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State Auditor: ‘puzzled’ by federal investigation

By | March 23, 2015 | 0 Comments
State Auditor Troy Kelley

State Auditor Troy Kelley

State Auditor Troy Kelley says he doesn’t know why a federal grand jury is interested in his former real estate services company, and that he “remains puzzled” by a federal investigation that resulted in a subpoena and search of his home last week.

“I have fully cooperated with their investigation and remain puzzled by their interest,” his statement says. “I do not know any specifics about their inquiry, despite repeated requests for information, and cannot comment further.”

Federal investigators are looking into financial activities related to The Post Closing Department, Kelley’s former real estate transaction business in California, according to a subpoena released by the Auditor’s office last week.

According to The News Tribune and The Olympian, the U.S. Attorney seeks information on Jason Jerue, a California man who worked with Kelley at the business, and who has worked as a contractor for the state Auditor’s office since 2013.

The subpoena of the Auditor’s office seeks information on Jerue’s recent employment by the state auditor and emails related to a 2010 lawsuit against the company and “any criminal offense,” according to The Seattle Times.

Kelley’s office is cooperating with the federal investigation, he said in his Monday morning statement.

“I can assure you that all of my actions over the years have been lawful and appropriate,” the statement read.

Statement from Auditor Troy Kelley

Kelley says The Post Closing Department, which provided real estate services, closed in 2008. The Post Closing Department was sued by another company in 2010, under allegations of misappropriation of funds and questionable business dealings, according to a 2012 Associated Press story. The lawsuit was settled in 2011.

Kelley’s Tacoma home was searched by U.S. Treasury agents on March 16, according to The News Tribune, and federal investigators have requested information about Kelley from the House of Representatives and the state Department of Revenue.

Kelly, a Democrat, served for six years in the House, representing the 28th District. In 2012, he defeated Republican James Watkins for the seat vacated by Auditor Brian Sonntag.

During the election, Watkins accused Kelley of misdeeds in an interview with both candidates on TVW’s “Inside Olympia.”

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Medal of Valor issued to communities in Oso landslide

By | March 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

As one-year anniversary of the devastating Oso landslide that killed 43 people approaches, lawmakers honored the local communities with a Medal of Valor for rescue, recovery and relief work.

The medals were presented Wednesday to Arlington, Darrington, Oso and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe. The recognition was the first one ever issued to multiple people.

On the morning of March 22, 2014, a hillside near Oso gave way, pushing mud and debris into the Stillaguamish River and destroying more than 40 homes and other structures.

Dozens of people were injured or killed by the wall of mud, and many saw their homes destroyed and lives disrupted. Hundreds of rescuers, many of whom were from the immediate communities, arrived to help dig survivors and victims free from the mud, and help the community recover from the disaster.

Brantly Stupey, a 14-year-old accepting the award on behalf of the city of Arlington, said that despite the difficulties, many in the community showed their best sides by pitching in to help.

“The battle for healing is ongoing, but through continued unity, with time, all will heal,” said Brantly, who, with his schoolmates, helped distribute food and water after the disaster.

Quinn Nations, a logger who was one of the first ones to help after the disaster, accepted the award on behalf of the town of Darrington.

“I hope you have about 2,000 more of them, because there are a lot of people here who deserve one of them,” Nations said.

Willy Harper, Oso Fire Chief, said that there is still a long road ahead for the community of Oso, but the community was grateful for the outpouring of support.

“That day our community grew, it grew beyond Arlington, they grew beyond Darrington, beyond Sauk-Suiattle,” Harper said.

Kevin Lenon, vice chairman of the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, paid tribute to those who died.

“We can most respectfully honor the memories of the precious lost ones by working together to build a strong and inviting community for the world to come and see and share and forever implant the importance of the names and lives of those who have moved on to another world,” Lenon said.

Two others were issued the state’s Medal of Merit, which recognizes a lifetime of service in Washington. Gretchen Schodde is the founder of the Harmony Hill Retreat Center which helps individuals and families affected by cancer. The late Billy Frank, Jr., who died last year, was a Native American rights activist who participated in the Fish Wars and was the head of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. His sons, Willie and Tobin Frank, accepted the award on their father’s behalf. (more…)

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Transportation, minimum wage, mental health bills make cutoff

By | March 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

capitol_domeSome of the bills that got a lot of attention this session made it through the chamber of origin cutoff deadline, which was 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Here’s a list of some of the notable legislation that made it through, and their statuses in the House and Senate.

