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Voters passed Initiative 937, the state’s renewable energy law, in 2006. The law requires utilities to produce or buy a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. That requirements jumps up to 9% next year and 15% by 2020.

Critics of the law don’t like that the initiative’s authors left one type of renewable energy off the qualifying list: hydropower. Dams produce more of Washington’s electricity than any other source, but the initiative’s backers wanted to require utilities to invest in other types of power.

For the most part, that has meant investments in wind power.

Problem with law: some utilities don’t need more power
One longstanding beef with I-937 has come from utilities that are already producing enough power to meet customer demand. They may not need more power generation, but they are still required to meet I-937’s renewables standards.

That results, they say, in investing in more expensive wind power, the cost of which is passed on to customers, while some of the inexpensive hydropower they were already producing is sold at low cost to other states.

Ericksen bill would allow other ways to meet requirements
The state Senate responded with a bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42), that would broaden the concept of “energy conservation” and give utilities new ways to meet I-937’s mandates. SB 5735 passed the Senate 26-23.

Ericksen’s bill aims to give utilities other options to earn renewables credits, such as:

-          Building electric vehicle charging stations

-          Developing energy storage technologies

-          Conserving energy through smart grid upgrades

-          Converting vehicle fleets to utilize alternative energies

Ericksen sees the bill as a method-neutral way to encourage carbon reduction, saying in a release that “anything that reduces carbon is fair game.”

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Gov. Inslee took to Reddit on Thursday to participate in one of the site’s online forums known as AMAs – for “Ask Me Anything”. Participants toss out questions and other users can vote the most compelling of them to the top of the list. The forums have grown in popularity, and luminaries including Bill Gates, Jerry Seinfeld, and Buzz Aldrin have participated.

It’s an Ask Me Anything, not an Answer Everything, and Inslee left plenty of difficult questions unanswered. But in an age when politicians try to tightly control public questions, Inslee deserves credit for facing an onslaught of questions that no staffers or handlers could control.

One topic rose to the top
No topic brought more debate – and votes from online participants – than Inslee’s tax proposal on vaping products. Also known as e-cigarettes, many smokers have moved to vaping as an alternative to cigarettes. Inslee’s bill would put a 95% tax on the nicotine solutions used in e-cigarettes, as well as all vaping equipment.

In February, Washington Focus questioned the need for such high taxes on vaping. The justification for high cigarette taxes was that government faced higher health care costs because of smoking. Without a similar health concern from vaping, those in favor of high vaping taxes are groping for a reason.

“It’s clear in Olympia and capitols around the country, state governments are addicted to tobacco tax revenue and are nervous about how the replace the mountains of money collected from cigarette taxes,” we concluded.

“Cost of the product” best way to keep kids from using, Inslee says
Acknowledging that “this vaping issue is new for us,” Inslee laid out his case to a Reddit crowd that was clearly skeptical toward his tax proposal.

“We’ve chosen to focus on children’s health to prevent an industry in succeeding in getting people to become addicted to nicotine,” Inslee wrote. He said to prevent sales to minors “there are multiple tools like licensing of vendors and restricting childhood advertising. But the single most effective tool to prevent children from becoming addicted is the cost of the product.”

“It’s for the kids” doesn’t fly on Reddit
The user who posted the popular vaping question jumped on that justification, replying “The single most effective tool for preventing children from using vaping products is an age restriction on purchase, which I am highly in favor of.” As to the tax: “It is not fair, in my opinion, to repeatedly gouge a particular set of people using children as the reason.”

Other users agreed, by a large margin. One wrote, “I think there seems to be a miss understanding [sic], the ‘for the children’ line is used way to much in politics and no one really buys into it. If there were legitimate concerns about children or minors using the products that are intended for adults, then there would be proposals and bills creating accountability and legal action against those people providing these products to minors and the minors in possession of these products.”

“This is a blatant money grab hiding behind a false concern for child safety,” a user contended. Another replied, “the endless hollow cry of ‘It’s for the children’ has worn thin as an excuse for more government intrusions into our lives and pocket books.”

The AMA was a reminder that those who care about a niche issue can make a splash – and that taxing a popular product brings people together. Vaping enthusiasts made their voices heard on Thursday, but not everybody was thrilled with that. “I gotta say, ending the death penalty (plus a host of other prison reform) sounds a lot more important than multiple questions about taxes on e-cigarettes,” one Redditer complained.

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One of the key sticking points in negotiations over a transportation package is the Inslee’s administration’s desire for a low-carbon fuels standard (LCFS). The Senate-passed transportation package, now in the House’s hands, includes a provision that seeks to prevent Inslee from enacting an LCFS, which would raise gas prices, by executive order.

The provision, which would kick in only if an LCFS is put in place by executive order, would move some funding for bicycle lanes, van pools and the like and shift it to highway funding. Inslee and House Democrats oppose the provision, with some going so far as to call it a “poison pill.”

