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Transportation issues key special session
"With a two-year state Transportation budget still hanging in the balance, the Legislature plans to launch a special session beginning at noon today.Although lawmakers focused on transportation woes, such as relieving the state's major choke points and bailing out Washington State Ferries from heavy revenue losses during the 15-week regular session, a state transportation budget hasn't been signed, sealed or delivered yet.The transportation budget is really the concern and, I hope, it will come together in the next two weeks, said Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, the Senate Majority Floor Leader. There are more questions than answers at this point.An evenly divided House of Representatives and a Senate with just one more Democrat than Republican, combined with the most constrained budget-writing environment in recent memory, made for a regular session riddled with more gridlock than State Routes 305 and 3 during rush hour.Most notably, the state transportation budget has yet to be resolved and Kitsap lawmakers are scrambling to get it done within the 30 days allotted during a special session.The Senate released its proposed $3.4 billion transportation package to the House weeks ago, but House lawmakers have yet to reply, instead proposing more than 20 amendments to its own transportation plan. Kitsap lawmakers say they plan to continue on as they have into the special session, pushing for the state to permanently fund Washington State Ferries and its marine highways across the Sound.A bigger question, said Sheldon, is whether the Legislature will actually present a list of transportation projects and a relevant funding package before the voters in November.She and other lawmakers wonder what will happen to commuters and commerce if voters turn down the plans - especially if the plans include key capital projects such as widening state highways or purchasing replacement vessels for Washington State Ferries. By and large Sheldon said lawmakers don't expect such a referendum to pass muster the first time among residents.The transportation budget is certainly the key, she said.At the beginning of the session, Gov. Gary Locke had also tasked the Legislature with improving public school education and access to water, as well as to mend the apparent energy crisis in Washington. He said lawmakers can't leave Olympia until these issues have been addressed and fixed.Before the Legislature adjourned its regular session on Sunday, April 22, a bill, less noteworthy than a transportation budget, passed muster.The measure also went a long way toward fulfilling at least one of the tasks the governor bestowed on lawmakers.The Legislature approved a bill that will facilitate the construction of new power generators, while encouraging the use of renewable energy sources.The state Senate 44-1 approved HB 2247 shortly after the House passed the measure unanimously. As of Sunday, the bill still awaited Gov. Gary Locke's signature.Among other things, HB 2247 encourages improved energy efficiencies in public buildings and requires utility companies to give their customers the option to buy power from alternative energy sources.It also reduces the amount of red tape prospective power plant builders are required to navigate, encourages the state's largest power users to build their own on-site power plants and helps older power plants meet environmental regulations so they can operate for longer periods each day. "