Dear Friends and Neighbors,
The Legislature adjourned on March 8. It was only the second time since 2009 the Legislature has adjourned without needing a special session to finish. It was a very fast-paced session with many contentious issues. There were a number of accomplishments, but I was concerned with the operating budget, the minimal property tax relief we provided taxpayers and I am still working on getting the Tobacco-21 legislation passed.
Operating budget and property taxes
This year's supplemental operating budget, Senate Bill 6032, continues our historic investment in education, critical funding for behavioral health, and other areas of need. However, I could not support the supplemental operating budget this year. Spending is up 16 percent from the operating budget for the 2015-17 biennium. Our economy may be going strong, but to increase spending by 16 percent is not sustainable or responsible budgeting. It also leaves our four-year ending balance at only $103 million. That isn't much of a savings when you are talking about a $44.6 billion budget.
The budget did include a property tax reduction for property owners. However, it doesn't kick in until 2019, and for a $300,000 home, you are only getting a $90 reduction in your property taxes. This is disappointing since our revenue projections are up $2.3 billion since the 2017-19 biennial operating budget was enacted last June. We could have provided meaningful property tax relief in 2018 without impacting the current budget. House Republicans introduced at least three bills that would have provided the property tax relief in 2018, but not of the bills were given a public hearing.
While we did not get the property tax relief we wanted, we were able to defeat the governor's carbon tax proposal. It would have hit those who could least afford it. It would have increased the cost to heat our homes, increased the gas tax, and grocery prices would have gone up with transportation costs.
We were also able to keep a capital gains income tax out of the budget, which House Democrats had in their initial proposal.
Rep. Harris speaks to the American Heart Association.
I was hopeful this was going to be the session we passed Tobacco-21 legislation. Unfortunately, House Bill 1054, which would have prohibited the sale of cigarettes, tobacco products, and vapor products to persons under the age of 21, did not make it through the legislative process.
We passed it out of the House on the last day of session, but the Senate failed to take action on it. This is an issue I am very passionate about. My goal is to get tobacco products off of our school campuses. Healthier young people also have a positive impact on our long-term health care costs.
According to the 2014 U.S. Surgeon General's report, nearly 95 percent of smokers started smoking before age 21. The average age that a daily smoker has a first cigarette is 15, and the average age a person starts daily smoking is 18. Studies show that 90 percent of those who purchase tobacco products for youth are themselves under 21.
I will continue to work on gaining support for this legislation in the interim. Oregon recently passed a Tobacco-21 law.
Rep. Paul Harris speaks to the media about Tobacco-21.
Streamlining education powers and duties
In collaboration with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and the State Board of Education (SBE), I did get legislation passed that will modify functions and duties between the two agencies related to learning standards, career and technical education (CTE) course equivalencies, and other responsibilities. House Bill 2824 has been signed into law by the governor.
I was disappointed we didn't do more to address school safety. House Republicans had a bill, House Bill 2442, that would have created the Students Protecting Students program. The legislation would have established a program in which students could use an iPhone app to anonymously alert school administrators to ominous or dangerous social media posts with the intent of preventing school violence. The bill passed out of the House Education Committee unanimously, but the measure stalled in the House Appropriations Committee. However, we did get $750,000 allocated to school safety programs in the final budget. The House Education Committee chairperson and I, since I am the ranking Republican member of the committee, will be sending a letter to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) asking that some of the money be spent on the Students Protecting Students project. We have been pushing school safety legislation for four years and have yet to get a bill through the Legislature, but funding for the program is progress.
Legislation that hurts home care workers leads to historic vote in the House
On March 1, the Legislature may have had its first ever 50-0 vote. Remember, there are only 98 members in the state House of Representatives. Senate Bill 6199 was being pushed by Democrats to circumvent a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stating individual providers cannot be forced to be a union member.
The legislation gets around the court's ruling by allowing Department of Social and Health Services to contract out for provider wages to a private third-party entity. In this case, the third-party entity happens to be the Democrats' political ally the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Legislators heard from hundreds of home care providers from their districts asking for a “no” on the bill. House Republicans tried to read the emails from home care workers opposed to joining the union, but we were constantly gaveled down by the Speaker of the House. Since they would not let us have a true debate on the bill and share the messages from our constituents, we elected not to vote – thus the 50-0 final vote.
Rep. Harris with the Leadership Clark County Historic Trust Group.
Hirst and capital budget
Two significant pieces of legislation we were able to get done early in session were Hirst and passing the biennial capital budget. Reaching a Hirst fix allowed us to move forward with the capital budget.
The capital budget or “construction” budget, as it is sometimes referred to, that we passed early in session, keeps our state's infrastructure priorities in place. It makes strong investments in K-12 school construction needs, our mental health care net, higher education facilities, veteran housing projects as well as local parks, trails and critical habitat. Projects in the 17th District include:
- $500,000 for the WSU Vancouver Life Sciences Building;
- $3 million for the DayBreak Youth Center for Adolescent Recovery;
- $167,000 for Sea Mar Dental Clinic Capacity; and
- $609,000 for the Cascadia Tech Academy.
The supplemental capital budget we passed at the end of the session includes $824,000 for the Port of Vancouver.
The Hirst solution, Senate Bill 6091, addresses many of the concerns we had with the controversial state Supreme Court ruling from October 2016. It provides some certainty and a long-term solution surrounding our state's water law. The legislation grandfathers in existing wells and removes the mandate the court put on the counties to find their own legal water. The DOE will create concise charts for county planners so we know what is being required under water law.
Finally, there is also $300 million in the capital budget for instream flow and watershed planning projects, financed over 15 years.
Town hall and future communications
Thank you to everyone who attended the town hall meeting. We had a great conversation on school safety, education funding, property taxes, tolling and much more.
While we have finished the legislative session, please do not hesitate to contact me this interim. There will be many important issues before us leading into the 2019 session. I am interested to hear your ideas or concerns, or contact me if you need assistance dealing with a state government agency. Also, I am available to speak or meet with any groups, agencies or organizations working on legislative issues or looking for a legislative update. I look forward to hearing from you.