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Legislative Update from WRPA Lobbyist

Week 13 began with Senate passage of a 2015-17 Operating Budget bill and ended with House action on two marijuana bills, with the Senate rollout of a 2015-17 Capital Budget in-between the two.

We’re now past all Committee cutoff deadlines, into the final few days of Floor action on “opposite Chamber” bills, and poised for a homestretch run that will tell us whether the Legislature can complete its business by the scheduled Sunday, April 26 “Sine Die.”  Given the significant and very possibly contentious negotiations still ahead on Operating and Capital Budgets and a transportation package, most Olympia watchers doubt state lawmakers can avoid at least one 30-day Special Session.  Still, hope reigns supreme, with House Appropriations Chair Ross Hunter (D-Medina/48th Dist.) contributing this quotable line to the Seattle Times about the prospects of finishing on time:  “My interest in living in Olympia is very low,” Hunter said. “I’m excited about getting out of town.”

The week ahead will give us some strong signals on whether the get-out-of-town interest can overcome major substantive differences.  Senate and House operating budget negotiators reportedly will start meeting on Monday, and one of the Capital Budget negotiators told me they, too, would begin in Week 14.  And, on Tuesday, we will see the House Transportation Committee leave its imprint on the transportation revenue and spending bills passed by the Senate (ESSB 5987; ESSB 5988).

For the WRPA, it was an incredibly momentous Week 13, without a doubt.  There was a lot to like about the week, and a few things to be concerned about.  We saw a Senate Capital Budget that establishes a higher-water mark for Youth Athletic Facilities (YAF) funding, a unanimous Committee passage of our priority sales tax simplification bill, and continued progress for an important outdoor recreation bill.  At the same time, the Senate’s Capital Budget for the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program, though extremely positive in its approach to local parks and trails, makes concerning mid-stream changes to the underlying WWRP statute.

Following is an overview of where we stand on 2015 WRPA “Top Priority” and “Support” items, and a bullet-style rundown on a few others.  At the bottom of this report, I’ve listed a series of bills scheduled for Week 14 Executive Action in the House Transportation Committee.

Top Priorities

Enhance WWRP funding in 2015-17 Capital Budget (Capital Budget):  The Senate Capital Budget (Striking Amendment to EHB 1115) was released on Wednesday and passed out of the Ways & Means Committee a day later, with several amendments.  On the positive side, the Senate provides over $68 million in funding for the WWRP and makes an unprecedented commitment to funding what Members called “over-subscribed” local parks, trails, and water access categories.  Of concern, however, is that the Senate budget changes the rules for a series of WWRP projects which already went through a very thorough ranking and prioritizing process.  Many state natural resource agency acquisition projects that had qualified for WWRP funding were zeroed out, while a few others were funded in different parts of the Capital Budget.  During a sometimes-contentious public hearing on Wednesday, several Senators reacted angrily to the notion that they were “dismantling” the program, indicating they did go down the WWRP priority list for non-state projects and that their proposal simply represents a “pause” on acquisition projects in order to help over-subscribed local development projects catch up.

As we look ahead to the coming negotiations over the WWRP specifically, and the Capital Budget overall, there is direction from our WRPA Executive Board and Legislative Committee for our organization to put our own letter together to Capital negotiators.  We are not comfortable with mid-stream changes to the WWRP program and will make that known, but nor are we comfortable with describing the Senate budget with terms such as “dismantling” and “cherry-picking.”  Our leadership also believes the Senate Capital Budget proposal is a very loud signal by Senators that the nearly-25-year-old WRPA program is much in need of being re-evaluated and revised.  Many of our WRPA Members agree with that and believe it’s a healthy thing.  As we see the debate between House Members who funded WWRP at $75 million and kept the program fully intact, and Senators who went to a $68.8 million level with a zeroing out on some acquisition projects, it could be that one result we will see is a formal task force or work group process in the interim.

HB 1550 - DOR request legislation on “Amusement and Recreation Services” sales taxes (Policy Bill):  Last Tuesday, the Senate Ways & Means Committee unanimously approved this bill and sent it to the Rules Committee.  Caucus staff to Ways & Means Chairman Andy Hill (R-Redmond/45th Dist.) told us the Senate definitely plans to pass the bill.  One complicating factor to final passage of 1550 is that it was amended in the Ways & Means Committee to exempt skydiving and ballooning activities from sales tax.  House Finance Chair Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle/36th Dist.), the prime sponsor of 1550, does not support that exemption.  As a reminder, 1550 simplifies sales taxation of “amusement and recreation services” and reduces the administrative tax collection burden associated with these services.  The DOR legislation would statutorily exempt swim lessons as well as basketball, soccer, softball, and volleyball leagues.

