the infrastructure of Boeing — if Boeing, with all the infrastructure needs and requirements — can even think about leaving the state, what about all the software companies that don’t have the needs and requirements?” she said. “They can just pick up and go tomorrow.”

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, agrees with the need to help small business. He plans to introduce a “Businessperson’s Bill of Rights” that would require the state to give any business being audited two months notice and explain why it is being audited.

“They are very heavy-handed with small business, they are almost anti-business,” Haler said of state agencies.

Businesses need predictability, like being able to know how long it will take them to get a permit, Brown said. She would also like to see business and operations tax breaks. By helping more small businesses, she believes the state will help create more tax revenue to go toward its obligations for education funding mandated by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary decision.

“We have a substantial amount of money we have to put in K-12 and one of the ways to do that is to grow the economy,” she said.

State Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, blasted the Supreme Court’s order for lawmakers to move faster on implementing McCleary.

“They’re acting like elected officials,” she said of the justices. “They’re acting like they want to write a budget ... maybe they ought to run for office and become a legislator if they want to write the budget.”

Other legislation

Other lawmakers are planning to file some bills this session.

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, will introduce a proposal to allow any city or county in the state to ban the sale of recreational marijuana in its jurisdiction, he said.

He has heard the discussions in several Mid-Columbia communities that have passed moratoriums on marijuana sales while they struggle to determine differences between state law, which will allow legal marijuana sales, and federal law, which continues to outlaw it.

“The cities of Richland, Kennewick, Pasco or West Richland can say it may be legal everywhere else, but not here,” he said. “There would be more local control.”

Klippert also wants to see a pilot program allowing flexible school scheduling in districts including Paterson and Bickleton to be offered to districts across the state. Those schools went to a four-day school week in 2009.

Fagan has a hearing scheduled Tuesday on a bill she filed that would require more stringent examinations of sex offenders.

“This bill will give another tool to the attorney general when they’re considering the release of sexually violent predators,” she said.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, will reintroduce a bill that would work with the University of Washington to set up a residency program for primary care doctors in the Tri-Cities, he said.

The bill, which would bring at least 18 students to the area, would require $6 million from the state with the rest covered by tuition, he said.

The program would help alleviate the shortage of doctors in the area, Haler said.

Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said the state will also have to make adjustments if the federal government tweaks the Affordable Health Care Act.

Transportation package

Mid-Columbia legislators, all Republicans, are not optimistic about passing a transportation revenue package.

The Republican-majority Senate declined to vote on a package last year that would have funded $10 billion in transportation projects by raising gas taxes by more than 10 cents per gallon.

Finding a way to make the state’s transportation more efficient will be key to winning Republican support, Klippert said.

Brown, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, was frustrated last year by tales of pontoons on the Highway 520 floating bridge in Seattle, as well as corruption involving a proposed Columbia River bridge between Vancouver and Portland, she said. And that was before the giant tunneling machine Bertha stopped working while digging a new Highway 99 tunnel.

“I think we need to do major reforms, and that’s where revenue can come from for a transportation package,” she said.

And 60 days won’t be enough to make reforms to the Washington State Department of Transportation, Haler said.

“I think that reforming transportation needs would take a couple years,” Haler said.

Klippert doesn’t expect Gov. Jay Inslee to muster enough votes to pass a transportation bill this year.

“I believe that if he knew he had the votes to get it through, he would have called a special session,” Klippert said.

Not a major session

Some legislators are pleased that the session is only 60 days this year.

Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said lawmakers might even finish their business a couple of days before the session’s scheduled March 13 conclusion.

“We just need to get the (supplemental) budget taken care of and wait until next year, which is a big year,” he said. “It’s going to be a fast-paced year, we only need a couple weeks to hear the bills, then we move on to the House bills.”

Legislators would be better off finishing their work so they can start concentrating on their 2014 re-election bids, and not thinking of this as a year for major legislation, Walsh said.

“It’s not the year to do that,” she said. “If we can stick to our guns about that philosophy and get out of Dodge, we’ll do our constituents a favor.”

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the Legislature is in good shape because it doesn’t have a deficit to work its way out of like it did in 2013.

“We don’t have a need to be here spending the taxpayers’ money more than 60 days,” he said.

But Brown said much can get done in the shorter session — it just takes planning.

“I’ve been working on a lot of this from the last day of the last session,” she said. “I think if you wait for the first day of the session, it’s too late. Things need to already be in the pipeline, you need to be negotiating.”

— Herald legislative reporter Matt Benoit contributed to this story.

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