Friends and Neighbors,
After a 105-day session, and an extra 30-day special session, the 2011 Legislature finally wrapped up its work last week. While I'm happy to be back in the district after a strenuous session, the disappointment at the slow pace and the end result of the legislature's work lingers.
Budget writers from the majority party in both the House and Senate finally agreed to compromise on the few items of contention that were holding up the final budget compromise. I voted against the $32.2 billion spending plan for several reasons, including:
· It makes deep cuts to education – our state's paramount duty. In fact, 41 percent of the reductions in this budget come from education;
· It puts public safety at risk. There will be 2,119 more offenders let off active community supervision;
· It fails to protect the most vulnerable by reducing Medicaid funding, sharply reducing programs that help our developmentally disabled find work, and harms our long-term care facilities;
· It continues to fund a program that pays people to drive to work together;
· It relies on 49 new or increased fees, costing taxpayers about $248 million more in 2011-13;
· It cancels the sale of the governor's airplanes; and
· It expands a program that pays the rent for recently released felons.
With an additional $4 billion of revenue expected over the previous biennial budget, I'm very disappointed that once again the legislature failed to prioritize spending.
Workers' Compensation Reform
Much of what was holding up action on the operating budget was an impasse over workers' compensation reform. The Senate passed a bipartisan measure, Senate Bill 5566, which included a voluntary lump-sum settlement option. A similar measure, House Bill 2109, was introduced in the House. Unfortunately, the state labor unions did not like the lump-sum settlement option because they were worried that all the cash would be spent up front and the worker would not have any money left over for later. Because of that concern, House Speaker Frank Chopp would not allow the workers' compensation bills to advance in the House.
We needed workers' compensation reform this year for several important reasons, but primarily this: The state-run system has been both costly and inefficient. The state auditor has said there is a 95 percent chance our system will become insolvent in the next five years. That means only two options: much higher rate hikes against employers to support a failing system – or comprehensive reform of the system. At a time when profit margins are so thin and many employers are struggling to keep their doors open, the prospect of double-digit workers' compensation premium increases for years to come could easily seal their doom. To keep the system solvent and help businesses keep their doors open, we had to advance reforms of our state's workers' compensation system. Without such reforms, more workers would face layoffs – and those already laid off would wait longer to return to the jobs they so desperately need.
To help reach a compromise, we suggested a method called “structured settlements.” This is a process that pays out settlements over time so that all the money cannot be used at once. The conferees negotiating reform legislation agreed this would be the best method. It broke the logjam that had held up workers' compensation reform and the budget. The new legislation, House Bill 2123, authorizes claim resolution structured settlement agreements initially 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. And all while protecting workers' best interests.
Debt Limit Legislation
I have been working with a bipartisan group of House members to support “The Debt Reduction Act of 2011.” Senate Joint Resolution 8215, which passed out of the Senate, would phase down the state's debt limit from 9 to 7 percent over the next decade. This would have reduced debt payments by more than $3 billion over 20 years. Unfortunately, the House majority party leadership did not allow this solution to move forward.
A negotiated compromise emerged last week. Senate Bill 5181, which I voted for, will result in a smaller capital budget that reverses the state's trend of increasing debt. It will also create a state commission to study and recommend changes to the state's debt capacity. Senate Bill 5181 doesn't go as far as Senate Joint Resolution 8215, but is progress toward fiscal responsibility.
While many of the bills we proposed in our “Let's Get Washington Working Again” plan failed to pass the Legislature, one of our proposals passed and was signed into law by the Governor. House Bill 1150, which I co-sponsored, will give small businesses a seven-day grace period to correct violations before fines are imposed.
Thank you for all your support
I want to thank you once again for the kind words of encouragement and the enlightening exchange of ideas this session. I've always viewed representing you in Olympia as a two-way street. I need your input on issues and you need as much information as to what's really going on as possible. While this session was difficult in terms of the budget and other issues, your support and encouragement was much appreciated during the long hours late into the night in committee and on the House floor. I really appreciated that – even when we disagreed – the exchange of ideas and information remained civil. That helps me to better understand what concerns you – and why it concerns you. That always leads to better policymaking. Always remember, even when you and I disagree, my door is always open and I welcome the opportunity to engage in constructive debate.
Thank you for the honor and privilege of serving you in the Legislature.