Legislature marks week one of special session

Welcome to day 9 of the first special session of 2011. The legislature convened last Tuesday and may stay in session no longer than 30 days.

The work before lawmakers is no mean task: closing the last $250 million of a $5.1 billion budget gap and passing the 40 to 60 bills required to implement the budget–little things like new policy on pensions and tuition policy.

Most of the work in Olympia is behind the scenes. Think of Apollo 13 when the craft disappears behind the dark side of the moon. You know they’re there. You know they’ll reappear at some point with new information. But you can’t really see or hear them. It’s dark, very dark. It’s a scary time. That’s special session.

The budget item everyone most dreads is the 3-percent reduction in wages. Unfortunately, that seems to be something most legislators do agree upon. We don’t know yet how it will be implemented in higher education. Likely they’ll simply ask institutions to give up the equivalent of 3-percent of the wage base and allow schools to implement it as the law allows.

The governor negotiated 3-percent reductions with some of the largest state employee unions in December. Some employees may be covered by contracts beyond the reach of that agreement. Regardless, it will be a difficult and painful cut to realize.

One of the things that has emerged over the last several days is a new version of tuition policy – more complicated (if that’s possible) than earlier versions, but allegedly agreed to by both the House and Senate negotiators. No vote on this bill is expected until next week.

This ambitious bill sets tuition policy through the 2019 academic year:

2011 2015: Tuition-setting authority to BOT.

2015-2019: Tuition authority linked to the relationship between state budget levels and tuition of similar schools in Global Challenge States.

2019-2020: Tuition-setting authority reverts to the Legislature.

Eight years is an eternity in legislative time. Its possible that this policy will survive eight legislative sessions, eight budgets, and the full turn-over of the legislature, but that would be pretty unusual.

The bill (HB 1795) increases the amount of tuition that must be set aside for financial aid, and dramatically increases the number of performance measures the university must track and report to the state budget office. I believe the measures were itemized alphabetically through q at which point there were numerous bulletsand then I just blacked out.

HB 1795 also includes fun for the academic side of the house. Universities must award junior standing to students who transfer from community colleges with a direct-transfer AA, and must recognize the DTA as having met gen-ed requirements. The bill directs baccalaureates to allow students to earn credits by showing competencies and requires schools to develop a common course-numbering system.

There is a little good news in this bill, possibly appreciated most fervently by our business and financial affairs folks. If its adopted, HB 1795 cuts some red tape instead of the budget for once:

Repeals performance agreements.

Raises the threshold for informal bids from $3,500 to $10,000 and from $43,000 to $100,000 for formal contracts (which require documented evidence of formal competition).

Allows purchase of equipment maintenance agreements for periods of longer than one year.

Directs OFM to develop a plan to make PBI payments for personnel services and archiving commensurate with use of those services.

Coming soon: an updated bill-tracking chart so you can see what’s become of your favorite legislation.

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About Linda Schactler

Linda is the former Director of Communications for the Washington State Senate, and former deputy director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. From 2000 through 2010 Linda was the proprietor of Schactler Communications, an Olympia-based public affairs business. She holds a master of arts in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Linda can be reached at her Ellensburg office schactler@cwu.edu, 509-963-1384, or on her cell phone, 509-607-4103.
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