The principle carry away lesson for the session is the Democratic leadership, particularly in the House, has been very timid and circumspect on moving much of anything that could be labeled progressive or liberal. Having just regained control of the legislature and under the cloud of the close and contested Governor’s race, all legislative decisions were evaluated for their impacts on maintaining party control and margin far more than usual. Unfortunately these concerns ended up with Democratic leadership suffocating many of our initiatives. In keeping with our policy of several years, the two principle areas of FCWPP focus for the session have been promoting the successful reentry of ex-offenders back into society and increasing tax fairness and improving tax justice issues.
Corrections Issues: FCWPP Bills FCWPP began the session with two bills developed by Dan Clark, and approved by the Transition Reentry and Reform Coalition, which Dan organized earlier in 2004. One bill sought to reduce the interest rates on the financial obligation levied against offenders. Most ex-offenders leave prison with several thousand dollars in restitution, fines and assessments. These draw 12% interest under the current law. Our measure sought to reduce this rate to 2% above the T-bill rate to be consistent with the interest rate applied to tort judgements. Our other bill sought to provide ex-offenders with a discharge of sentence when they had met all conditions of their sentence, except for completing payment of the fines and interest mentioned above. Discharge of sentence returns an ex-offender’s civil rights, including the rights to vote, serve on juries and hold public office. Currently the return of civil rights occurs after all conditions of sentence are met, including the completion of required financial obligations and interest. This may take several years or may never happen for some that owe very large amounts or those that have little or no income. We were quite successful in the early phases of these bills. We managed to get numerous sponsors and bipartisan support for both bills in both houses. We worked hard to see both bills successfully through all the hearings and committees. Unfortunately, the leadership in both houses kept the civil rights restitution bill from reaching the floor by keeping it bottled up in the Rules Committee. Our interest reduction bill fared better and passed the Senate. The House version passed from the Rules Committee, but was pulled from the floor by leadership when Republicans started to debate the bill as being “soft on crime”. The Senate bill came to the House and was heard and passed by two committees in the House, and this time was passed from Rules to be calendared for a floor vote. It was not called up before the applicable deadline and also died. About mid-session the TRRC expanded its scope to include limiting prison capacity with the idea of forcing fewer convictions, shorter sentences and alternatives to prison by restricting prison capacity. Dan Clark drafted a bill to reduce prison populations and restrict future prison capacity. We obtained sponsors for this measure and succeeded in getting it dropped as a bill in both houses. Leadership was similarly unreceptive of this bill. It was assigned to committee, but the chairs in each house refused to hold hearings or act on it. With the demise of the prison capacity bill the cut off date for new bills had passed and only measures deemed necessary to implement the budget could be considered. Unable to restrict capacity we pushed the idea of a study to evaluate the savings available in dollars and prison beds from recidivism reduction. The reasoning was that a study would present legislators next session with the information tosupport recidivism reduction programs and that perhaps planned prison expansion and construction could be made unnecessary or at least reduced. We pushed this concept in both House and Senate, among leadership, budget chairs, caucus and staffers. While the idea had some support in all corners it was not written into either the House or Senate budget. The TRRC has also been monitoring the planned prison expansion at Coyote Ridge and Twin Rivers. While some in the TRRC are strongly opposed to any prison expansion, FCWPP has not taken a position on the matter. Opponents of the prison expansion feel that tight capacity will force criminal justice changes towards more alternatives to prison, shorter sentences, and community service, group homes, etc. Even the most adamant prison reduction advocates in the legislature though have expressed reluctance to try to stop these prison capacity increases. They note we are currently sending 600 prisoners out of state. The out-of-state facilities take only the lowest risk offenders. This means those with most hope of rehabilitation are being taken away from their families and communities and their risk for recidivism increases because of it. Legislators also note that current overcrowding results in more inmate on inmate violence and poses greater risks for corrections officers as well. There is a very real fear that the current overcrowding will result in a federal lawsuit with unpredictable results. This year’s budget includes $179 million to build the new Coyote Ridge facility. In July the Supreme Court issued a decision holding Class I prison industries, (higher paying inmate work programs) unconstitutional. The Senate passed a resolution to amend the Constitution to allow these programs to be restarted. We raised concerns that the amendment had taken a constitutional provision that protected prisoners from abuses, and in its focus on reauthorizing the labor program, essentially removed all constitutional restrictions on prisoner abuse. (While federal law offers protections from abuse, we felt the Constitution should also contain such measures for greater permanence and constitutional integrity.) We worked with prison labor interests and drafted amendments to assure inmate protections. We found sponsors for the amendment and had assurances from the committee chair to see they would be inserted in the House. However, when these were shared with the Senate sponsor, he was concerned that industry would use the opportunity of the amendment to force the measure to a conference committee with the aim of killing it there. On receiving this word, our House sponsor and the Committee chair both withdrew their support. The proposed constitutional measure died however in the April 15th cut off for opposite house consideration. It will almost certainly be raised again next year and we will work to get our concerns addressed from the first draft.
