Puget Sound leaders call on lawmakers to fund light rail expansion

By | April 20, 2015 | Comments

With a week left in Washington’s legislative session, transportation proposals in the House and Senate remain about $4 billion apart in taxing authority for Sound Transit.

uwstationGov. Jay Inslee joined King County Executive Dow Constantine and other leaders on Friday at University of Washington station, the region’s newest light rail stop, to make a plea for lawmakers to include the full $15 billion in funding authority.

That’s how much Sound Transit says it wants to send to voters in 2016 to fund light rail expansions through Puget Sound, building tracks to Everett, Tacoma and beyond.

But it’s a number some lawmakers are hung up on as the Legislature tries for a third year to pass a major transportation package. The Democrat-led House proposal includes the full $15 billion, but the GOP-controlled Senate proposal has $11 billion in funding authority.

Sound Transit chair Constantine says $11 billion is not enough. Washington needs light rail to ease congestion on state roads – like the backup caused by an overturned truck full of bees early Friday morning.

“Most of us have to plan for a whole bunch of extra wasted time just in case the bridge is backed up, just in case there’s an accident,” he said. “That is very bad for people’s productivity, less time with you family, less time earning money.”

Both the House and Senate have agreed on a 16-year, $15 billion transportation plan to pay for highway, road and bridge projects funded through an 11.7-cent gas tax increase over the next three years. Lawmakers have until Sunday, the last day in the regular session, to pass the plan unless there’s a special session.

State Auditor Troy Kelley pleads not guilty to 10 counts in federal court

By | April 17, 2015 | Comments
State Auditor Troy Kelley surrounded by media as he leaves the U.S. District Court after pleading not guilty to 10 counts. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

State Auditor Troy Kelley surrounded by media as he leaves the U.S. District Court after pleading not guilty to 10 counts. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

State Auditor Troy Kelley entered a not guilty plea to 10 counts connected to tax evasion and obstruction in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Richard Creatura set the trial date at June 8, and released Kelley on his own recognizance. Creatura allowed Kelley to travel to South Korea for scheduled Washington National Guard duty and throughout Washington for his children’s sports events.

Amid calls for his resignation from Democrats, Republicans and Gov. Jay Inslee, Kelley maintained his innocence and announced he would be taking a leave of absence from his position starting May 1.

“I take this action to allow my office to the important work without distractions and to allow me to participate fully in my defense,” he read from a statement in front of reporters at a press conference. “I fully expect to resume my duties when these old legal matters are finally put to rest.”

Kelley read from the prepared statement before leaving through a back door, on advice from his lawyers.

State Auditor Troy Kelley, behind the podium, addresses reporters as his attorneys (l-r) Rob McCallum and Mark Bartlett, look on. (Photo by Venice Buhain)

State Auditor Troy Kelley, behind the podium, addresses reporters as his attorneys (l-r) Rob McCallum and Mark Bartlett, look on. (Photo by Venice Buhain)

“I’m very confident — very confident — that I will be able to prove my innocence. I look forward to doing that in an open court of law,” he read.

He maintained that he will clear his name and his activities at the company are in line with current real estate practices.

“It’s not our intent to settle the case, unless there’s a dismissal of the indictment,” one of his attorneys Rob McCallum told reporters.

Kelley has been under public scrutiny since March, when federal investigators raided his Tacoma home, and requested information from the State Auditor’s Office.

It emerged that the federal investigators were looking into financial activities related to The Post Closing Department, Kelley’s former real estate transaction business in California. They also had requested information related to Jason JeRue, who worked with Kelley at the California company, and then took a part time remote job at the Auditor’s office in 2013.

The charges filed this week are related to alleged activities Kelley conducted at Post Closing Department. According to the indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Thursday, Kelley withheld more than $2 million that he was supposed to return to clients and that he moved the money between accounts and between states. The indictment also alleges that when the companies filed a lawsuit to get the money back, Kelley lied under oath. The indictment also alleges that Kelley filed false income tax returns, and then lied to Internal Revenue Service agents who questioned him about it in April 2013.

U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Langlie declined to comment on whether charges were forthcoming against JeRue.

Each count is punishable between 3 and 10 years in prison, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office.

Kelley, a Democrat, was a state legislator elected to the State Auditor’s Office after Auditor Brian Sonntag decided not to run.

