PORT ORCHARD — As the 26th Legislative District’s elected officials prepare for a shortened legislative session in Olympia in January, they reported their legislative successes in the last session — and shared their priorities for the upcoming session — with members of the Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 14.
The district’s legislators — Democratic state Sen. Emily Randall and Republican state Reps. Michelle Caldier and Jesse Young — will join their fellow legislative colleagues for the start of the session on Jan. 13. The session is scheduled to wrap up April 22 in Olympia.
Randall finished her first session in the state Legislature in April following her election to the district’s senate seat in 2018.
The state senator told the chamber audience that she was “incredibly proud” of making an impact with health care legislation, which she said is helping to make health services more affordable in the district.
“I’ve talked to so many neighbors who have had to make tough choices between cutting their pills in half so they could last longer or choosing to insure only their kiddos or their spouse because they can’t afford to insure their whole family,” Randall said.
She lauded legislation passed in the session that will introduce the nation’s first public option on the state’s health insurance exchange, called Cascade Care.
Senate Bill 5526 created the program to offer standardized plans for individual health coverage, offered by private insurers on the health benefit exchange. It is to become available in January 2021.
Randall said the plan will target about 5 percent of Washingtonians eligible to buy on the exchange.
“We’ve found that a lot of people choose not to buy on the exchange because it’s just too expensive for them,” she said. “Cascade Care is a really important step for creating an important option for folks that will allow people to actually get the health care that they need when they need it.”
The first-term senator conceded that Cascade Care is not a “silver bullet” that will fix the state’s health care system, but she said lawmakers are continuing to look at ways to make pharmaceuticals — a significant drain on the financial resources of uninsured and underinsured people.
“One of the things we know is true is that a half-million Washingtonians are dependent on emergency rooms for their health care,” Randall said. “And that just drives up costs for the entire system” — one of the reasons she introduced legislation to study creating a universal health care system during the previous session.
Randall said she’s looking forward in January to begin chairing the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, one of three committees that she belongs to, including the Health and Long-Term Committee (she was vice-chair last session) and the Transportation Committee. She related her experience years ago as a South Kitsap High School senior applying for financial aid to attend college.
“When I applied to college, it was more expensive for me to stay here than to go 3,000 miles across the country to a private school,” Randall said.
“The financial aid I got from Wellesley College made it cheaper than [attending] Western. And that was the decision I made — to move across the country and leave my family. I think that students who want to stay in Washington should be able to do so.”
She said one of her legislative priorities as chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee will be to enable more high-school students to receive post-high-school training or college training certificates. Just a minority of graduating South Kitsap seniors are continuing their education — either academic or vocational — after high school.
“This state is 47th in the country with students who complete the process seeking financial aid, even though they qualify,” Randall said. “Kitsap County is among the bottom 10 counties in the state [in that regard].”
She said the 26th Legislative District delegation is working hard with area school districts so that students “get the best information they can to make the decisions that are best for them.”
Rep. Michelle Caldier told the audience of mostly business people that four of her prime-sponsored bills clearing the Legislature came as a result of working across the aisle with Democrats.
“That’s huge. On one of those bills, Sen. Randall helped me out tremendously,” Caldier said.
Rape kit legislation
That bill, House Bill 1016, requires hospitals to notify a rape victim within two hours of their arrival if they don’t provide sexual-assault kits — often referred to as “rape kits” — or have a provider trained in sexual assault examinations on the premises.
“Emily and I worked very hard on that bill,” she noted.
Caldier told the audience that the genesis for the legislation started after she was contacted by a district constituent who had been date-raped and ended up at the Harrison Medical Center, operated by CHI Franciscan.
“She sat there for four and one-half hours before being told that they’d never done a rape kit test there before,” the Republican state representative said.
“She was in the wrong hospital. As a result, it ended up taking her a total of nine hours” to get the testing completed, she said.
“She should have gone to the Bremerton hospital. I don’t know anyone who knew that. I didn’t. If I was 19 years old, I probably wouldn’t know that.”