Brings to mind recent compromise
Which brings us to an unrelated bill, HB 1472, that updates the state’s water quality standards. The topic has been contentious, but with the federal Environmental Protection Agency threatening to intervene over Washington’s standards, Inslee and legislators wanted to get something passed.

Some legislators were uncomfortable with the amount of power the bill’s language would have given the governor’s Ecology Dept. to ban some substances outright. They said that instead of concentrating so much power in the bureaucracy, the legislature should have a say in the matter.

What did Inslee do? He compromised and agreed to take that administrative power out of the bill. The bill passed out of the House on a 63-35 vote, and the Inslee administration trumpeted the compromise in a press release:

“The bill that passed is the product of great compromise. To preserve the state’s ability to investigate sources of dangerous chemicals and to require industry to find safer alternatives, the governor agreed to remove the provision that would have given the Department of Ecology the authority to ban those chemicals. Instead, the bill calls for those decisions to be brought back to the Legislature.”

Some asking, why not for transportation package, too?
That heralded compromise has some wondering, will the Inslee administration be willing to make a similar compromise to get a transportation package passed this year?

If the governor agreed not to institute an LCFS by executive order, either by agreeing to the Senate provision in the bill or by publicly announcing that he wouldn’t sign such an order, it would vastly improve the chances of a transportation package clearing both chambers this year.

That may ultimately come down to how interested the administration is in chalking up a transportation package victory.

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It’s almost budget time in Olympia, when the House and Senate offer their competing visions for how big state government should be, and what it should spend tax revenues on. The chambers alternate on which drops its biennial budget first. This year, the House will release its budget proposal first, followed by the Senate.

Per state law, the governor released his budget proposal in December. Budget writers in the Legislature regard that as little more than a starting point, with their budget proposals sometimes diverging markedly from the governor’s.

Different approaches?
The coming budget proposals are expected to highlight the two chambers’ differing perspectives. The Senate Republicans believe the state can make progress on the McCleary education funding case and fund other state functions without raising taxes. Senate budget writer Andy Hill (R-45), a suburban moderate, called the idea of a state budget deficit “a myth, propagated by the Governor and others”.

The House is expected to want higher spending than the Senate, and new taxes to pay for it. A capital gains income tax and a cap-and-trade plan are both on the table, though neither has been voted out of a House committee yet (and the capital gains tax has yet to receive a hearing). House Democrats have made very clear that, unlike Hill, they believe the state faces a budget shortfall.

What will the tone be?
The question is, how will legislators approach budget negotiations this year? What will the tone of their negotiations be?

All things being relative, the partisan sniping has been kept to a minimum in Olympia this year. Whether that spirit will remain when budget negotiations begin in earnest remains to be seen.

More than anything, the public expects negotiation, not brinksmanship. Two years ago, talk of a government shutdown reverberated around the state as legislators went into overtime to reach a budget compromise (with little evidence that much actual preparation for a shutdown really occurred). Can legislators avoid that this year?

Perhaps the biggest question of all for businesses and taxpayers in Washington: How serious are House Democrats about their tax proposals? Do they have the votes to pass them? That will greatly affect the path of any budget negotiations this year.

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After 2+ years of talking, legislators in Olympia are finally making progress on a transportation package. The Senate passed a transportation package, including a 27-22 vote on the revenue bill (19 Republicans and 8 Democrats voting yes, 16 Democrats and 6 Republicans voting no).

The money
- Would raise the gas tax by 11.7 cents per gallon over three years
- Would also increase some weight fees and commercial license fees

The major projects
- Widen I-405 between Renton and Bellevue
- Continue I-90 improvements to Easton
- Finish SR 167 to the Port of Tacoma
- Complete the Seattle side of the 520 bridge replacement to I-5
- Build the North Spokane Corridor

Key reforms
- Ends gas tax diversion. Drivers fund transportation projects by paying gas taxes, which the state constitution requires be spent on highway projects. Some of those gas tax dollars are diverted to the state general fund because the state charges sales tax on highway projects. The Senate voted to stop charging sales tax on transportation projects, which would lower the cost of projects. Some Democrats object.
- Seeks to prevent executive order on fuels mandate. Senate Republicans included a provision that says that if the governor enacts a low-carbon fuel standard by executive order, some funding for projects like bicycle lanes and van pools would instead be spent on highways. Many Democrats don’t want Gov. Inslee to have to choose between the two approaches.

Other sticking points
- Included in the Senate package is authorization for Sound Transit to go to voters with an $11 billion light rail package. Sound Transit wants a $15 billion authorization.
- House Democrats indicated that they don’t want to take up the transportation bills before the state budget, saying they will instead put “kids before concrete.” The Seattle Times said of the slogan, “it falsely implies that passing a transportation package somehow hurts children when, clearly, no lawmakers will be leaving Olympia until they satisfy the state Supreme Court’s order to put more money into public K-12 education.” Some Democrats fear they will lose leverage for other tax increases if they agree to a transportation package now. Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11) said during Senate debate, “If we let the transportation package go, I’m afraid we’re going to lose our leverage to get a good operating budget out, as well.”

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