Our state is facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, the Clark County unemployment rate is at 10.5 percent and employers are still struggling to stay in business. The highest priority of the Legislature must be to get our economy back on track and to get Washington working again.
Employers in Washington face an unfriendly, tough business climate. Consider these facts: our state has the highest minimum wage, our workers’ compensation system has the second highest benefit package in the nation, we are the only state that has a business and occupation (B&O) tax based solely on gross receipts, and until recently, our unemployment insurance rates were second highest in the nation and the system offered one of the highest benefits.
This session, House Republicans introduced a package of legislation aimed at creating jobs. Our solutions would cut government red tape, freeze rulemaking authority by state agencies, address costly building code changes, suspend the Growth Management Act in areas of high unemployment and provide B&O tax relief.
Though most of our job creating and economic recovery legislation has been bottled up in committee, we will continue the push to get Washington working again. Our state must be more conducive to job growth and opportunity.
However, opportunity has not been lost this session. We also offered substantive proposals for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation reforms and we were able to get the unemployment insurance reform passed early in the session. This successful reform legislation likely saved some small businesses, many jobs and provided certainty for businesses in the future. Without this legislation, employers’ unemployment insurance taxes were expected to increase $366 million in 2011. They increased $360 million in 2010, or an average of 42 percent.
We now have what may be an even bigger opportunity than unemployment insurance reform – workers’ compensation reform. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill, Senate Bill 5566, which would provide a new, flexible option for workers to voluntarily settle claims and would not reduce worker benefits. This measure would provide a wage subsidy to encourage workers a faster return to work and provide a cost study for occupational disease reforms. Two of the funds under the workers’ compensation program are facing insolvency if reforms are not made soon. The Accident Fund, which is 100 percent employer funded, faces a $360 million deficit despite an almost 30 percent increase in rates in 2011.
It won’t be an easy road. We expect Senate Bill 5566 to be challenged by allies of labor, but with the strong vote in the Senate there is no reason we cannot pass this bill in the House and send it to the governor’s desk.
As long as the Legislature is in session, our focus should be on energizing the economy and creating jobs. When businesses are successful, people are working and revenue is generated to pay for public safety, schools and other important services while improving our state’s economic health.
In the remaining weeks of session, we must show Washington citizens and employers we are serious about getting Washington working again.
Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, is the assistant ranking member on the House Environment Committee. He also serves on appropriations committees for Health Care and Wellness, Technology, Energy and Communications and Health and Human Services.