As budget negotiations proceed, Senate insists on Hirst fix

The following newsletter was sent to subscribers to Sen. Padden’s Report From Olympia, June 15, 2017. To subscribe to Sen. Padden’s newsletters, click here.

To see floor speeches on the Hirst bill, click here.

Hirst fix passes Senate for third time

Dear friends and neighbors,

Work is continuing at the statehouse as we negotiate a final deal on the state budget. The talks with our colleagues in the House have moved at a snail’s pace, but all of us who serve in the Legislature recognize we need a budget to continue state operations when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

We are in the third week of our second overtime session, which ends June 21. We returned to Olympia this week for legislative business and a check-in. Senate leaders told us a third special session may be required, but once a deal is reached we will be able to finish our job in a matter of days.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, we passed a number of high-priority bills we expect to see as part of the final deal. They include Senate Bill 5239, our “Hirst fix” bill – which will override a Supreme Court decision that has snarled development of rural properties that require the use of ground water. This measure is vital to the protection of property rights and property values. This was the third time the Senate has passed this measure this year, but the House has yet to act.

In other news, the Senate Law and Justice Committee, which I chair, is planning a work session on the recent protests that temporarily shut down The Evergreen State College. We have readied a new version of our Department of Corrections reform bill in hopes of reaching a final agreement with the House. And the Legislature began scrutinizing a troubled community-college computer system that is years behind schedule and is significantly over budget. This and more in this week’s newsletter.




Sen. Mike Padden


Public safety concerns at Evergreen prompt legislative inquiry

The Evergreen State College campus in Olympia.

Last week’s newsletter described the turmoil at The Evergreen State College, where student protests, vandalism and threats of violence shut down the campus for several days this month. The case has raised concern for liberal and conservative commentators alike as an example of the growing intolerance of student activists to the expression of opposing viewpoints. One professor targeted by the protesters says he has been unable to return to campus out of fear for his own safety. Matters of public safety are a proper concern for the Legislature, and next week we will launch an inquiry in the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Among those who have been invited to testify on the public-safety response are campus administrators, the Washington State Patrol, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, and faculty who were targeted by the protests. Also testifying will be Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, a Central Washington University professor of constitutional law.

This work session will be held Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Senate Hearing 4, on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. It promises to be one of the most interesting events of our special session.


Community-college computer system under scrutiny

Community college officials testify at Tuesday’s work session.

A troubled computer system that was supposed to automate back-office functions at our state’s community colleges is prompting big questions from the Legislature. The matter is of particular importance for our area, because the two Spokane-area community colleges were among three pilot locations statewide where the system has already been implemented. The new ctcLink system went online a year late in 2015 and has become a prime example of mismanaged state computer projects. The system was riddled with bugs, the statewide rollout has been delayed, the vendor went bankrupt and is suing the state for withheld payments – and it is unclear when the job will be finished.

At a joint session of the Ways and Means, State Government and Higher Education committees, community college officials said it’s not time to pull the plug, and that the system can be made to work if the job is completed. Though some components of the system are functional, big problems remain. Officials of the Community Colleges of Spokane said the new system could prevent them from completing necessary year-end paperwork required by the federal government for financial aid.

An independent consultant identified 356 fixes that need to be made before the new system is implemented at the state’s other 31 community colleges. About 58 percent of the fixes have been made. Right now it appears the project, budgeted at $100 million, will require an additional $15 million, and that doesn’t count additional expenses that could be forced by the lawsuit. This isn’t the end of the story, and the Legislature will pay close attention in coming months. But the worst part is that it is unclear whether any of this was necessary. I have been contacted by community-college IT workers who have pointed out that the 30-year-old computer system ctcLink was designed to replace continues to function properly. It will be adequate to meet community college needs statewide until a solution can be found.


New Department of Corrections bill readied

One of our biggest concerns this year has been reform of the Department of Corrections, where the early release of thousands of dangerous felons has called attention to poor management practices. Last year the case prompted an extensive investigation by the Senate Law and Justice Committee, and our recommendations have led us to propose a reform bill this year. This bill has been passed by the Senate, but a much-reworked version from the House Public Safety Committee has yet to receive a vote in the House.

This week we proposed a new version of Senate Bill 5294, intended to resolve differences between the Senate and the House. The bill establishes that the department’s primary duty is the protection of public safety. It launches an “ombuds” program to deal with complaints from DOC employees, inmates, and the families of inmates and victims. And its many provisions include a requirement that if DOC has any reason to believe computers are calculating sentences incorrectly, the work must be checked by hand.

Our new version of this bill adopts House language on the creation of the ombuds program, but it adds language to ensure that a sentence-simplification task force will study options that do not reduce punishment. We also are insisting on a provision prohibiting the state from settling complaints from whistleblowers by barring them from future state employment. You can read more here.

This was one of the most tragic cases of mismanagement in state history – DOC learned of the early releases in 2012 yet continued releasing prisoners early. Many went on to commit new crimes, and at least two deaths have been linked to prisoners who should have been behind bars. Failure to act is inexcusable.


An income tax by another name?

The Seattle City Council is planning to impose an income tax next month — this might seem puzzling at first glance. The state Supreme Court ruled years ago that a constitutional amendment must be passed by the Legislature and the voters before a graduated income tax can be imposed. State law also says cities can’t impose income taxes on their own. So why is Seattle moving forward?

The strategy is explained in a well-reasoned op-ed, “Why you should care about Seattle’s plan to impose an income tax,” published last week in the Tri-City Herald by Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center. Seattle is claiming that its income tax is an “excise tax.” That term has a specific legal meaning and Seattle’s argument is weak. But no matter. The main goal is to get the argument into the courts. Challenges are certain, and the moment our activist Supreme Court gets a chance to rule, advocates of higher taxes and spending expect it to overturn years of precedent. If Seattle prevails, any city could impose an income tax without voter approval, by calling it an excise tax. So could the Legislature.

As Mercier observes, “Should Seattle or any other city wish to enact an income tax, it should focus its efforts on engaging the people and its delegation to propose this new authority in the Legislature, instead of passing illegal local ordinances to set up lawsuits.”

True enough. You can read this op-ed here.


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