Hurdles remain as special session starts, lobbyists says
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- The Washington State Legislature resolved several important agricultural issues during its regular session, but others are awaiting action in the special session, which began April 25.
With about 60 bills remaining that could be considered necessary to implement the budget, Heather Hansen, of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, said the greatest concern remains tax incentives but that "almost anything could happen."
"The big ones are the sales tax exemption on food and the fuel tax exemption for home heating oil and off-road use," she said.
Hansen said she was disappointed the phosphorus fertilizer restriction, which affects its use on lawns, was passed. Despite language that exempted agriculture from the restrictions, the debate ignored the real issues, she said.
"The number of lakes affected (by fertilizer runoff) is very, very small, and few of them have lawns anywhere near them," she said.
At the Washington State Farm Bureau, director of government relations John Stuhlmiller called the special session "nebulous." Issues addressing labor, insurance, hydraulic projects, taxes and fees "all hang in the balance."
When the regular session began, Gov. Chris Gregoire called for "bold reform," Stuhlmiller said. "We're trying to help her live up to that pledge."
Though the Legislature had $4 billion more to spend in the upcoming budget, calls for increased fees were common. The House and Senate budget proposals are only $350 million apart, he said, but they're far apart in key areas.
Stuhlmiller praised the efforts of Senate budget writers in reaching bipartisan agreement. Sens. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, took big risks in working together. "It was a hard process," Stuhlmiller said.
Dan Wood, the Farm Bureau's director of local affairs, said he expects the governor to sign House Bill 1886, implementing recommendations of the so-called Ruckelshaus Process concerning critical habitat areas. For counties that opt into the voluntary stewardship program, all parties can benefit, he said.
Agricultural interests, counties and environmental groups spent four years hammering out the agreement. Though tribes backed out of the talks, he said, "I expect they'll see an opportunity to work together."
Wood said he was pleased the chicken-care bill received bipartisan support.
"In-state interests stepped up to meet both United Egg Producer standards and American Humane (Association) cage standards," Wood said. "Producers will each spend millions of dollars to meet their commitments."
A ballot initiative in the signature-gathering stage bans all cages, but applies only to production of in-shell eggs. "It's just a shell game," he said.
Holli Johnson, legislative liaison with the Washington State Grange, said she was disappointed that eminent domain refinement did not make it through the House, despite passing the Senate with strong bipartisan support. "It's an important protection for property owners."
Overall, Johnson said, she saw more bipartisan cooperation, "but I'd still like to see more."
Steve Stinson, executive director of the Family Forest Foundation, said lawmakers failed to allow smaller buffers on smaller streams, which would have eased pressure on the Forest Riparian Easement Program. Funding for the program is still up in the air, depending on what happens in the special session.
"It would be nice to see them keep a little gas in the tank," he said.