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Friday, March 14, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State Legislature

Low-key session ends with tribute to longtime lawmaker Sommers

Seattle Times staff reporters

Washington Legislature

Key bills that passed

Global warming: Requires state to cut greenhouse gases

Domestic partnerships: Expands rights of same-sex couples

Toxic toys: Bans toys containing certain chemicals

Key bills that died

DUI checkpoints: Would have allowed police roadblocks to search for drunken drivers

Sonics: Would have helped fund KeyArena renovation

Homeowner rights: Would have allowed homeowners to sue contractors for negligence if there were problems with their home

Source: Washington Legislature

OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Democratic-controlled Legislature accomplished pretty much what they set out to do in the 60-day session that ended Thursday.

In other words, nothing flashy.

They passed laws that include requiring DNA testing of sex offenders, providing mortgage counseling for homeowners and banning the sale of toxic toys.

But when it came to thornier, higher-profile issues such as public financing for a new Sonics arena or setting tolls to pay for a new Highway 520 floating bridge, Democrats took a pass.

Part of the timidity is due to the shaky economy and a looming budget deficit next year, House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler said. But sometimes caution also is smart politics heading into the November elections.

"If you take too many bold steps, you'll no longer be in the majority," said Kessler, D-Hoquiam. "If we don't have the majority, we can get nothing done."

Even before the session started in January, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said, "This isn't a year of launching new initiatives."

Over the past few years, Democrats say, they've added billions to expand health coverage for the poor, boost enrollment at state colleges and universities, and increase pay for state workers.

Still, Democrats said they have plenty to boast about from this session.

"We made substantial progress on the most important issues for families in our state," Gregoire said.

Before adjourning at 7:40 p.m. Thursday, lawmakers passed a supplemental budget that sets aside more than $800 million in reserves and boosts state spending about $300 million, including a bump in pay for teachers.

The supplemental budget is supposed to make needed adjustments to the $33.4 billion two-year budget passed last year.

Much of the additional spending goes to increased costs of existing programs, such as health care for the poor.

Despite some projections that show a big shortfall coming in the next few years, Democrats defended their spending plans.

But Republicans accused the Democrats of ignoring warning signs about a slowing economy and setting the state up for painful cuts or big tax increases.

"This government is spending too much and it's hurting the people of Washington state," said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. "People don't trust their government. They see massive tax increases on the horizon."

Much of the session's final day was spent bidding farewell to 10 House members who have announced they will not return next year. The most emotional send-off was for Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, who is retiring after 36 years in the Legislature.

Both Democrats and Republicans spent nearly two hours in the House and Senate celebrating her time in office. "It will never be the same without you," Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, told her.

"Millions owe you a debt of gratitude," House Speaker Frank Chopp said.

Sommers, known for her brevity, kept her last words in the Legislature to 75 seconds in length.

"This is a wonderful institution," she said. "Coming to where we work, I hope impresses us all."

Perhaps the most sweeping law approved this year, House Bill 2815, directs the state to sharply cut greenhouse-gas emissions between now and 2050, and add thousands of "green collar" jobs.

But the law does not specify how those pollution reductions would be achieved. It requires state agencies to come up with a plan that lawmakers can consider later.

In addition, the Legislature passed laws that would:

• Make it easier to open up a craft distillery in Washington and allow owners to offer free samples of hard liquor and sell up to nine liters of liquor per customer.

• Require developers to provide apartment tenants at least 120 days' notice for a condo conversion and in some parts of the state could require them to pay many tenants up to three months' rent in relocation assistance.

• Expand the state's domestic-partnership law, granting same-sex couples more than 170 of the benefits and responsibilities that married couples get, including property rights.

But the to-do list that lawmakers put off until next year is daunting.

They have to decide how to fund a paid-family-leave program that they approved last year, and whether to go ahead with a costly sales-tax break approved this year for low-income families. They've promised to further increase access to health care. And they're supposed to set tolls for the Highway 520 bridge and decide how to replace the middle section of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

On top of all that, Democrats could face a budget deficit of more than $2 billion when they put together their next two-year budget, unless the economy turns around. Which means that at the same time they're under pressure to increase spending, they may have to find ways to cut costs.

Republicans argue the Democrats have spent the state into a deficit. "They have a budget [next year] that's going to be very tough to satisfy," House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt said.

Here are some of the issues lawmakers faced this session:

Seattle Sonics

For the fourth straight year, Gregoire and lawmakers punted on a request for public funding for a new professional basketball arena in Seattle.

A group of local investors, including CEO Steve Ballmer and entrepreneur John Stanton, came forward near the end of the session with an offer to try to buy the Sonics or another NBA team and put up half the cost of a $300 million renovation of KeyArena.

Under their plan, taxpayers would cover the other half. Though lawmakers praised the offer, they said they did not have time to take it up this year.

Gregoire and legislative leaders promised to take it up next year. But Ballmer and the other investors have said their offer will expire in a few weeks.

Tax relief

The Legislature passed a sales-tax break for low-income families that could send them checks worth hundreds of dollars each next year.

Nearly 340,000 households are expected to be eligible for the proposed sales-tax credit, which would provide a 5 percent match to people who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit in 2009 and 2010. The match would bump up to 10 percent in 2011.

However, Senate Bill 6809 requires the Legislature to decide each time it approves a two-year budget whether to provide the tax break, which is projected to cost the state more than $270 million over the next four years.

Toxic toys

A measure to outlaw toys that contain certain toxins awaits the governor's signature. The "toxic toys" bill bans lead, cadmium and phthalates in children's products above specified levels. It also requires toy companies to report chemicals in their products to the Department of Ecology.

DNA collection

Lawmakers expanded the state's DNA database by requiring all registered sex offenders and people convicted of certain misdemeanors — including fourth-degree assault — to provide a DNA sample that can be kept on file.

Beer and wine samples

Shoppers this fall could sample free beer and wine at a handful of supermarkets, under a bill passed by the Legislature.

Campaign financing

Lawmakers passed a bill that allows candidates for local office to get public money to support their election bids. But first, local voters would have to approve the public-financing plan.

Staff reporter Yu Nakayama contributed to this story.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Ralph Thomas: 360-236-8266 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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