Transportation package passes the Senate - A $15 billion transportation package, with an incremental 11.5 cent rise in gas tax, passed the Senate. The package comes with a variety of projects from all over the state, and with a number of policy changes requested by Republicans. Senate Democrats used the debate on the legislation to overturn a Majority Coalition Caucus-established rule to require a two-thirds vote for new taxes.

$12 minimum wage, sick and safe leave – The House passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2019. The House also passed a bill that would require employers to give employees mandatory personal leave for illness or dealing with a domestic violence situation. The bills now head to the state Senate, where the Republicans hold a majority. The Majority Coalition Caucus leadership has said the reception in the Senate may be “chilly.”

Medical marijuana regulations  – SB 5052, the medical marijuana proposal by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, passed the Senate. It would create a system to license medical marijuana growers and sellers, and creates a database for patients. The bill now heads to the House.

PTSD qualifies for medical marijuana – SB 5379 would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for PTSD. A number of veterans testified on behalf of the bill, when it was heard in committee.

New Washington State University medical school – The state would get a new public medical school at Washington State University under bills passed in the Senate and the House. Currently, the University of Washington is the only public higher education institution in the state that has a medical school. Both bills will head to the opposite chambers for further consideration.

Alternatives to clean energy requirements – The Senate passed a bill that would allow power companies alternatives to a voter-approved requirements to get electricity from renewable resources. However, the bill passed after some tussling over an amendment that added language referring to climate change being caused by humans. (more…)

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Sheena and Chris Henderson Law, other mental health bills, pass House

By | March 9, 2015 | 0 Comments
Sheena Henderson (Photo via the Sheena Henderson Memorial Page via Facebook.)

Sheena Henderson (Photo via the Sheena Henderson Memorial Page via Facebook.)

The House passed six mental health bills off the floor Monday, including the Sheena and Chris Henderson Law.

HB 1448 would allow officers responding to a threat of suicide to refer the person to a designated mental health professional. That mental health professional can determine whether the person needs more intensive intervention, including involuntary commitment.

The law is named after Sheena and Chris Henderson, a Spokane couple who died after Chris Henderson shot and killed his estranged wife, Sheena, at her place of work, and then turned the gun on himself.

Chris Henderson had been making suicidal threats before the incident, which his family and friends had reported to law enforcement. However, his family says Chris Henderson was evaluated for a total of three hours before he was released, and his family reported that they were left with few options to make him get treatment.

Unbeknownst to his family, the day before the shooting, Chris Henderson retrieved his gun that had been confiscated by law enforcement. Another bill would establish a policy to inform families when confiscated guns are retrieved is also being considered by lawmakers.

The Sheena and Chris Henderson Law passed 93 to 5.

Another bill that was passed out of the House Monday, SB 5889, has already passed out of the Senate, and will head to the governor for a signature, according to the Associated Press.

SB 5889 would establish a 14-day maximum stay in jail while a defendant awaits the determination of competency to stand trial. The state faces a federal court case related to people being housed in jail for long periods of time while awaiting a determination of competency. The bill passed 84-14.

Other mental bills that were passed off the floor were:

HB 1599 – Concerning secure facilities for the criminally insane, passed 96-2.

HB 1536 – Addressing the timing of emergency detentions and assessments under the involuntary treatment act, passed 97-1.

HB 1450 – Concerning involuntary outpatient mental health treatment, passed 90-8.

HB 1713  – Integrating the treatment systems for mental health and chemical dependency, passed 63-35.

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Inslee criticizes intolerance after recent vandalism, violence

By | March 6, 2015 | 0 Comments

Gov. Jay Inslee called for greater tolerance of diversity after two acts of vandalism against two Hindu temples in the Seattle area in the past month.

“Diversity really is a cornerstone of our state, it’s what makes us such a great place to live work and raise our kids,” he said.

On Feb. 15, someone scrawled the words “get out” and a swastika on an exterior wall of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Bothell. Two weeks later, the windows were broken out of the Sanatan Dharma Temple in Kent and the word “FEAR” was written on the wall.

Inslee also decried the recent violence against the gay community, including an arson of a nightclub and the murder of two men in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which took place last year.

“There are still elements that act as agents of intolerance and hate and we have got to stand up against them every day,” Inslee said. “I am condemning these acts of intolerance, intimidation and violence.”

