Legislative session was tough but rewarding

When lawmakers came to Olympia on Jan. 12, we all knew that the national recession, which is now a global recession, was hurting the state of Washington. By March, the revenue forecasts for the state had further deteriorated, and we faced a $9 billion revenue shortfall. Washington was not alone: 40 other states faced enormous budget gaps with a cumulative hole of $281 billion.

Washington state’s tax structure is regressive and relies heavily on sales tax for revenue. Most families have cut spending in response to job losses, sharply reduced retirement portfolios and general worry about our economic future. As our families cut spending, the state’s sales tax revenues plummeted. The final 2009 budget reflects the reality of the economic recession.

Cuts were made to almost every program in the state, including public schools, universities, adult day health, health care for low-income families and programs for the developmentally disabled. Legislative budget-writers worked to review each and every recommendation made for a change in services, as we recognized the challenges these funding cuts would cause for our schools, our universities and our families.

The effect of the financial crisis on our communities and on our schools will be severe. However, one possible bright side is the opportunity to start a dialogue about our regressive and unstable tax structure and whether we can build a tax system that is fairer for working families and better designed to weather economic storms.

It is also important to recognize as we discuss the state’s budget that one-time money from the federal government softened the economic blow to the state and its citizens and institutions. The stimulus money that President Obama and Congress are providing to Washington and other states is helping to fuel our economy and reduce the cuts we have to make. Additionally, the federal government’s help for first-time homebuyers is a boost to our economy and helping us turn the corner on the housing crisis.

Stepping aside from the budget and the stormy conditions that we had to navigate financially, the Legislature did pass some groundbreaking policy legislation this year. We extended rights to domestic partnerships, providing more families with security and equal protection under the law. As Senate Bill 5688 goes into effect, a police officer’s family is protected if he or she is injured or killed in the line of duty — regardless of the officer’s sexual orientation. I voted for this legislation and felt privileged to do so.

At the beginning of the session, we also increased weekly benefits to unemployed workers to assist them through the tough times of this recession. Our state has a healthy unemployment insurance fund, and as of May 1 unemployed workers are receiving additional funds in their unemployment checks. This helps our families and stimulates the economy.

After years of debate in the Legislature, we also passed legislation restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time. Auditors from across the state, as well as the Secretary of State, provided strong support for this well-crafted civil rights law. Restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time is the right thing to do, and it will also help these citizens re-integrate into society after they have served their time.

Finally, I sponsored a bill that provides greater consumer protection for citizens who take out a payday loan. Historically, there has been a debate as to whether we should cap the interest rates charged by payday lenders or ban them from the state. House Bill 1709 took a different approach and sought to put new safeguards into law to protect citizens who use payday lending.

The bill caps the amount of payday lending debt a consumer can have out at any one time. Further, if a consumer cannot repay a loan, he or she must be given an installment plan, at no additional cost, to allow him or her to work out of the payday loan. Payday lenders would pay a small fee on each loan to allow the Department of Financial Institutions to collect data that we can use to enforce the law and protect borrowers further. We are awaiting the governor’s signature on this groundbreaking legislation.

This was my second session. Between the budget, the expansion of domestic partnership benefits, restoration of voting rights to felons and reforming the payday lending industry, the session was both challenging and rewarding. It continues to be an honor to serve the 34th Legislative District and the citizens of our beautiful islands.

— Rep. Sharon Nelson’s legislative area in the State House of Representatives includes Vashon and Maury islands.

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