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Issues and Wishes For Upcoming Legislative Sessions

Austin Jenkins/Northwest News Network

There are other important issues before the two legislatures. Idaho lawmakers may again take up the repeal of the state’s grocery tax. Lawmakers in both chambers approved the repeal toward the end of the 2017 session, but Governor Butch Otter vetoed it after legislators adjourned. Some legislative leaders say they believe the bill be approved again early in the session so they would have time to override another veto.

In Washington, school funding will again get much of the attention. But water rights on private property will also be an important issue. Republicans want the legislature to act to override a state Supreme Court decision that moved authority to approve private wells for new homes and businesses from the state to the counties. The decision what is known as the Hirst case.

“This is incredibly complex. It’s incredibly political. It’s very controversial,” said Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) at a Greater Spokane Incorporated legislative forum next month.

“This is a fundamental issue that is inseparable from people who just want to live their lives by building their home on a piece of property and raise their families. What’s more fundamental than that?" Springer said. "And on the other hand, it is culturally and religiously just as fundamental to our tribal governmental partners in terms of what it means for fish, water and their way of life.”

And Republicans are using their political leverage to force the legislature to reverse the effects of the court’s ruling. The Republicans say that ruling has the potential to stymie growth, especially in rural areas where water supplies are limited. They’ve insisted the legislature change the laws to protect landowners who want to build and dig wells. If that doesn’t happen, they say they won’t vote to approve a new state capital budget, which includes money for construction projects all over the state.

Legislators have held at least one hearing within the last month to try to come to a solution.

At that same forum, Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler says he’s open to a compromise.

“I think we want to see some cooperation on water resources and if it means working on some things for fish to improve it, fine. But eliminating, eroding property rights in rural Washington really doesn’t make any sense when the total amount of water from exempt wells is one percent,” Schoesler said.

In other issues, from that same forum:

“Senators, representatives: in November, the AP reported that more than 170 women had signed a letter to ask the House and the Senate in the Capitol to look at how you handle sexual harassment. Can you give us your thoughts on how you plan to address that issue this session?” said Christine Varela.

The legislators, including Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane), said they’ve already undergone additional training and begun the process of trying to make the Capitol a safer place to work.

“The incoming majority leader, Senator Sharon Nelson, has created a task force. And that task force has on it staff members, as well as some legislators, but staff members and lobbyists. So it’s not just a top-down solution so the people who might be the reporters can say this is a good way for us to be able to report. These would be avenues where we would be safe in reporting,” Billig said.

Greater Spokane Incorporated has issued a comprehensive list of legislative priorities. The list includes developing a solution to the water rights issues described before and a new capital budget. That budget includes money for new science-based buildings for Eastern Washington University, Washington State University and Spokane Community College. It also has money for what’s known as a Spokane Sportsplex
near downtown for local and potentially national sporting events. It includes a move to reform the state’s worker’s compensation system and to reduce the B & O tax for manufacturing companies, something Governor Inslee vetoed last year.

The Spokane Regional Health District has its own legislative agenda. That includes a request that the state raise its legal age for purchasing tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21.

“If you can positively impact youth and prevent them from initiating smoking, then all the data suggest the likelihood of them taking up tobacco products after the age of 21 is limited significantly," said Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane County health officer.

Each legislator has their own pet projects they work on. One we recently told you about on this program involves members of Spokane’s Marshallese population. Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) is co-sponsor of a bill that would allow the Marshallese and other low-income Pacific Islanders  who are not citizens to get financial help to buy health insurance. Because of the mid-1990s welfare reform, they’re not eligible for Medicaid and other government programs that offer subsidized care. Many of these people suffer from radiation-related illnesses. The Marshall Islands was a testing ground for U-S atmospheric nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. Riccelli says it’s a moral issue for him.

“I think some of my Republican colleagues believe this is the federal government’s responsibility because it was the Department of Defense. These were nuclear tests," Riccelli said. "I don’t argue that there should be some responsibility at the federal level. But right now, my big concern is that people are going without health care access. They’re letting small things turn into big things because they’re concerned about the affordability. And by the way, we committed atrocities to these people and to provide them premium assistance is actually, in my opinion, one of the very least things we could do.”

The Washington and Idaho legislative sessions begin next Monday. We’ll cover progress on legislation involving some of these issues on future Inland Journal programs.

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