Inslee also mentioned a recent incident in Pasco, in which a mentally ill man was shot to death by police officers.

“We don’t know yet all the facts behind the shooting death in Pasco and until we do we all will need to remain patient,” he said. “But we do know that some in the community clearly feel marginalized and expressed concerns about whether immigrants who don’t speak English or suffer from mental illness are treated fairly.”

Inslee made his remarks at the start of a press conference that touched a number of topics, including transportation and education. He also spoke with the leaders of the Hindu temples that were targeted and with local Muslim leaders.

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Lawmakers address questions of teacher COLA

By | February 27, 2015 | 0 Comments

Voter-approved teacher cost-of-living-adjustments, or COLAs, have been tabled for the past six years. So, midway through the 2015 session, Republican and Democratic lawmakers addressed questions about whether this is the year the teacher COLA would come back.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, told reporters at a press conference Tuesday that she was happy to see the 3 percent cost-of-living-adjustment for teachers built into the state’s balanced four-year budget outlook.

She said teachers in her district have been seeing take-home pay shrink in recent years.

“Their paychecks are declining because they are actually paying more for their health care, and they are bringing home significantly less money, and I’m not just talking a little bit,” she said. “So I was really thrilled to hear Sen. (Andy) Hill say that he built in the 3 percent COLA into the four-year balanced budget.”

Rivers was one of several Republican panelists at a weekly media availability.

The Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, which produces the Budget Outlook, projects expenditures and revenue for the next four years based on current law. Hill not only chairs the council, he is the Senate’s chief budget writer as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

While Initiative 732, an annual cost of living adjustment for teachers, was approved by voters in 2000 and is written into law, it has been suspended by the state during economic downturns. However, the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council did include the initiative in the most recent iteration of the Budget Outlook, which shows a positive balance over the next four years.

For the Democrats, Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Seattle, at a press availability on Thursday, said there was strong support for a teacher raise in their caucus, but declined to fix on a percentage.

“They’ve gone six years without a COLA,” he said. “I think there will be strong support on our budget team and in our caucus for a COLA.”

The House proposed budget is expected to be released in March, followed by the Senate’s proposal.

Gov. Jay Inslee‘s 2015-17 budget included a 3 percent cost of living adjustment the first year and 1.8 percent the following year, which will cost $386 million over the two years.

The press conferences followed the week after the release of the state revenue forecast for 2015-2017, which showed a moderate increase of $140 million over previous predictions. 

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Idea to raise speed limits to 75 mph gets over bump in House

By | February 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

A new proposal to allow for highway speed limits of up to 75 mph was heard and passed in a House Transportation committee meeting Thursday morning.

HB 2181 would allow the Washington State Department of Transportation to raise speed limits in areas throughout the state where safe. It passed out of the Transportation committee 22-3.

Washington State Department of Transportation traffic engineer John Nisbet told the panel that the state would work with other groups to determine which areas in the state would be safe to get a boost in the maximum speed limit.

Right now, in most areas of the state, the maximum speed limit allowed on a state highway is 60 mph, though local authorities may raise it to 70 mph. The bill’s language does not alter the 60 mph speed limit for vehicles heavier than 10,000 pounds, such as semi-trucks and other large vehicles.

I-90 near Ellensburg. (Photo by WSDOT via Flickr.)

The bill differs from another bill that would set a 75 mph speed limit on Interstate 90 through Kittitas, Grant, Lincoln, and Adams counties.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said he supported giving WSDOT a chance to explore raising the speed limit.

“At first, I really wanted to have a stick that said, ‘DOT, thou shalt raise it except in certain situations,’ ” he said. “This is a reasonable approach for right now.”

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said that he had concerns about the earlier bill, but that he would support 2181.

“It’s prudent to check it out if we can raise [speed limits] if it is safe,” said Riccelli, who also mentioned that he is a frequent motorist on rural I-90.

“A lot of people alongside me are going a little quicker anyway, and I think they’d like to be doing that within the realm of the law.”

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House considers extension of electric vehicle sales tax exemption

By | February 23, 2015 | 0 Comments

An electric vehicle sales tax exemption would continue until 2025, under a bill heard Monday in the House Finance Committee.

The tax incentive, due to end this year, would apply to the first $60,000 of the vehicle’s price. Currently the tax exemption has no restriction on the vehicle price.

