Hear ye, hear ye. The Washington Legislature is now in session.
By April 27, when the Legislature adjourns, Washington’s senators and representatives will have disposed of thousands of bills, among them a significant number filed by local representatives.
As in recent years, the Legislature is hobbled in its ambitions by a need to cut billions of dollars from the state’s budget. But there is still work to do.
• House Bill 1925, introduced by Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-District 24), would make it easier to fund county justice departments. It’s somewhat controversial because it would provide Washington city councils with the power to enact a tax without a citizen vote.
HB 1925 gives a city or county “councilmanic authority” — the ability to pass legislation with council votes only — to enact a sales and use tax if the revenue is spent on public safety. One-third of the money received from such a tax must go to criminal justice or fire protection.
Tharinger explained that the legislation is designed to help law enforcement in counties such as Clallam that are facing issues in funding their criminal justice departments. While saying, “Sheriff (Benedict) has done a good job,” Tharinger noted that Clallam prosecutors have been required to cut back on prosecuting felony offenders due to the lack of funds.
Money collected by cities would be split 85-15 with the county, while county collections would be split 60-40, with the smaller figure divided among cities based on size.
The money can be spent on prosecution, including funding for deputies, attorneys and task forces. It also can be applied to prevention and recidivism programs. The distribution of the funding will be based on city and county priorities, Tharinger said.
While councilmanic actions are rare, they aren’t unprecedented. Tharinger cited a similar bill that passed to provide financial support for mental health. Tharinger said that initial resistance to the bill subsided after it proved to be effective.
HB 1925 currently is sitting in the Local Government Committee. A second bill, filed to establish a similar system in King County, could be amended to create a statewide law.
• House Bill 1916, also filed by Tharinger, would provide enhanced payments to small rural hospitals that meet the criteria of a “sole community hospital.” Four hospitals in the state are expected to benefit, including Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles.
OMC CEO Eric Lewis said the bill is very important to his organization. The funds, he said, would help alleviate the shortfall in funding the hospital receives for outpatient Medicaid services. He said the hospital is now reimbursed just 53 percent of the cost of providing these services. If the new bill passes, that will jump to 67 percent.
It’s a start, Lewis said. Due to current budget difficulties, he noted, “We had to make it as affordable as possible. But it’s enough to stabilize the sole community hospitals.”
The anticipated annual additional revenue of approximately $1 million is particularly important because the anticipated federal sequestration is expected to cut Medicare reimbursements to OMC by $100,000 a month.
Tharinger said in 2012 he worked hard to provide more funding for “critical access hospitals,” including those in Forks and Port Townsend. The small rural hospitals are “equally challenged.”
“They have a high percentage of Medicare and Medicaid patients,” he said. “We’re trying to help these four hospitals with their reimbursements.”
• House Bill 1924, another Tharinger bill, would extend the life of the state’s 62 watersheds. These “Water Resource Inventory Areas,” including WRIA 18, which includes much of Clallam County, were created by state statute. Tharinger said, “They don’t have statutory authority to continue.”
Tharinger said the watershed organizations are important because they provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to discuss the issues affecting the state’s water resources.
A number of bills covering a wide array of public safety issues have been approved by the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee. Three of the bills were filed by Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-District 24).
• SB 5565 would require the Department of Social and Health Services to “more closely and consistently examine background checks to determine if a child’s safety is a legitimate concern,” Hargrove said.
• SB 5735 would renew and update the registration and public notification requirements for sex offenders. In addition, the bill would make it a gross misdemeanor for a registered sex offender to fail to comply with the current law to provide a DNA sample and would require schools to post sex-offender policy information and prevention facts on their websites.
• SB 5176 would require more case-by-case reviews and evaluations to determine if an offender declared criminally incompetent should be held for treatment, rather than released. This bill is one of four mental health measures that make up the Senate Democrats’ violence-prevention package
“For a small number of severely mentally ill persons who have committed violent acts, this bill provides a longer period of treatment to protect both the public and the individual,” said Hargrove.