Hot Off the Grill: Legislative session week two

Major bills introduced amidst slow beginning to session
The first few weeks of long sessions are usually characterized with hundreds of bills being introduced, work sessions, bipartisanship and general organizing among the members. Not this session. The pace of bill introductions is blissfully slow; however, the Legislature is jumping into two huge issues right off the bat.

This week, the House unveiled an “Early Action Budget Bill” that reduces the current budget shortfall by $340 million. The proposal, which includes $216 million in reductions, and $123 million in fund transfers, is tied to the current budget which ends on June 30, 2011. Remarkably, the bill may be voted on by the full House on Monday – and sent to the Senate for their consideration. No-one can recall the Legislature taking up a major budget bill, with this level of changes embedded in the bill, within the first three weeks of a session. WRA commends the House for moving forward swiftly to address the current fiscal challenges.

Fast and furious debates on Unemployment Insurance and budget
Both the House and Senate held hearings on the governor’s proposals for changes to Washington’s Unemployment Insurance tax and benefit program. The governor has proposed a one-year reduction in the “social” tax rates paid by business to fund the UI system. The governor also proposed a permanent reduction in the social tax, coupled with additional latitude to fund benefits for worker retraining and education. Although in recent years the WRA has opposed any changes in the UI system that add new benefit costs, we testified in support of the governor’s proposal, provided performance and accountability measures were included in the bill. Training could ease demands on the system over time, and the changes to the tax schedule would provide a significant savings to WRA members over the next few years.

Organized labor is opposed to the governor’s proposal unless the training benefits are replaced with a new, $15/week benefit for dependents of unemployed workers and, on Friday, the House Labor and Workforce Committee replaced the training benefits with the dependent benefits. The WRA expected the bill to pass out of committee in this form; however, the bill now goes to the full House for consideration. There are a number of members of the House Democratic caucus who support the governor’s original proposal, accordingly the WRA will be working with the entire business community to amend the bill back to its original form. The governor is pushing the Legislature to take action by February 8 so that the revised tax schedule can apply for the 2011 tax year.

The Northwest Food Show and “Growlers to Go”
This week, HB 1244 and its companion, SB 5302, were introduced in the House and Senate. These bills provide spirits, beer and wine restaurant licensees the ability to sell growlers of beer for off premise consumption under the keg endorsement. The bills also authorize a permitting process so that manufacturers of mixers can show their product at trade shows, such as the Northwest Foodservice Show, with alcohol.

The WRA has not heard of any stakeholder group, or agency, that has concerns with the bill; however, the next step will be a public hearing for both of the bills. SB 5302 has been added to the January 27 public hearing agenda of the Senate Labor and Commerce committee, which is chaired by the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36th District). We are grateful to our legislative sponsors in the House and Senate for their support on this issue. House sponsors: Rep. Cary Condotta (R-12th District), Rep. Sam Hunt (D-22nd District), Rep. David Taylor (R-15th District), Rep. Mark Miloscia (D-30th District). Senate sponsors: Sen. Jeannie Kohl-Welles (D-36th District), Sen. Janea Holmquist-Newbry (R-13th), Sen. Steve Conway (D-29th District), Sen. Curtis King (R- 14th District)

Employee Meal Tax Legislation Introduced (HB 1498)
The WRA GA team is also thrilled with the progress of legislation (HB 1498) to exempt meals provided by restaurants to their employees. This week, the Department of Revenue assisted us in finalizing statutory language, the code reviser issued a final bill and an exciting group of champions signed on as sponsors. Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37th District) and Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-18) are the two prime sponsors and champions for the bill and are joined with the following intial co-sponsors, Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-21st District), Rep. Kevin Parker (R-6th District), Rep. Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney (D-46th District), Rep. Bruce Chandler (R-15th District), Rep Cary Condatta (R-12th District), Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37th District). WRA expects more members to sign on to the bill on Monday.

Update on Food Worker Card bill
Director of the Education Foundation, Lyle Hildahl, joined the GA team this week to educate key stakeholders on the ServSafe food safety training program. Lyle also assisted the team in assessing the benefits and risks to pursuing legislative authority for an alternative route to obtaining food worker training. From this work, the WRA has decided to proceed with a bill, despite concerns from some stakeholders. A prime sponsor has been identified, and final changes are in the process of being incorporated into a final bill. The WRA intends to introduce the bill next week and hopes to schedule an early hearing on the bill before committees become backlogged.

See you Monday at Hill Climb and Taste Our Best 2011!