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An agonizing legislative session

By Mike Andrew

The long legislative session of 2012 – which featured not one, but two “special sessions” – finally came to an end in the early morning hours of April 11.”

It was a session that featured high drama – Senate Republicans high-jacking the budget process with the help of Democratic defectors Jim Kastama, Rodney Tom, and Tim Sheldon – and frustrating bickering.

Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson gave the session a mixed review.

“There were great highs: the passage of the Marriage Equality Act and the eventual passage of the infrastructure jobs bill – ‘Jobs Now Bill,’” Johnson wrote. “There were also great lows: eliminating the early retirement pension factors for new public employees who have put in 30 years or more of public service, and the way in which school employee health benefits was dispatched.”

Johnson dismissed self-congratulatory reports of a bi-partisan legislative breakthrough as “a load of hooey!”

The Jobs Now Bill allocates $1.6 billion, with federal matching funds, to create some 18,000 jobs in the construction industry and other sectors of the economy to help strengthen the state’s infrastructure.

“Representative Hans Dunshee tirelessly fought for and led this effort,” Johnson said.

Speaker Frank Chopp, Sen. Derek Kilmer, Sen. Evans Parlette, and Rep. Susan Warnick also played key roles in the passage of the Jobs Now package, Johnson added.

For the most part, the Republican attempt to rule by backroom deal was defeated, but not without setbacks for working people.

“It’s not just about balancing the budget,” Republican Senator Joe Zarelli said at one point in the debate, for once telling the truth – his side was much more interested in defunding benefits for public employees than in finding a way to pay for vital state services.

The so-called “pension reform” passed by the legislature was not as draconian as Republicans wanted, but it would still roll back early retirement benefits by as much as 50% for newly hired state workers, most of them teachers.

In fact, the measure was fiscally unnecessary, since most state pensions are currently over-funded, and therefore among the most financially sound in the nation.

The second measure where Republicans saw some success was a proposal to move health insurance for K-12 teachers into the same state-run pool with other state workers.

The Republican Senate coup also aimed at making bone-deep cuts in social spending. It was, Johnson said, “a preview of what a Rob McKenna administration would look and act like.”

The legislature rejected a proposed $44 million of cuts from K-12, and $30 million from higher education.

Disability Lifeline, the Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Treatment and Support Act, Housing and Essential Needs, State Food Assistance, and other social programs Zarelli wanted to eliminate were all funded in the final budget, although at lower levels than previously.

Funds for indigent patients, or “charity care,” allocated to 50 small or non-rural hospitals were cut by $26.3 million, half of it federal and half in state dollars.

The budget also cuts $50 from the state’s monthly per-worker contribution for health care and other insurance benefits, and eliminates 1,266 jobs from the state payroll. More than 900 of the job cuts are the result of Initiative 1183 taking the state out of the liquor business.

Not much happened on the revenue side.

The final budget includes the elimination of a $16 million tax loophole enjoyed by out-of-state banks, although this new revenue was zeroed out by the extension of a couple of existing corporate tax breaks.

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