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Full plate of issues greets state legislators
"Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen says she's heard people referring to the new state legislative session as possibly the worst ever. She admits that with a patched-together budget, an ailing health-care system and $150 billion worth of transportation proposals on the table there is a lot to deal with, but she remains optimistic.It's not the worst, she said.That's pretty much the opinion of all three of the 10th District's state lawmakers as they head back to work this week. Haugen, D-Camano Island, returns to a third term in the state Senate. Rep. Kelly Barlean, R-Langley, comes back to the House for a second term and newly-elected Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor, makes a return engagement to the Legislature after retiring from the House in 1998.As they headed into the new session Monday, Sehlin said the mood among lawmakers is pretty good despite the heavy issues awaiting them. He said everyone understands that they must write a two-year budget by the end of the session and most seem committed to the task.We're going to pass a budget. And because there is a 50-50 party split in the House it will have to be one that both sides agree on. That's a given, said Sehlin. There's a broad understanding that there is not enough money to do what we want to do. The challenge for us will be to draft a budget that is balanced ... but is also sustainable into the future.Sehlin acknowledges that the final budget will likely include cuts to certain programs and requests for new sources of revenue that will not please everyone.All three of the 10th District legislators hold powerful positions on key committees. Sehlin takes up the co-chair post on the money-controlling House Appropriations Committee with Barlean a couple chairs away in the vice-chair seat. Barlean also has spots on the House Capital Budget and Financial Institutions and Insurance committees.Meanwhile, Haugen retains her chairmanship of the Senate Transportation Committee as well as seats on the State and Local Government and Rural Economic Development committees.ON THE ROADS AGAINNot surprisingly, Sehlin and Barlean see the budget as the major issue facing the Legislature. Haugen sees transportation in the top spot. She pointed to the conclusions of a recent report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation which studied the state's transportation woes for about eight months.The commission said we have a $150 billion problem and don't have the resources to deal with it, Haugen said. It's now affecting every part of the state.Haugen said a strength of the report is that it tells lawmakers that there is no one answer to solving the problem. Instead, it notes that it will take a combination of remedies including new road construction, mass transit, ferry and rail to name a few. But it will also take money. Following the passage of Initiative 695 in 1999, legislators permanently cut the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, an important income source for transportation. The loss of revenue put many transportation projects on hold and delayed others. The Legislature came up with some short-term fixes last time out to keep things running but now must face the same problems again. In order to make any headway, Haugen said lawmakers will have to find or create a long-term funding source to replace and even enhance the lost motor vehicle dollars.Sehlin agreed that alternate funding for transportation will be necessary and will likely result in a referendum on some new form of taxes or fees that will have to be approved by voters.Locally, island residents are already starting to see some of the fallout of transportation budget shuffling in postponed highway improvements and proposed higher ferry fares. The San Juan Islands are being particularly hard hit with ferry fares potentially increasing 122 percent over the next few years. San Juan officials say the increases could cripple the islands' economy which relies heavily on tourism.Barlean said he and his 10th District counterparts will fight to keep fares down for Island County.We're acutely aware of the importance of the ferry system. We're not going to let high ferry fares interfere with people's lives, he said.FULL AGENDASBarlean has other issues on his agenda including a bill that will reduce the payments cities such as Oak Harbor and Langley have to make to the Department of Natural Resources to lease tidelands. Currently, port districts pay considerably less than cities to lease the lands. Barlean said he thinks there is broad support for the plan but it will lessen state revenues.It's taking money from the budget so it no cakewalk, he said.Barlean may have more luck with a proposal to grant visitation rights to grandparents who have raised a child or paid for the child's upbringing. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against grandparent visitation rights in a Skagit County case last year but Barlean said he thinks he can write a more narrowly focused law that will stand up to constitutional scrutiny.Sehlin said that as co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, he probably won't introduce a lot of his own bills this term. With the House split evenly between Democrats and Republicans again this term, all chair positions must be shared. As such, Sehlin will share the Appropriations chairmanship with Rep. Helen Sommers, a Democrat from Seattle. Sehlin served with Sommers during his previous House terms and said they worked well together despite differences of opinion. He said neither will be caught up in arguments and he admires her budgeting savvy.She's a sharp lady with a pencil. If you have to have a Democrat in a budget position, she's a good one to have, he said.Though the budget will be his key focus, Sehlin said education is high on his list of priorities. Voters in November directed the Legislature to redirect a portion of lottery money and state property tax into programs that reduce school class size. They also approved an automatic cost of living pay increase for teachers. Sehlin said lawmakers will now have to find the money to carry out the voters' wishes.You can't pretend that that money doesn't come from somewhere, he said.It won't be easy to find. Sehlin admits that several of the potential sources of money such as the state parks budget have already been reduced to the point that there isn't much left to take.Haugen said she has a desk full of bills to introduce this session. They include a change to existing law allowing Island County to get rural county status and increased state funding; a call for the elected office of county sheriff to be a non-partisan position; new fines for people who cut in line for ferries; a clearly laid out process for creating new counties; a property tax exemption for Alzheimers-care facilities; and increased penalties for false reporting. The latter bill comes as a result of an incident this summer when local law enforcement and rescue units undertook a long and costly search operation responding to what ended up being a hoax perpetrated by a woman in Florida.Haugen said she also plans to introduce what she thinks will be a controversial proposal to replace county and city impact fees with a new way to pay for infrastructure.All three legislators say health care will also get a lot of attention this session though none predict simple solutions. On one hand, individuals and companies are buckling under constantly rising medical insurance costs while hospitals and care facilities near the breaking point as payments for Medicare and Medicaid patients continue to drop.That's not all.The sleeper issue that has come up this year will be energy, said Haugen. As utility rates climb and demand increases, Haugen said it may be time to seriously think about energy conservation programs again. She said the Pacific Northwest was once considered a leader in conservation efforts but has slipped in recent years.Barlean, Sehlin and Haugen plan to meet on a weekly basis to compare notes and discuss local issues. They also plan to hold town meetings together as time allows.We all have the same constituents, said Sehlin. It's not a partisan thing. "