The State Auditor’s Office is consulting with the State Attorney General’s Office to find out whether Kelley will be paid during his leave of absence, according to spokesman Thomas Shapley.

McCallum and Kelley’s other attorney, Mark Bartlett, told reporters that it was unusual for a criminal case to be filed in connection to a settled civil case.

“I have never ever seen a criminal case brought related to civil deposition or civil filings,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said that Kelley believed that the case was behind him before he ran for the state auditor’s office.

“That tells you more about what was in Troy Kelley’s mind than anything else. He clearly didn’t think he’d done anything wrong,” Barlett said.

“If he had thought he did anything wrong,the last thing he would have done is run for office.”

Kelley indicted on federal charges; asked to resign

By | April 16, 2015 | Comments

Washington State Auditor Troy Kelley, the official responsible for ensuring the state’s financial integrity, was indicted Thursday on federal tax evasion charges. A federal grand jury says the Tacoma Democrat stole millions, filed false tax returns and lied under oath.

A 41-page indictment alleges Kelley kept more than $1 million collected while operating a mortgage reconveyance company between 2003 and 2008.

He’s been charged with 10 counts, including possession of stolen property, corrupt interference with Internal Revenue laws, tax evasion and four counts of obstruction.

Acting U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes said in a statement: “Mr. Kelley spun a web of lies in an effort to avoid paying his taxes and keep more than a million dollars that he knew did not belong to him, but instead should have been returned to thousands of homeowners across this state.”

The indictment comes exactly one month after federal agents searched Kelley’s home on March 16, and, later, subpoenaed his office for records. He has been under investigation since 2013.

Kelley says he has no plans to resign, but will take a leave of absence beginning May 1. “I believe the indictment has no merit and want to note that none of the allegations touch on my work as an elected official in any way,” he said in a statement.

The first-term auditor appeared Thursday before a federal court in Tacoma. He pleaded not guilty and was released without bail. If convicted of a felony, state law would force him to step down.

At a press conference following the court appearance, Kelley read a version of the written statement he released earlier in the day, did not take questions and left through a back door while his lawyers spoke to reporters.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for Kelley’s resignation.

Gov. Jay Inslee asked him to step down right away. “This indictment today makes it clear to me that Troy Kelley cannot continue as state auditor,” he said in a statement. “He should resign immediately. An appointee can restore confidence in the office and assure the public that the Office of the State Auditor will operate at the high standards required of the post.”

Sen. Mark Miloscia, the Federal Way Republican who against Kelley, said the indictment compromises public trust in the office. “He’s a leader, representing all the voters and elected officials, making sure everybody is ethical, and not lying, cheating and stealing,” Miloscia said. “But having an auditor that has been indicted on lying, cheating and stealing, I know, gives nobody confidence in that office at all.”

If Kelley resigns, an interim state auditor would be appointed until the following election.

If he doesn’t resign, lawmakers have discussed options for impeachment. Under state law, the House has to vote to impeach an elected official, then the Senate can hold a trial and decide whether to remove him.

Auburn Republican Rep. Drew Stokesbary is leading the push to remove Kelley from office. “He needs to resign and it doesn’t look like he’s going to,” he said. “He did the same thing he always does at the press conference: deny everything, claim ignorance, evade, run and hide and hope people forget about it.”

Voters will get to elect a new auditor this year if Kelley steps down before May 10. If he stays in office past May 11, a vote wouldn’t happen until 2016. Stokesbary says the public shouldn’t have to wait that long.

Democrat leaders, too, want Kelley to step down.

Rep. Pat Sullivan, Covington Democrat and House Majority Leader, says it will help restore confidence. “We want to ensure the state auditor’s office has the standing and credibility that the public expects,” he said. “Him stepping down would allow for a process, either through appointment or through special election, in order for that to be filled and the credibility to continue in a way that it should.”

But former Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag says that trust might be tough to get back. “More than anything else, it’s a feeling of sadness,” he said. “I feel bad for state government, for the employees of that office and the citizens of Washington who really have a real trust in that office and whoever holds it. Public trust can be fragile and when broken, can be tough to repair.”

Kelley’s trial is set to begin June 8.

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Dueling school levy reform bills emerge from Senate, hearing set for Thursday

By | April 15, 2015 | Comments

Senate lawmakers unveiled dueling levy reform bills from both sides of the aisle Wednesday, 11 days before the Washington state legislature winds down its regular session.

