Key bills and issues of interest to North Central Washington
It's still early in the 2013 legislative session but things are starting to shape up. Here are some of the key bills that have been introduced in the Senate to date.
According to testimony we heard this week from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, wolf populations are increasing rapidly in our state. A year ago, there were five confirmed wolf packs in the state; now there are up to 11 packs with a total of at least 51 wolves in the state and possibly as many as 100.
Wolves will remain protected under Washington's endangered species law until there are at least 15 packs for three years (or 18 packs for one year), with at least some packs in each of the state's three recovery regions. Right now, there are packs in two of the state's three regions.
There have been several bills introduced this session pertaining to wolf management. One lists wolves as a game species so that as recovery levels are met, immediate steps can be taken to manage the population. Another measure gives individuals the authority to kill an animal predator threatening human safety or causing property damage. And a third authorizes county commissioners to use lethal force against wolves if an imminent threat to commercial livestock is declared. All of these bills are currently before the Natural Resources and Parks Committee and a public hearing on them was held on Tuesday.
Banning certain food-service products
A bill has again been introduced this year to prohibit polystrene food packaging, which is commonly used in egg cartons and restaurant to-go containers. This is an important issue for North Central Washington, as Dolco Packaging in Wenatchee employs around 150 people manufacturing products, some of which contain polystrene. The bill has consistently failed to advance in the Legislature in recent years, and I am hopeful that will be the case again this year.
Repealing family leave
In 2007 the Legislature adopted a paid family leave system. On top of the 12 weeks allowed under federal law for taking care of newborns and adopted children, the program would add five additional weeks of leave funded by the state. Even in the pre-recession economy there was no money to fund the program, and the start date was delayed repeatedly.
The program sits idle on our state's books to this day and is now set to start in 2015, assuming a funding source is established. The estimated cost of the program is $14 million in the 2013-15 budget cycle, rising to $52 million in 2015-17. The program is well-intentioned, but funding simply doesn't exist. Rather than continue to make a promise the state may never be able to keep, a proposal has been brought forward to eliminate the program and defer to the federal leave law.
Washington's state-run workers' compensation system is in need of reform. Our industrial insurance rates are the highest in the nation and we award a higher percentage of injured workers lifetime pensions than any state in the nation. Further, the workers' compensation reserve fund (which claims to injured workers are paid out of) is underfunded by an estimated $3.1 billion, which would require annual rate increases of 19 percent sustained over 10 years to backfill.
Multiple bills have been introduced on this subject. The centerpiece of the legislation would expand the structured settlements established by the Legislature in 2011 to workers with certain catastrophic injuries of all ages, rather than just those over the age of 55. The package of bills was approved by the Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday and are currently awaiting a vote before the full Senate.
Hydropower and Initiative 937
Initiative 937 was approved by voters in 2006. The law requires a certain percentage of the power consumed in our state to come from renewable sources, but doesn't count hydropower as renewable. In 2016 the percentage of energy utilities provide from renewable sources increases from three percent to nine percent. That means utilities will need to begin planning for the conversion in the coming year, and if the law doesn't change to recognize hydro soon, it will be too late.
A number of bills have been introduced this session to allow hydroelectric power, in one form or another, to qualify as renewable under the law. All of the bills are currently before the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.