Dear Friends and Neighbors,
The regular session of the Legislature adjourned last Friday, two days earlier than the scheduled 105-days. It's not that the Legislature finished its work. It's that the majority party essentially gave up after not reaching an agreement on an operating budget and a capital construction budget.
Solving the budget crisis
My House Republican colleagues and I were ready from the beginning of this session on Jan. 10 to roll up our sleeves and get to work toward solving a $5 billion budget deficit. We came up with a responsible budget plan that would have funded education first, provided for public safety, and protected our state's most vulnerable population. You can read about our budget plan here.
Unfortunately, our plan was set aside by majority Democrats in the House Ways and Means Committee who voted on their own budget proposal, which contained such gimmicks as leasing out the state's liquor warehouse and distribution system to a private vendor for 20 years in return for a $300 million upfront payment. The trouble with that plan is the state would lose as much as $1.3 billion over the term of the lease. (Read this story from Washington Ledge.)
Democrats don't even support their own budget
The other problem is that House Democrats had trouble coming up with a budget-reduction plan that 50 of their own members would support. As one reporter noted, “When you wait until the last three weeks of a legislative session to get the ball rolling on the biggest bill of the session, you're asking for trouble.”
Procrastination on the part of the Democrats and the lack of leadership within their party has pushed the Legislature into a special session, which began this past Tuesday.
Here's what the Tri-City Herald said in today's newspaper: “The Legislature, with Democrats in control of both houses, and the governor's office also in Democratic hands, has known at least since November that the state budget was in crisis. Yet all dithered through a 105-day session, putting off until now any meaningful attempt to resolve the staggering problem. The special session is the Democrats to own. They have the power. They have the votes. They have the leadership positions in the House and Senate. They had the agenda, and they just let the regular session slip away. The questions and the consequences of their answers are no less easy to find now than they would have been if the legislators had done their job in the first place, during the regular session.”
So like you, I am very frustrated the Legislature is in overtime at a cost to taxpayers of between $7,000 to $16,000 a day.
30 days and beyond?
To save money, the House has gone into a “rolling session,” which means only budget negotiators are staying at the Capitol while the remainder of House members have been sent home. Senators have remained at the Capitol. House members have been called back to session for Monday to vote on some bills, but there's no budget to vote on. Some have suggested an agreement may not emerge until close to the 30-day limit of the special session. Others believe it could be even later. As the Everett Herald reported today, “Noting the pace and the chasm between the House and Senate on budget issues, one influential senator and one veteran lobbyist offered the same startling prediction – a second special session is looking likely.” I sure hope not!
We need to finish up business as citizens expected during the regular session!
Diversions, including medical marijuana legislation, fill the regular session
While my main goal of the session was to fix our state's budget mess, some lawmakers were dealing with other issues that I felt distracted from the budget debate. One of those was a bill that would expand medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington. A couple of weeks ago, I sent an opinion editorial to our local newspapers outlining my concerns on this issue. I've included that article below.
Today, the governor partially vetoed the bill, saying it could put state employees at risk of federal prosecution since possession of marijuana is still a federal crime. So I'm glad she has recognized problems contained within Senate Bill 5073, the medical marijuana legislation. Still, I'm disappointed she left provisions in the bill that would allow patients to grow their own marijuana, especially since growing operations could be located anywhere – even next to a school.
District offices now open again
Please note that I have re-opened my offices in both Walla Walla and Pasco. Here is the contact information:
26 East Main, Suite 205
Walla Walla, WA 99362
Phone: (509) 526-6284
2815 St. Andrews Loop, Suite C
Pasco, WA 99301
Thank you for allowing me the honor to serve you. Please contact my offices any time you have questions or comments about state government.
Medical marijuana expansion puts state on slippery slope for legal, social problems
By Rep. Terry Nealey
(Sent to local newspapers on April 15, 2011)
An Associated Press story recently reported how the federal government would respond if Washington expands medical marijuana dispensaries: “The U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington has warned landlords they could face forfeiture of their properties if they rent to medical marijuana shops.” The story noted federal law prohibits marijuana use, quoting U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby as saying, “We intend to use the full extent of our legal remedies to enforce the law.”