The two levy concepts will get a hearing at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Under a court mandate from the McCleary decision to fully fund basic education from state coffers, lawmakers say they want to reduce the reliance of local levies from basic education and increase the burden of the cost on the state.

Many districts currently use their local levy money to pay for things that would be considered basic education, such as teacher salaries. Some districts also have a harder time getting levies approved by voters.

However, Democrats and Republicans have differing approaches for how to boost state funding for basic education.

Senate Democrats Wednesday morning rolled out their plan, which includes a levy reform bill dropped by Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, that would fund teacher salaries starting in 2018, and then lower the local levy revenue dollar per dollar. The bill sets the maximum levy authority for local districts at $1 per $1,000 of assessed value, beginning in 2023.

The increased state spending would be paid through a 7 percent capital gains tax that would apply to gains higher than $250,000 for single taxpayer (or $500,000 per couple). It would not apply to houses. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced that bill and said the proposal would raise $1.2 billion in the next biennium and would apply to about 7,500 people.

Kindergarten class. Photo by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kindergarten class. Photo by the U.S. Department of Education.

At the Democrats’ press conference. Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, also discussed her bill that phases in an increase in education funding, including a six-year plan for teacher compensation and year-by-year roll out of class size reductions in all grades. She said that gets to the full McCleary plan.

Wednesday afternoon Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, introduced a competing plan, which also would replace local levy money being used for compensation with state money, while reducing the local levy amounts dollar for dollar. His plan caps school levies at $1.25 per $1,000 of assessed value.

However, his bill would be funded through an increase of about $1.50 per $1,000 in the statewide levy for schools, which currently is set at $1.98 per $1,000 of assessed value. However, Dammeier says the change would be revenue neutral, because there would be a corresponding reduction in local levies.

So, while individual taxpayers may see a change in their tax bills, the burden would be shifted to the state common schools levy rather than the local district levy.

His bill also calls for a six-year phase in of a change in teacher pay, making it more uniform across regions of the state. The bill would repeal the teacher COLA that was approved in Initiative 732, and the state would set a statewide salary schedule with adjustments for level of education and for regional variables in costs of living. The phase-in period would allow teachers at a lower salary to catch up with more highly compensated teachers in the same region, and no teacher would see a reduction in pay, he said.

Dammeier said that his plan evens out teacher pay across regions of the state as well as district levy levels, which he says has been an issue of fairness over the the past 30 years.

The solution has “got to be fair, it’s got be equitable and it’s got to be sustainable,” he said.

But Ranker said while Dammeier’s plan will lower taxes in some districts, most districts throughout the state could see an increase in property taxes. He said that’s why he made his capital gains proposal —which would affect 7,500 people — instead.

“We looked different scenarios, and this would raise taxes for many people. That’s why we said we’re going to look at another funding source,” Ranker said.

Hargrove and Dammeier’s bills are scheduled for a hearing at the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday.

TVW recorded both press conferences. They will be posted in the archives.

Good-to-Go problems? Bill aims to address complaints

By | April 15, 2015 | Comments

A bill aiming to address drivers’ complaints about the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Good-to-Go tolling system is moving forward, as it passed unanimously in the House Tuesday afternoon, with amendments.

The State Route 520 bridge uses electronic tolling. Photo by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The State Route 520 bridge uses electronic tolling. Photo by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Senate Bill 5481 adds customer service enhancements to the state’s electronic tolling system, including requiring a letter of apology to customers for errors made by WSDOT or the tolling system.

The state tolling system has been subject to much criticism over the past few years from drivers who say that they have been levied unreasonable penalties without warning, or mistakenly billed.

Drivers also have said that WSDOT’s toll appeals system is difficult to navigate.

The bill requires the WSDOT to contact prepaid electronic toll account holders to inform such holders of unpaid tolls.

It also gives additional discretion to administrative law judges to dismiss civil penalties due to mitigating circumstances, and authorizes the WSDOT to dismiss civil penalties in certain circumstances.

Vehicle dealerships would be able to sell Good-to-Go transponders under the measure. The bill also calls for a redesign of the website to be more user-friendly.

It heads back to the Senate for further consideration.

House lawmakers on the floor praised the intent of the bill.

