Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Due to a stalemate over tax increases and K-12 education funding, budget negotiators in the House and Senate were unable to reach an agreement on the 2017-19 operating budget before the end of the 105-day regular session. As a result, we are now in the fourth week of the 30-day special session, which began April 24.
Except for budget negotiators and those serving on the Education Funding Task Force, all other lawmakers have been sent home. We will be called back to Olympia with a 24-hour notice once an agreement has been reached. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that will be too soon.
When it comes to K-12 education funding, both plans would invest billions, building on the $4.6 billion in additional education funding over the last two budget cycles. For the first time since 1983, basic education funding is set to represent more than 50 percent of the operating budget. The major point of contention in the two plans is how K-12 education is funded going forward and whether tax increases would be part of the final plan. So the impasse continues and it appears likely we will be heading into a second 30-day special session next week.
Nealey bills gain governor's signature
I am pleased to report the governor has signed all of my bills that passed the Legislature — including two today.
Public Records Act reforms – House Bills 1594 and 1595
For several years, I have been working to find the right reforms to the state's Public Records Act (PRA) that would reduce vexatious, abusive and excessive requests for state and local public records, while maintaining open and transparent access to those records. It's been a difficult balancing act, because even the smallest changes proposed to PRA have been interpreted by the news media and open government advocates as an attack against public access to government records. That, of course, has never been my intention.
However, reforms have been desperately needed by local governments who have themselves been attacked by abusive requestors who, for no other reason, ask for all records simply to tie up local resources. These abusive requests have become more frequent and costly — in some cases nearly bankrupting small municipalities.
A recent Washington State Auditor's study revealed state and local governments spent more than $60 million in one year to fulfill 285,000 requests and more than $10 million from litigation fees. Between 2011 to 2015, requests increased by 36 percent — almost all electronically. Only one percent of the costs were recovered by the original law's fee structure, which allows governments to charge 15 cents per photocopy page of paper records to help recover costs. That left taxpayers to pay for the remaining costs.
Last year, I worked with Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, and a broad spectrum of citizens to find solutions that could reduce abuses while preserving open government. From those meetings, we have introduced bipartisan legislation to help bring the PRA into the modern era.
These bills were signed into law today:
Under House Bill 1595, which I prime sponsored, a public records request must be for an identifiable record. Nonspecific requests for all or most agency records would not be considered valid. Agencies could deny multiple automated computer “bot” requests within a 24-hour period from the same source if it causes excessive interference with the agencies' essential functions. The bill also gives agencies the authority to charge a nominal fee for electronic records for cost recovery, similar to the original law that allowed charges for paper documents. We believe these provisions would reduce the amount of frivolous requests.
A second measure I co-sponsored with Rep. McBride, House Bill 1594, would create a grant program to help local governments, particularly smaller agencies, pay for training to better manage records. It would also allow the Attorney General's Office to assist local governments in complying with requests, provide a procedure to get requestors to clarify their requests, and create a study to explore the creation of a statewide online portal for public records access.
We believe these bills will decrease excessive, abusive requests, reduce costs and litigation, and ensure better access to public records.
Tax reporting simplification – House Bill 1296
The governor also signed into law House Bill 1296. This is a measure I authored that will simplify the process of tax reporting for certain entities and individuals in Washington state that receive tax preferences.
For the past 10 years, the Legislature has required taxpayers who receive any of the 32 economic development-related tax preferences to file an annual survey or annual report to qualify for the preferences. Under the measure, beginning in 2018, every person claiming a tax preference would file a single tax performance report with information about the tax preference claimed, employment, wages, and employer-provided health and retirement benefits. This will decrease paperwork, increase efficiency for the Department of Revenue receiving the report, and reduce unintentional errors.
Authorizing rating bureaus for title insurance companies – House Bill 1450
House Bill 1450, which I authored, was also signed into law. This measure authorizes the ability for the creation of title insurance rating and advisory organizations. Title insurance is offered by title insurers to protect against the risk to a property title. Under this measure, title insurers are authorized to use the services of rating organizations and advisory organizations for the purposes of making or adopting title insurance forms and rates. This measure will provide for a more consistent rate approval process by the state Office of Insurance Commissioner, saving time and money for title insurers and, ultimately, the consumer.
District offices have re-opened in Walla Walla and Pasco
Now that the 2017 regular session is behind us, Sen. Maureen Walsh, Rep. Bill Jenkin and I have re-opened our 16th District offices in Walla Walla and Pasco.
The 16th District office in Walla Walla remains at its same location: 26 E. Main St., Suite 8, Walla Walla, 99362. The Pasco office has moved to a new location: 1110 Osprey Pointe Blvd., Pasco, 99301. The phone number for the office in Walla Walla is: (509) 526-6284. The Pasco office phone number is: (509) 545-2210. During the special session, hours are 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, at both offices.
I invite you to call, write or drop by any time you have questions, comments or suggestions about legislation and/or state government issues.