Following voter approval of Initiative 692 (Medical Use of Marijuana Act) in 1998, state law has allowed qualified patients with debilitating medical conditions to grow medical marijuana for themselves or designate a provider to grow it on their behalf. However, Senate Bill 5073 would set up a formal regulatory structure that effectively expands the ability to grow and sell medical marijuana in Washington.
Supporters have ignored Ormsby's warning so far, pushing successfully for legislative passage that this bill soon may appear on the governor's desk. This is very troubling because it would put Washington on a slippery slope of legal and social problems. One only needs to look at states with similar laws to understand why expansion of dispensaries and growing operations in Washington is a bad idea.
California's liberal medical marijuana laws have made it easy for teenagers to obtain pot. “It's become a right of passage in California that when you turn 18, you go get medical marijuana cards,” said one city manager. Teenagers who turn 18 are getting prescriptions for the drug and then sharing it with friends and younger teens. Said one teenager of her friends, “It was a game to them. Some said they had headaches, some said they had anxiety. They knew what to say to get it.” The pressure is put on good doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to their patients.
In Michigan, reports have documented unscrupulous physicians willing to certify anyone. That's one of the flaws in the Washington legislation. Senate Bill 5073 would establish protection from criminal liability and arrest for health care providers and designated providers of the drug.
In Montana, Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul noted, “Now that medical marijuana has taken off, we're seeing more marijuana in the schools and hands of students. Look at the message we're sending young people: 'It's not dangerous. It's benign.'”
In fact, it's not benign. Aside from memory and learning problems, distorted perception, loss of motor coordination, and anxiety, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says marijuana smoke contains cancer-causing compounds, sometimes in higher concentrations than tobacco. Even more disturbing, another national study discovered that for the first time since 1981 there is a marked rise in teenage marijuana use.
Except for keeping dispensaries at least 500 feet from a school, the proposed Washington law has few safeguards to keep marijuana from young people. The measure would allow patient groups to grow up to 99 plants in community marijuana gardens. Those gardens could be located anywhere, even next to a school.
Then there's the issue of marijuana grow operations in the home. The bill would allow patients to grow 15 plants and possess 24 ounces of usable marijuana. In Franklin County, officers were called to an altercation at a home in which two brothers were fighting because one of the boys had smoked the marijuana grown for medical purposes by his parents.
While I understand the need for medical marijuana for legitimate patients, I am very concerned Senate Bill 5073 would widely expand growing, cultivation and access to marijuana without controlling who has access to the drug. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs clearly expressed this concern, stating: “Senate Bill 5073 places in law a commercial approach to marijuana cultivation, processing and dispensing that better fits the legalization of marijuana than the more medicinal use. It will make enforcement against recreational marijuana growing and use difficult.”
The bill's sponsor said, “it is important we put our opinions on legalization aside and fix the state's medical-marijuana law.” This incremental approach toward legalization, however, is a legitimate concern and cannot be ignored when this legislation would foster mainstream marijuana growing and dispensing operations in our communities, neighborhoods and street corners.
Finally, there's a cost factor — more than $1 million in start-up and legal fees for the state, not to mention ongoing expenses of nearly 90 new state employee positions to regulate dispensaries. How can this be justified when the Legislature has a multibillion budget deficit?
If we are to address the problems of our state's medical marijuana law, we must do it in a way that ensures only patients with terminal or debilitating conditions have access – and no one else. We must do it in a way that doesn't run afoul of federal law, doesn't increase access to children or non-patients, doesn't incrementally legalize recreational marijuana, and doesn't make growing cannabis so profitable that it surpasses apples and wheat as the state's primary cash crop. Senate Bill 5073 completely fails to provide these safeguards. Instead, it's smoke and mirrors legislation that Washington cannot afford to inhale.
Editor's note: Rep. Terry Nealey represents the 16th Legislative District and serves on the House Judiciary Committee. He is a former prosecuting attorney for Columbia County.