Lawmakers offer views on upcoming Olympia session
April 30, 2009 · Updated 4:00 PM
As chairwoman of the Senate's Government Operations and Elections Committee, Pam Roach will help shape an answer to one of the key questions facing this session of the state Legislature - namely, what to do about the state's primary election.
An appellate court has ruled Washington's popular blanket primary unconstitutional and it's expected the Supreme Court will choose not to review the issue.
Under the state's current system, voters in the primary election are free to cast ballots for their favorite candidate, regardless of party affiliation. The major parties have argued that only Democrats should choose a Democratic candidate in the primary, and only registered Republicans should be allowed to determine the GOP candidate. So far, the courts are agreeing.
Roach, however, disagrees. "It boils down to the power of the party versus the power of the people," she said. "We have the parties pitted against the will of the people." Roach and her Legislative sidekicks, 31st District Reps. Dan Roach and Jan Shabro, will soon be sending a survey to district voters, looking for feedback. Previous polls have shown state voters value their blanket primary and don't want it changed.
If forced to recommend an alternative, Roach said the leading candidates are the "top two" system and a form of primary that still protects voters' privacy while forcing them to choose only one party's candidates. Under the "top two" system, voters would still see a full slate of candidates and be free to pick and choose; in the end, the two most popular candidates would advance to the general election, even is they were from the same party. Under the second scenario, currently used in Montana and a handful of other states, primary election voters receive separate ballots for each party; they must vote on a single ballot, but must not declare which ballot they submit.
There's no guarantee he committee will forward a recommendation to the governor, but it's sure to get plenty of attention, Roach said. She was in meetings the week before the session opened, talking to the governor's staff about the primary issue.
Roach also serves on the Military and Veterans' Affairs Committee and expects to introduce several pieces of legislation aimed at assisting those who have served in the armed forces.
One of her bills will change the definition of "prisoner of war." Currently, a soldier must be held for 30 days to qualify as a POW; Roach will seek to alter the standard to 24 hours.
In a short session such as this, the budget doesn't get a great deal of work, but tweaking can be done based on revised financial estimates. "The economy has been picking up," Roach said, noting the Legislature might be looking at "a couple hundred million dollars" in supplemental spending. A likely target for that money, she said, is the state's in-home health care workers. They're essentially private contractors, not full-time state employees, but their salaries are paid by the state.
Roach believes the coming 60 days "could be really busy" for a short session of the Legislature.
The single biggest issue facing lawmakers, he said, could be a decision on the state's primary election system. But he defers comments on the primary to his 31st District counterpart, Sen. Pam Roach, who chairs the committee that will direct much of the action.
Roach also mentions tort reform as a big issue this time around, conceding it has been talked about year after year but nothing has been done. This could be the year something happens, he said, as more of the major players are applying pressure for a resolution to the growing problem.
Legislators are being asked to reform the legal system with regard to financial compensation ordered in court cases. The potential for multi-million dollar payouts impacts everything from medical care to an employer's ability to provide insurance for workers.
On the financial scene, Roach said, legislators will consider whether to extend a tax incentive for firms investing "research and development" dollars in this state. The Legislature approved a tax break in 1994, he said, and the measure is about to expire. Roach favors extending the tax break as a way of enticing business, but notes a key committee chairman has stated his opposition, arguing that the state should not be missing out on legitimate tax revenue.
Kevin Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org