Re-establish competitive grant funding for the Youth Athletic Facilities (YAF) program (Capital Budget):  Wow!  Last Wednesday the Senate Capital Budget came in with a YAF funding level that was more than twice as robust as what we saw in the Governor’s budget proposal or the House’s version (both included $3 million).  The Senate budget mark for YAF is $10 million, with $7 million set aside for competitive grant funding and $3 million earmarked for two specific projects.  Our thanks to Senate Ways & Means Capital Chair Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside/15th Dist.) for his leadership on this.  As an added note, Sec. 3170 of the budget bill also comes with the following conditional language for YAF grants:

The appropriation is provided solely for grants for acquisition, development or renovation of youth athletic fields. The recreation conservation office must require grant recipients of youth recreation field grants to have a fee waiver policy for youth athletic clubs who use the fields acquired, developed or renovation with funds from this appropriation. The fee waiver policy must discount or waive fees based on the youth athletic club's rates charged and scholarships provided to low-income athletes compared to other clubs using the fields.

Our WRPA Legislative Committee had a Friday afternoon phone call regarding this language and my initial direction is that we can work with it and will not be asking for changes.  Our Legislative Committee decision is based on the fact that the funding allows for a flexible “acquisition, development or renovation of youth athletic fields,” that the proviso simply requires a policy vs. demanding specific on-the-ground actions, and that the proviso allows all of us at the local level to either discount or waive fees at our discretion.  I have been asked to send this language out to fuller lists of WRPA Members so that others can provide their input.  I will be doing so Monday morning.

Support Key Recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Outdoor Recreation – ESSB 5843 (Capital and Operating Budgets; Policy Bills):  Last Thursday, ESSB 5843 regarding outdoor recreation advanced to the House Floor Calendar.  We are hopeful the bill, sponsored by Sens. Kevin Ranker (D-San Juan Islands/40th Dist.) and Linda Parlette (R-Wenatchee/12th Dist.), can be taken up Monday.  After a House Committee had moved the outdoor recreation sector lead established in the bill to the Department of Commerce, there will be Floor Amendments to bring the sector lead back into the Governor’s Policy Office.  A Floor Amendment by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien/34th Dist.) also modifies a Senate confirmation requirement for the sector lead, ensuring instead that the Governor consult with a variety of hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation, and business interests before making the hire.  5843 is funded in the Senate’s Operating Budget, which sets aside $331,000 for the sector lead and $1 million for the No Child Left Inside program.  Here are links to both the Fitzgibbon Floor Amendment on the bill and a separate one by Rep. Zack Hudgins (D-Tukwila/11th Dist.) which simply changes the sector lead from Commerce to the Governor’s Office:

On other Task Force recommendations in the Governor’s Budget or introduced as bills or budget items:

  • Sustainable State Parks Funding:  On Monday, former Blue Ribbon Task Force Co-Chair Doug Walker will submit a letter, signed onto by 33 different outdoor recreation organizations, urging the Senate and House to sustainably fund the State Parks system.  The letter expresses concern that the $15 million level of state support in the Senate budget (compared to $39 million in the budgets put forth by the Governor and the House) could lead to layoffs and deterioration of the Parks system.  I am attaching a copy of the letter, to which WRPA has signed on.  To recap, the Senate Operating Budget provides about $15 million in state support to go with $95 million in Discover Pass and fee-for-service income for the Agency.  That compares to the approximately $134 million in the budgets put out by Governor Inslee and the House.  On the other hand, the Senate’s Capital Budget includes slightly more funding for State Parks than the $57 million in the House version – with both including quite a bit less than the $91 million in the Governor’s proposal.
  • Real Estate Excise Tax Flexibility:  These bills are likely “dead” for Session.  Proponents have hopes of resurrecting 2122 if lawmakers go into Special Session.  This bill would have continued to provide some flexibility for cities and counties in the use of their REET proceeds – but not the amount cities and counties ideally preferred.  
  • “Marine Tourism Bill” – SB 5878:  Nothing new to report – this legislation is referenced in the Senate Operating Budget.  5878, chiefly promoted by the Northwest Marine Trade Association and supported by recreational boaters, would extend the number of months that large, LLC-designated boaters could spend in Washington State waters before being subject to use tax. 
  • “Lid removal” for non-highway purpose fuel tax accounts:  After SHB 1738 on its Executive Session list for last Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee ended up not moving the bill.  The Committee decision not to move the bill appears to be more based on political issues and personalities than substance.  That said, 1738 is likely “dead” for the 2015 Session, though we appear to have momentum to try it again next Session.  1738, prime sponsored by Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-Kalama/20th Dist.), included a future-year removal – the year 2031 -- of a ‘lid’ that has diverted the percentage allocation of 14 ½ cents of gas tax into the Motor Vehicle Fund rather than into the dedicated accounts for boating facilities, off-road vehicles (“NOVA” account), and snowmobiling.  The Senate is looking less at a ‘hard’ year in statute and more at a process with the State Treasurer’s Office – something we will need to bear in mind for next Session.
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