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Capitol Outlook: Legislature starts on key questions

The week's agenda for committee sessions include higher education, family leave and "green" driving (hint: that's not an eco-friendly term but something related to a newly legalized substance).
The Washington State Capitol

The Washington State Capitol Apaschen/Wikimedia Commons

The Legislature gets the 2013 Holiday Season off to an early start: The Senate Agriculture, Water & Rural Economic Development committee meets at 10 Monday morning to take public input on Senate Bill 5377, concerning licensing for Christmas tree growers.

No word yet on how many members are expected to wear red and green. Or, despite the seasonal head start, be on time for the committee meeting. The bill proposes to extend the current system of certification of Christmas trees as pest-free for shipment, ensuring continued sales of Washington-grown trees around the country. 

Elsewhere public hearings and committee sessions continue, as lawmakers get down to grappling with the year's most closely watched issues, including closing the education budget gap and the newly-legal marijuana market.

Next door to the Christmas tree hearing, the Senate Health Care Committee meets for a work session on the marijuana market. Afterward, only two items are scheduled: a proposal for a formal request to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to move marijuana to a lower category of controlled substances and a medical marijuana bill with cosponsors from both parties.

While the request to the DEA may prove largely symbolic, as the Obama administration has made clear DEA won't take the lead on legalization, the bill on the agenda appears to have a better chance. It removes some restrictions that today keep doctors from working for or on the premises of a licensed marijuana dispensary. The bill's cosponsors include senate heavyweights Democrat Ed Murray (Seattle) and Republican Steve Litzow (Mercer Island).

On Tuesday, House members will hear a bill proposing to essentially implement and expand the Family Medical Leave Act. The act was passed in 2007, but never implemented or funded. Last week, Senate Republicans proposed the act be repealed. The bill being heard Tuesday is the response of a group of House Democrats to that move: Instead of repealing the act, it would fund it by requiring businesses to pay a yearly per-employee charge. The bill would also expand the act, making eligible workers caring for a seriously ill family member or new child.

Also scheduled for Tuesday are bills that propose various ways to tighten education budgets around the state. There is also a proposal to ease course-load rules for State Need Grant eligibility for college students. There will be work sessions on "green driving" — driving under the influence of cannabis — as well as the state's tuition savings program, called "GET", the College Bound scholarship program and sex education.

Thursday, the Senate's Government Operations Committee will hear testimony on three essentially identical bills that would put to a popular vote a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate to raise taxes.

Much of the week is scheduled for work sessions — where bills and testimony are only talked about, not voted on — or opportunities for public testimony. But the schedule does include a few executive sessions, where committee members get the chance to send bills to their respective houses for a vote — or give them the axe.

Weeks into the session, the pace is picking up and there are fewer opportunities for fluff and bills introduced mainly as someone's pet cause. Even the agricultural committee, after hearing about Christmas trees, will hear testimony on a bill that would help small farms qualify for a lower, open space tax rate.

For all of Crosscut's exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out our Olympia 2013 page.

Tom James has helped cover the 2013 state legislative session for Crosscut through the University of Washington journalism program. He also writes for Crosscut on other subjects. Born in Seattle and raised in Kitsap, Tom worked for the Kitsap Navy News and Central Kitsap Reporter before heading to the UW for a double-major in journalism and economics, which he hopes to finish in 2014.


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