A Smart car plugged in at the North American International Auto Show. Photo by smart via Facebook.

The sales tax exemption could save a car buyer up to $3,900 in state sales and use tax on the first $60,000 of an electric car purchase. The state estimated the changes would reduce state revenues by $5.5 million in the 2016 fiscal year, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

JJ McCoy, a member of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association, says the HB 1925 would encourage the average consumer to choose an electric vehicle, which would save them money on fuel in the long run. He said that spending money on gasoline is not the best economic driver.

“If they can save money on fuel, that’s money that people will spend on almost anything else, whether it’s food or entertainment or personal services. Those are far better generators of jobs in the local economy,” he said.

Cliff Webster of GM also testified in support, but asked lawmakers to work on the language so additional plug-in electric hybrids, like the Chevrolet Volt, can qualify. The Volt currently does not qualify for the same sales tax exemption, according to the state Department of Revenue.

The House Finance committee heard testimony from 13 bills on Monday morning, and took executive action on several bills. You can watch the hearing in TVW’s archives.

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Senate bill to end Daylight Saving Time in Washington dies

By | February 19, 2015 | 0 Comments

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, hadn’t been the only lawmaker who proposed ending Daylight Saving Time in Washington, but the idea’s time is not now.

McCoy’s proposal died in the Senate Governmental Operations and Security Committee on Thursday, after a lack of support.

Committee member McCoy told the other members some of his constituents have complained of health issues from “springing forward” every March.

“They say it interrupts their sleep and gets them out of cycle and everything else,” he said. “Because we’re a northern tier state, in the summer months, our days are long naturally. So fooling around with the clock, I don’t see any advantage in it.”

Daylight Saving Time is when clocks are set ahead by an hour in the springtime. It was established to take advantage of daylight hours during the summer time, according to an information page on the NASA website. Most states abide by this standard. Arizona and Hawaii are exceptions.

 Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, said he thought it was a worthy topic of discussion because of the health concerns — and says he feels them whenever the clocks are changed —  but wondered how it would affect jobs.

“My question was for people who do work with particularly the Eastern seaboard, adding an additional hour means they’re now instead of three hours off they are four hours off from work colleagues,” he said.

McCoy said that his friends in Arizona and Hawaii, two states that do not observe Daylight Saving Time, told him that residents adapt.

The bill was considered in executive session, but after determining there was little support, the committee skipped the vote. Friday would have been the deadline for bills to pass out of committee in order to continue this session.

McCoy’s was not the only bill this session to reconsider the clock. Rep. Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe, introduced a similar bill in the House that would establish Pacific Standard Time year-round in Washington. Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, introduced a House Joint Memorial that would ask Congress to establish Daylight Saving Time all year.

Daylight Saving Time starts on March 8 this year.

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Inslee signs supplemental budget for wildfires, mental health

By | February 19, 2015 | 0 Comments

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the first bill of the session on Thursday, supplementing the current budget with more than $217 million for disaster relief and additional funds to the state’s mental health and child welfare systems.

“Leaders worked very quickly and very diligently to respond to the extraordinary, unanticipated costs of the past 12 months,” Inslee said. “I do think it portends well that the Legislature has been able to act with great efficiency and speed to reach an agreement on how to get this done.”

House Bill 1105 allocates more than $77 million to fire and disaster management. Some of the funds will go towards repaying costs accrued from the Carlton Complex fire, the largest in state history.

The supplemental budget also funds 45 beds at Western State Hospital. Thirty beds would be for the civil ward, and 15 would be for the forensic ward. The funding is partly a response to a lawsuit that the state lost last year, which ruled the state could not continue to board mental health patients in emergency rooms.

Other mental health funds will pay for an increased number of competency evaluation services, which determine whether a person is fit to stand trial. Patients allege they were forced to wait an unconstitutional amount of time before receiving such evaluations. Earlier this year, a Department of Social and Health Services official told lawmakers the department needed more funding to provide such services faster.

The bill also includes a partial payout in Rekhter v. Washington Department of Social and Health Services. The state Supreme Court ruled 5-4, ordering the department to reimburse 22,000 in-home care providers $79 million for unpaid services.

The budget also puts additional funds in the state’s child welfare system.  Lawmakers moved up the state’s annual budget forecast, which historically had been delivered on March 20 in budget years. It will be presented on Friday, one month earlier.

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