Dear Friends and Neighbors,
After a 105-day regular session and an additional 30-day special session, the 2011 Legislature finally adjourned last week. As I returned to the district after my first legislative session I could not help but feel a little frustrated. Taxpayers should feel a little frustrated and disappointed as well. Elected officials were well aware of our budget situation after last November's revenue forecast and the message sent by the voters turning down tax increases at the ballot box. The Legislature had plenty of time to complete their business in the allotted timeframe…almost four months. Yet, we went into a special session costing taxpayers as much as $16,000 per day.
A bigger disappointment than going into special session was the operating budget, House Bill 1087. You can read my statement on the budget here. The $32.2 billion spending plan makes substantial cuts to education and public safety. In fact, 41 percent of the reductions in the budget come from education. And, there will be 2,119 more offenders let off active community supervision. I also fear for the most vulnerable. The budget reduces Medicaid funding, cuts programs that assist our developmentally disabled in finding employment and it hurts long-term care facilities.
Capital Budget and Debt Reduction Legislation
Three bills were passed as part of the capital “construction” budget package. House Bill 1497 includes projects funded by cash accounts and House Bill 2020 includes bond authorization and projects funded by those bonds, paid out over 25 years. While I supported both measures, I was a little concerned with the bond bill. However, this was the smallest capital budget passed in 10 years and we stay under our debt ceiling by a significant amount.
We also passed Senate Bill 5181 as part of the construction package, which should help reverse our trend of increasing debt. It sets a statutory debt limit reduction from 8.75 percent to 7.75 percent by 2020 and it creates the Commission on State Debt to look at the state's borrowing and work toward an agreement to reduce the debt limit. I am disappointed we weren't able to send a debt reduction amendment to voters, but overall it is a solid package. School construction is prioritized and the construction budget also maintains projects which protect infrastructure and create short-term job opportunities. It invests in our infrastructure for K-12 education, higher education, correction facilities and provides maintenance and repair where it is needed most.
Workers' Compensation Reform
After a long, drawn out battle the impasse on workers' compensation reform was resolved in the special session. House Bill 2123 provides another option for injured workers to resolve their claims. It authorizes structured settlement agreements for workers age 55 or older, then age 53 or older beginning in 2015, and age 50 or older beginning in 2016, and establishes minimum and maximum periodic payments. The bill also creates a “stay at work” program that authorizes employers to receive a wage subsidy and reimbursements for employing an injured worker at light duty or transitional work.
There are some unknowns with these types of settlement agreements, but it should begin to address the problems with our workers' compensation system. It has the best interests of the workers in mind while protecting our employers from double-digit increases in their workers' compensation rates. It is also projected to save the system $1.1 billion over the next four years and keep the system solvent. This bill likely saved jobs around our state by reducing employer costs and allow struggling businesses to keep their doors open. Because workers also pay into the system, this bill will help keep their costs lower as well.
While the learning curve was steep, I thoroughly enjoyed my first legislative session. I feel honored and privileged to serve the 42nd Legislative District. Obviously there was a great deal of frustration around the operating budget and needing a special session, but in many instances both parties are capable of working together. However, the Legislature can do better. In fact, we must do better. We are still a long way from implementing real reforms to provide us a sustainable, responsible budget that funds education, public safety and protects our most vulnerable.
I want to thank all of you who came to Olympia this session. Your input helps with my decision making in the Legislature. I look forward to returning to the district and seeing many of you around the community this interim. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, concerns or ideas regarding state government. Additionally, please feel free to contact me to schedule an in-person meeting with you or your community group. I am here to serve you and the 42nd District.
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