“We should be talking about good customer service. We should talk about being civil, not civil penalties,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

“I think this bill will do something to improve the public’s trust of the Department of Transportation,” said Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington.

Medical marijuana bill passes both chambers, heads to governor for signature

By | April 15, 2015 | Comments

New regulations for the state’s medical marijuana system have passed both chambers, after the Senate passed Senate Bill 5052 on a 41-8 vote Tuesday afternoon.

Medical MarijuanaThe Senate concurred with amendments passed by the House last Friday, which means the bill heads to Gov. Jay Inslee‘s desk for a signature before becoming law.

“This bill has been well worked and it’s been quite a journey,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who sponsored the bill.

The amended bill will:

  • Require licensed marijuana retailers to obtain a medical marijuana endorsement to sell medical-grade marijuana to qualifying patients and designated providers.
  • Eliminates collective gardens and replaces them with cooperatives. Cooperatives may only have four qualifying patients or designated providers and must be registered with the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
  • Establishes a voluntary database of qualifying patients and providers. The bill also requires patients to obtain a recognition card for increased amounts of marijuana products and to be protected from arrest.
  • Establishes different amounts of marijuana that qualifying patients may possess depending on whether or not they have a recognition card or authorization from a health care professional for an additional amount.

SB 5052 also adds post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries to the list of terminal or debilitating medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana and it changes the Liquor Control Board’s name to the Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, acknowledged Rivers’ work and said the medical marijuana rules needed to be updated after voters passed Initiative 502, which decriminalized recreational marijuana.

“We do need to have an alignment of our recreational system with our medical system,” Kohl-Welles said.

However, she was concerned that cities and counties are not getting enough from the marijuana taxes to cover enforcement, and that current medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state will be able to enter the licensing system.

“Unless my vote is needed — I don’t think it will be — I’m going to be voting no, because I need to make that point for the patients,” she said.

Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, said he was concerned that the bill will leave out many Washingtonians who are already using medical marijuana, under the previous, voter-approved system. He also voted no.

“All of a sudden they’re going to be criminals,” Dansel said. “I think we’re not getting this right. We’re going after the wrong thing.”

Sen. Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma, voted for the bill, but expressed similar concerns that the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana leaves out many who already have a prescription.

“I felt we had an opportunity to include them in this bill,” she said.

She told the story of one of her constituents, who was prescribed medical cannabis after being the victim of a crime.

“She might not be included because of her conditions in this rather short sighted definition of who qualifies,” she said.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, congratulated Rivers on her work on the bill, but said that she expected that lawmakers are not done with the issue.

“On the whole, I think we’ve made great progress,” she said.

The bill report is posted on the legislature’s website.

House passes oil transport bill, 58 to 40

By | April 14, 2015 | Comments

The House passed an oil transportation bill on Tuesday that supporters say will better prepare the state in case of catastrophic oil spill.

The bill collects an 8 cent per barrel fee from rail lines, vessels and pipelines that will help pay for oil spill prevention and clean up. It also requires railroads to create oil spill contingency plans and demonstrate that the company can pay for a “reasonable worst case oil spill.”

Republican Rep. Vincent Buys introduced an amendment that would have removed the fee from pipelines, and halved the fee for rail and vessels. “We’ve never had this fee on pipelines and it is not appropriate to put it on the pipelines,” he said. “Pipelines aren’t where we have to worry about the major spills in our state.”

But Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, said that pipeline should pay their share. “There are oil spills that can result from having oil coming into the state from pipeline,” he said. “It’s appropriate that they bear some portion of the cost for the prevention and cleanup of these spills.”

The amendment failed, largely along party lines with Democrats opposed and Republicans in support. oil train

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, said the final bill represents a “reasonable compromise” that takes into account what local first responders and communities need to protect against an oil spill, while also making sure the state can pay for the programs outlined in the measure.

Opponents argued that the bill should not tax pipelines and expressed concern that it will collect more money than needed.

“We already know that doing this is going to bring in far more revenue than is needed to implement the program,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. “There’s a whole lot of tax, but I have to ask the question: Where is that going to go?”

The bill passed with a vote of 58 to 40, and heads back to the Senate.

Read the full striker amendment adopted by the House.

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Frustrated with Legislature, Randy Dorn unveils OSPI K-12 plan

By | April 14, 2015 | Comments

Randy DornFrustrated with the House, Senate and governor’s proposals to fund K-12 education, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn unveiled an OSPI funding plan for K-12 on Tuesday.

