Gov. Jay Inslee waded into the legislative fray Wednesday with his most pointed comments so far in state lawmakers’ 25-day-old session, taking aim squarely at ideas put forward by the Republican-dominated Senate majority.
“I’m very concerned that the Senate already has gone backwards on two areas,” the Democratic governor said, citing workers’ compensation and clean energy – and then adding a third to his list, a GOP proposal to require parents be notified before their underage daughter has an abortion.
But Inslee stopped short of any veto threat. “I’m developing what I hope will be (a) good working relationship with legislators, and the third week of the session is probably a little early, too early, to start waving around red pens real vocally,” he said.
Inslee took office Jan. 16, two days after a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats took power in the Senate and elevated one of the Democrats, Medina’s Rodney Tom, as leader of their business-friendly majority.
GREEN POWER MANDATES QUESTIONED
“I had some businesspeople in here last week,” Tom told reporters in his office after Inslee’s news conference, “and they were talking about, it’s funny that Washington’s the only state in the nation that doesn’t recognize hydro as a renewable power resource, when we are kind of the front-runners on that.”
Green-power standards that Inslee championed and voters passed in 2006 in the form of Initiative 937 require utilities to produce a growing share of their power by renewable means, or buy credits from those who do.
Wind turbines are counted as green, but hydroelectric dams that provide most of Washington’s power are not, with exceptions for certain dam upgrades. Proposals by the GOP chairman of the Senate energy committee, Ferndale’s Doug Ericksen, would change that.
Because those measures would reward an existing power source, Inslee said they would “gut” I-937’s goal of encouraging new clean energy – unless they were coupled with higher standards requiring as much as 90 percent of utilities’ power to be renewable, up from the current goal of 15 percent in 2020.
“The need climatically to deal with greenhouse gases, and pollution is growing dramatically,” Inslee said, “and that’s why I’m saying 937 should not be the ceiling. It needs to be looked at as a floor.”
But Ericksen said the initiative is “driving up the cost of energy.”
“Wind power costs more than hydropower, and if we are going to force utilities … to sell that hydro out of state and replace it with high-cost energy, it will increase the cost of energy,” Ericksen said. “It’s simple math.”
Lawmakers have suggested a host of proposed changes to the initiative this year, including some less-sweeping additions that nevertheless provoked debate between supporters and opponents in Ericksen’s committee Wednesday. The sides disputed measures meant to help the TransAlta coal-fired power plant in Lewis County that is slated for closure and utilities that buy power from the federal Bonneville Power Administration.
OTHER POTENTIAL FRICTION POINTS
Inslee also said workers’ compensation measures passed by the Senate on Monday were unnecessary changes to a 2011 compromise meant to bring down costs in the state-run insurance system for injured workers.
That deal gave the business lobby part of what it wanted, including settlements that older workers could take instead of lifelong pensions to settle their injury claims.
But business groups say more workers need to be allowed to accept those deals to save enough money to keep their insurance rates from skyrocketing. Unions say expanded settlements would take advantage of vulnerable workers.
Also Wednesday, Inslee called on legislators to accept more than a billion dollars in federal funding from President Barack Obama’s health law, which the governor said would allow the state to redirect $142 million it is spending now on low-income patients who would be covered in 2014 under the expansion of Medicaid.
The Medicaid expansion would create more than 10,000 health-care jobs in Washington, Inslee said. Calling it close to a “no-brainer,” he predicted Republicans would embrace it once they see the full budget impact, as a growing minority of GOP governors in states like Arizona, Ohio and Michigan have done.
Indeed, Republicans aren’t closing the door to expansion. They say if the state does take the money it should build in protections that will make sure it can give up the program later if Congress demands more state matching funds.