Caldier also was pleased with the passage of other bills she sponsored: a bill requiring health providers disciplined for sexual misconduct to notify their patients; legislation requiring written notice be given the attorney general’s office at least 60 days before the effective date of a hospital or provider organization acquisition or merger; and a bill allowing Washington state members of the armed forces deployed out of state to remotely renew their concealed pistol licenses.
The state representative, however, said she was disappointed the state’s final operating budget approved by the Legislature included a sizable spending increase from the previous biennium budget, which was funded by tax increases.
“We started the year with a surplus of funds, greater than what we’ve had in the past,” Caldier said. But at the close of the session, she noted lawmakers wound up increasing the state’s business and occupation (B&O) tax — a tax levied on a business’s gross income, rather than net income.
Caldier said that as a small business owner (she worked as a dentist serving the nursing home community), she understands the difficulties business owners experience operating in this state.
“I was incredibly frustrated with the increase in the B&O tax,” she said. “For some businesses, how the increases were done was incredibly unfair.”
As an example, Caldier pointed to large healthcare organizations such as CHI Franciscan, which she said won’t have to pay the tax. She said independent providers, however, will be required to pay.
“My concern is that [independent providers] are no longer going to take Medicaid because they’re going to need to survive. And people who are on Medicaid are not going to have many options for health care [should the independent providers close].”
But in response to Caldier’s remarks, Cary Evans, vice president for communications and government affairs at CHI Franciscan, disagreed with her characterization:
“CHI Franciscan, which includes more than 230 primary and specialty clinics affected by the B&O tax, currently pays about $3 million in state B&O taxes and we estimate we’ll pay another $600,000 with the new surcharge.
“While CHI Franciscan doesn’t limit Medicaid patients like other health care organizations, these taxes add to the cost of care for everyone and make it even harder for independent practices to survive on the Peninsula, which limits choice for patients.”
Caldier also reminded that she voted against $2.4 billion in tax increases. Part of that increase included a $1.4 billion boost in local property taxes, which she said will hit district property owners with an increase of $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
“I voted against these and will continue to fight against tax increases, especially when we have surpluses in revenue. I’m not sure we needed these new taxes.”
The district’s other House representative — Jesse Young — touted his skills as an “in the weeds” budget expert, especially in his role as a member of the House Transportation Committee.
“From my perspective, I tend to be a little bit more of a geek,” Young said of his background as a software expert in the corporate world. “I really like to dig into the details.”
The Republican said much of his work over the last few years for the district has involved breaking down budgetary numbers for two budgets: the state operating budget from a tax policy standpoint and the transportation budget.
Capital budget help for 26th LD
A third state budget — the capital budget — is where local projects specifically benefiting the 26th District get their funding.
“That’s usually the easiest one to negotiate and it’s usually the most bipartisan,” he said. “You really need both sides of the aisle to compromise, otherwise you can’t pass [legislation]. The nice thing is, I’ve got two wonderful seatmates that really care about our district first rather than cutting deals and letting money go elsewhere.”
Young pointed to funding for a couple of local projects — $2 million to complete Port Orchard’s Tremont Street widening project and $1 million for a sewer lift station — that was achieved for the district.
The House representative said he has a number of issues at the top of his priority list for the next session, including resisting efforts to implement a road users charge in which drivers would be taxed based on the mileage they drive on state roadways.
A key element of his opposition is that transponders that would be placed in cars to collect mileage data, which he said would invade the privacy of motorists. “I think it’s a fundamental violation of your privacy rights, and that’s just a bridge too far,” he said.
While echoing Caldier’s complaint about budgetary tax increases passed the last session, Young said he is bothered by the existence of “ghost bills,” legislation by Democrats that he said resulted in major tax increases, which were introduced with just a bill title and a brief, bare-bones summary.
Two or three days before the end of the session, Young said, the majority party would amend those one-page bills on the floor into a “30-page or 100-page tax conglomerate tax policy.”
“The press and you have no opportunity to bring transparency to the process. From my standpoint, transparency needs to be the number-one thing we bring back to you,” he told the audience. “It helps you keep us accountable.”