Dorn’s plan decreases class sizes not only in kindergarten through third grade, but also grades 4 through 12. However, it does not decrease class sizes as much as in voter approved Initiative 1351.

The plan also calls for statewide collective bargaining for teachers with regional adjustments and stretches out the deadline for full funding by 2018 to 2021. The 2018 deadline was court-ordered after the state lost the McCleary school funding lawsuit.

Dorn said he is suggesting the time extension partly because there may not be enough teachers available to hire to fill the staffing gap.

“It’s not just do you have teachers, but are they quality teachers?” he said. “I don’t just want a teacher in front of every kid. I want a quality teacher in front of every student,” Dorn said.

He also called for changes to the school levy system. Many school districts use local voter-approved levies to fund teacher salaries and other basic needs, as well as for other programs and activities that enhance schools.

Some districts have a harder time passing operating levies than other districts, and not all districts have equal limits on how high the levies can be.

Dorn says those differences put students in richer districts at an educational advantage over those in poorer districts.

“I believe this is a civil rights issue,” Dorn said.

Dorn’s plan increases K-12 statewide spending by $2.2 billion in the 2015-17 biennium, which is a greater increase in education spending than the budget proposals that have come out of the House, Senate or the Governor’s office.

Dorn suggested that some of the local levy money from school districts could help pay for that, if the state allows local levy money to be transferred to the state general fund, which would be used to fund schools throughout the state.

Dorn said that he hopes to prevent harming the districts that can get operating levies passed by phasing in the changes.

“One of our concepts is to do no harm. That’s what our hope would be that we would do no harm bringing other districts up the level of the richer districts,” he said.

However, Dorn demurred on unveiling his whole plan on how the state will fund his $2.2 billion spending increase, saying that State Treasurer James L. McIntire will talk about that plan on Thursday.

Dorn’s plan comes two weeks before the scheduled end of the 2015 regular legislative session.

“I just get the feeling that we’re going to be here longer than the next two weeks,” Dorn said.

Details on the plan released Tuesday are on the OSPI website.
(more…)

Categories: Budget, Education, McCleary

Bill to discourage ‘patent trolls’ heads to governor

By | April 13, 2015 | Comments

Washington businesses could receive fewer threats of patent infringement with the passage of a bill that discourages so-called patent trolls.

379303639_4c768a3bf5_zPatent trolls are companies that use infringement claims to force small businesses to pay licensing fees or face expensive lawsuits.

Senate Bill 5059, the so-called Patent Troll Prevent Act, would amend the state’s Consumer Protection Act to include bad faith assertions of patent infringement and allow the state Attorney General to bring action against a company that violates those rules.

Rep. Laurie Jinkins, Tacoma Democrat and prime sponsor of the House version, says it will protect small businesses in the state. “This bill will allow Attorney General’s office to pursue bad actors who write a letter in bad faith to a small business or someone else, trying to get them to just give up money, even though they have no hold on the patent,” she said.

The state Attorney General’s office is already investigating companies who send suspicious letters claiming patent infringement. One company sent 900 letters to more than 300 Washington businesses, a spokesperson said.

The bill passed 94-3 on the state House floor on Monday. It previously passed the Senate, and now moves to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk for his signature.

Similar laws have passed in 17 other states. A federal bill to discourage patent trolls passed with overwhelming support in the House, but stalled in the Senate. Supporters say heaving lobbying from biotechnology and other companies prevented the federal measure from moving forward.

 

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TVW nominated for three Emmy Awards

By | April 13, 2015 | Comments

emmy2TVW is nominated for three Emmy Awards by the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

A one-hour special report on drones called “Flight Plan: Charting a Course for Drones in Washington” is nominated in the Politics/Government special program category. Those nominated include producer Christina Salerno, photographer and editor Lars Peterson, and photographer Brett Hansen.

A segment on “The Impact” about involuntary commitment is nominated in the Health/Science special program category. Those nominated include host and executive producer Anita Kissee, director Nate Shaw and videographer and editor Markisha Lynch.

“Myths and Misperceptions About the Washington Court” is nominated in the Informational/Instructional special program category. Those nominated include producers David Johnson and Jason Gutz, and executive producers Justice Mary Fairhurst and Margaret Fisher.

 

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