Non-FCWPP Initiatives – Several organizations pushed a bill this session to extend welfare aid from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to drug offenders. All other ex-offenders are eligible for this assistance, but the drug war mentality had foreclosed its availability to most drug offenders. We signed in support of this bill. It, too, was killed on the House side by leadership. It passed the Senate and was again held up by the House in Rules until just before deadline, when enough pressure and support was generated for its release and passage. We added our support to two measures involving the expungement of criminal and juvenile records. Unfortunately neither of these bills reached the floor for a vote. We also signed-in in support of a victims lobby bill to increase funding for the crime victims compensation fund to open dialog between the victims groups and the reentry groups in hopes we can work together on these issues in the future.
Tax Fairness Issues: The governors race controversy and late determination set the budget cycle back by about four weeks. With the late submittal of Governor Gregoire’s budget the entire budgeting, tax and appropriation process was compressed. In addition, the Governor’s promise not to raise general taxes severely limited the ability of groups such as the Tax Fairness Coalition (to which FCWPP belongs) to move much of an agenda. There had been an effort to seek performance audits of all tax exemptions and subsidies to determine if they were delivering the benefits promised for them, with the hope that unproductive exemptions could be eliminated. This measure passed the House, but died in Committee after a hearing in the Senate ways and Means Committee. On a related note two house bills sought reporting of tax exemptions or subsidies. One required the Governor to prepare a biennial report on revenues forgone by these measures, and another requiring companies claiming the exemptions to report the amount of their exemption claimed. The Governor’s report bill passed the house but died in Committee in the Senate. The claimants’ report bill died in House Rules Committee. During the session the Washington Supreme Court threw out the state’s estate tax. It had been tied to the federal law and federal changes served to eliminate the state tax. This added approximately $500 million dollars to the state revenue shortage. The legislature has passed a retroactive partial reinstatement of the estate on assets worth $1.5 million the first year of the biennium and $2 million thereafter. Rep. McIntire, chair of the House Finance Committee held about 6 work sessions to hear presentations on the Washington tax structure and alternatives. These sessions explored the possibilities of an income tax, B&O tax reduction or elimination, corporate income taxes, and more. Hopefully the information these produced will lead to changes in the future. They did clearly demonstrate the regressive nature of the Washington tax system. (The poorest 20 % pay 18% of their income in taxes while the richest 10% pay only 3% of their income in state taxes.) The biggest tax change wrought by this session was an amendment to the 601 initiative of 1993 Initiative 601 required a 2/3rds legislative vote to raise taxes, and limited general fund increases in spending to a formula based on inflation and population growth. The new law allows a simple majority vote to increase taxes and limits spending increases to state average income growth instead of population and inflation. The simple majority rule, however, will expire in June 2007. There was also a Senate bill to amend the Constitution to authorize an income tax. This died in committee with no action or hearing. Two bills were introduced late in the session to generate revenue through fees, rather than general taxes, while protecting the state’s water resources. The first increases water right application fees from $10 to between $200 and $500. This bill has stalled in the House Appropriations Committee. The other, increasing to $50 the fees for certain water rights administrative and management services, passed the House and was held in the Senate on first reading on April 21
Miscellaneous Actions Over the course of session we supported several other measures unrelated to our prime focus areas of ex-offender reentry and tax fairness. We supported a bill sponsored by Senator Hargrove to provide greater funding for mental health and drug treatment, divert drug and mental health cases from the courts to treatment and establishes several pilot programs. This bill also suspends offenders Medicare benefits on incarceration instead of terminating them as DSHS has been doing. (This was a TRRC objective.) This bill has passed both houses with several monor provisions later vetoed by Gov. Gregoire. Each house saw resolutions urging Congress not to reauthorize certain provisions of the Patriot Act. We supported both of these measures, but they appear to have been legislative theater. Hearings were held,much publicity resulted, and then the committee took no vote on the measures. We also supported measures to increase public defender funding. We supported a measure to extend the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Commission to cover discrimination based on sexual orientation. This bill passed the House and was moving well through the Senate when two conservative Democrats, in conjunction with Republican leadership, diverted it to committee from the floor and it died there. We also participated with a coalition of groups to push a moratorium on the death penalty. This work is still quite preliminary and at this date involves identifying potentially supportive legislators.
Non-legislative work: FCWPP is working with and through the TRRC is to identify hurdles to successful ex-offender reentry into society and address these. One item we have identified is that offenders leave prison with no photo ID. This hinders their finding housing, work and cashing the check they are given on leaving prison. We have met with the Department of Licensing to find ways to correct this problem. The TRRC is also organizing now to begin a strong public education and media campaign to build greater support, in part for its legislative efforts for next session. The TRRC research committee is working at identifying information needs. And another committee is working on creating a strong internet presence for the group to store and share information and for educational and public information purposes. FCWPP has also provided assistance to Port Angeles and Port Townsend Friends in their work on the Indian graves disruption issues in the Hood Canal Bridge construction project. The lobbyist participated with FCNL in a workshop for activists on how to lobby in Port Townsend. And FCWPP is committed to present a similar workshop with FCNL this May in an AFSC conference on Beating Swords into Plowshares. We have this session started building relationships and bridges with many leaders and other interest groups. We have met with the new Secretary of Corrections, Harold Clarke, who is seeing that the monthly TRRC meetings have DOC participation. We have built personal relationships with a number of legislators, staffers, caucus staff, and others. Recently we have begun making connections with black churches, DOC staff, ex-offenders, academics, and concerned activists from other groups or on their own. These budding relationships and friendships hold forth considerable promise for the long term and also are spreading the word of the work of Friends.