Whatcom lawmakers had wins, losses in record session

People work on the Senate floor, Tuesday, June 30, 2015, as a session of the Washington Legislature stretches into the evening at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
People work on the Senate floor, Tuesday, June 30, 2015, as a session of the Washington Legislature stretches into the evening at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. AP

Whatcom County won some and lost some during the longest-ever year for the Washington state Legislature.

With Democrats in charge of the House and governor’s office, and Republicans controlling the Senate, the three Democrats and three Republicans who represent the county agreed the outcome after 176 days and four separate sessions was a mixed bag. What counted as a win, and what was a loss, often depended on which side you asked.

“There’s a lot of lukewarm enthusiasm, I think, for what passed,” said Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon. “It took a lot for people to realize it’s about not getting everything you want. You probably get half of what you want and probably have to take half of what you don’t want.”

Lawmakers from the two parties in the 40th and 42nd legislative districts, which both include Whatcom County, said Western Washington University gained a huge victory when the Legislature approved $70 million to pay for renovation of Sam Carver Gymnasium and academic center. Construction is expected to begin soon and be completed by spring 2017.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said the big price tag on the project had been too much to ask for until this year.

“It’s been a priority for decades, and we finally got it done,” Ranker said. “It doesn’t even meet the most basic earthquake standards. It’s just falling apart, and finally we’re going to rebuild it.”

Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, also noted the funding for Carver Gym.

“It kept getting passed over, so we really pushed on that to make sure it was included this year,” Buys said.

Both parties praised a Republican proposal to reduce college tuition that made it into the final budget. WWU’s tuition drops by 19 percent from 2014-15 to 2016-17.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, in an email said the tuition cuts could be likened to tax relief for working-class families.

Oil-train safety legislation passed through a compromise between the two parties, but Ranker said the final bill fell short of what he had co-sponsored in the Senate.

While the new law included advance notice to first responders when oil is transferred from rail cars — something Ranker had wanted — it dropped any safety measures for marine oil traffic.

Ranker graded the legislation an “F” on the marine side and a “C-plus” for rail safety.

Ericksen has said the focus on rail traffic was justified.

“As soon as some of the Democrats realized we’re working on crude by rail, we made better progress,” Ericksen said in April, when the oil transportation bill passed. “Crude by rail is the emerging issue, it’s the one people are concerned about, and we already have the best marine safety system in the world.”

One of the more notable defeats acknowledged by Democrats was that Gov. Jay Inslee’s fee for carbon-polluting industries failed to even make it to a vote in the Democrat-controlled House.

Ranker, who sponsored the Senate version of the carbon pollution bill, said he didn’t expect to see a carbon tax or cap-and-trade proposal introduced in the Legislature next year.

Petitioners are gathering signatures to put Initiative 732 on the 2016 ballot. The initiative would create a carbon tax while reducing sales and business taxes.

“We just need to admit that the Legislature doesn’t have the wisdom nor the guts to take action on climate change,” Ranker said. “What we need to do is go to a vote of the people.”

Morris and Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, pushed to get projects in the 42nd Legislative District (north Whatcom County) into the $16.1 billion transportation package, though they represent the 40th (south Whatcom and other counties).

“We’ve all got to work together to build the infrastructure across our state. I know the folks in the 42nd did not vote for the transportation package,” Lytton said.

The final transportation package included some but not all of the reforms the Republican-led Senate called for in its transportation proposal, released in February.

Ericksen had voted for the early Senate version but not the final package.

“Transportation deal taxes too much, reforms nothing and ignores the needs of Whatcom County,” Ericksen said in an emailed response to a request for an interview.

In fact, the county got $88 million for five projects: a new on-ramp at Interstate 5 and Bakerview Road, roundabouts on Slater Road, a new I-5 interchange in Blaine, a new I-5 underpass at Orchard Drive in Bellingham, and a pedestrian overpass on Meridian Street.

Freshman Rep. Luanne Van Werven, R-Lynden, took her opposition to the transportation package further, saying she was even opposed to the Senate version because it called for a gas tax. The Legislature ultimately approved an 11.9 cent per gallon gas tax, which reportedly gives Washington the second highest gas tax in the U.S.

“These projects that are coming to Whatcom County are going to be very beneficial for construction companies,” Van Werven said. “I do recognize that, but I had to look at the bigger picture, the fact that this 12 cent gas tax ... was going to be a huge hit for people who could least afford it.”

“My constituents opposed it, and they let me know that,” she said.

She also said she “crunched the numbers” and figured that the county would be a net loser with the transportation package.

“Over the next 16 years, our county will pay $96 million more in gas taxes than we get back in projects,” Van Werven told constituents in a newsletter emailed on Tuesday, July 14.

In typical fashion, Buys, the ranking minority member on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee, focused on ways to help Whatcom farmers. He got approval to have the state Department of Agriculture study whether hemp and hemp seed could be allowed as feed for livestock.

“Whatcom County is one of those target areas where you’ve got individuals looking to grow industrial hemp. ... We have to conduct some studies to show it’s going to be safe for the end consumer of the animal products,” Buys said.

Buys also worked to give Lynden credit on its water right for water that goes back into the Nooksack River from the Darigold factory’s process for powdering milk.

Lynden will benefit from a $2 million capital project to reroute a water discharge pipe from the Darigold output so it flows into the Nooksack River upstream from the city’s intake, a change that will allow for the credit.

Morris, chair of the House Technology and Economic Development committee, advocated for limiting the use of drones in the state and ensuring that federal rules are enforced, but the bill did not pass.

“We’re at the point now where drone deployment is so far ahead of legislation, it’s dangerous and embarrassing,” Morris said. “I was at a fireworks show in Mount Vernon over the Fourth of July, and even though the laws are that you’re not supposed to launch drones over a crowd, people were doing it. ... We need to step in and establish requirements for insurance, liability, basic rules.”

Morris also wanted to limit businesses from collecting and selling information such as DNA, facial recognition, and retina scans without someone’s consent. The bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate after companies spoke against the bill for potentially limiting them from sharing data on shoplifters, Morris said.

Along with those losses came some victories, including a new law to help thermal energy projects that combine heat and power in cogeneration.

An example could be to set up a heating system in downtown Bellingham via the Encogen power generating station near the waterfront, Morris said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.