Lawmaker recaps this year’s legislative session

Rep. Jim Walsh

By Rep. Jim Walsh

People have been asking me about my impressions of the recent “short” legislative session that just ended a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my recap.

As I mentioned at the Greater Grays Harbor legislative send-off, I went into the session with a few proactive goals and more “damage control” or defensive goals. In all, we were able to get pretty good results.

First, the proactive wins:

We passed the legislative “Hirst fix,” which protects local residential water rights and assures that land owners in this area can drill wells and develop residential properties as they choose. Basically, we affirmed — for this part of the state — the conditions that existed before the state Supreme Court caused legal uncertainty with its faulty Hirst decision. In my opinion, this was the most important thing we did this session. It was a much better solution than some people thought we would get.

We passed the delayed 2017 capital budget quickly, in January.

We passed all three 2018 supplemental state budgets in a timely manner — so, no special sessions, etc.

The capital budgets (both the delayed 2017 budget and the on-time 2018 supplemental) contain a number of great infrastructure projects for this area. To name just a few: money for critical dredging at the Westport and Ilwaco marinas; money for campus improvements at Grays Harbor College; money for building the long-delayed third courtroom at the County Courthouse in Montesano; and money for improving the event facilities at Lake Sylvia.

We added some legislative oversight of the marbled murrelet Habitat Conservation Program (which some people have rightly called “spotted owl 2.0”) — though we need much more oversight of bureaucratic agencies on this matter.

We protected the “McCleary fix” basic education funding package from efforts to undermine or overturn it. That fix takes full effect — and will start lowering most local property tax bills — in January 2019.

Next, the defensive wins:

No state carbon tax or related gasoline tax hikes.

No state capital gains income tax.

No rushed, self-serving Public Records Act exemption for the Legislature.

No politically partisan changes to campaign finance laws — though we did pass decent, bipartisan legislation that makes some needed fixes.

No overreaching, electricity-rate-raising “clean energy” laws (there were several efforts here, but I’m thinking mostly about House Bill 2995).

No tricky fiddling with the initiative process.

Only a couple of the many proposed gun-control bills passed.

As I said, pretty good results. So, what were the disappointments?

We took too much money out of the state’s Budget Stabilization Account, or “rainy day fund.” And we did it in a shady way. During the House floor debate on this gimmick, I called it something “only Bernie Madoff could love.” It sets a very bad precedent that might allow other shady budget gimmicks in the future. One of my priorities for the next session will be to make sure those don’t happen.

We passed a constitutionally dubious law enforcement “reform” package (HB 3003 and HI 940). To simplify slightly, we passed a modification first — and then the thing it modified after. Process-wise, this was just as bad as the failed Public Records Act exemption, but the governor supported this one. Already, citizen groups (including one led by Tim Eyman) are filing lawsuits against this package; and there’s a real chance that state courts will reject it quickly. So, you’ll be hearing more about this in the weeks and months ahead.

We need to do more to assert the Legislature’s responsibility to manage state trust lands. For decades, elected representatives have been hiding behind state agencies on this issue. And the results have been terrible — the spotted owl and now the marbled murrelet. We can’t let bureaucrats make policy decisions about how state trust lands are managed — at least not without close supervision by the Legislature.

We need to do more to increase state hatchery production of native salmon and other native fish. We had several good ideas for doing this. They either didn’t pass, or didn’t pass in full form. (Though we did get some hatchery money in the supplement budget.)

We pushed too many unfunded mandates down to the counties. Again. This is starting to reach a critical point on two issues: how we pay for public defenders (you’ll hear that issue described as “indigent defense”) and how we cover medical costs of prisoners in county jails. So, you’ll be hearing more about those issues, too.

We almost passed a very interesting rural broadband infrastructure development bill. It would have been great for this part of the state. We ran out of time in the short session. But the deal is well-designed and we can pick it up next session. I plan to do that.

Of course, in this recap, I’m just skimming over some topics that deserve more detailed discussion. I’ll talk about those details more, between now and the next legislative session.

Rep. Jim Walsh is a Republican from Aberdeen, representing the 19th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives.