Everywhere we look in the news today — particularly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita — we see stories about rising energy costs...

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Everywhere we look in the news today — particularly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita — we see stories about rising energy costs.

Yet, even before the latest round of headlines, Senate Republicans were crafting a strategic energy plan for Washington. We will introduce legislation in the 2006 session that will eliminate the state gas tax for consumers who use biodeisel and ethanol, reduce property taxes for farmers growing the crops that produce those fuels, reward citizens and utilities that use “smart” energy technologies and renewable energy, and educate consumers about how and why to use environmentally friendly fuels.

All of these ideas will make Washington more energy independent, save consumers money and protect our environment.

But one issue, in particular, is very pressing and cannot wait until the Legislature convenes in January. Although many people may not be aware of it, our heating bills will literally go through the roof this winter. Slate magazine called it, “The October surprise,” saying, “… the high price of heating fuel — a problem that has been hibernating in the spring and summer — is about to become an enormous issue in the northern half of our country.”

Slate is absolutely right. Wholesale natural-gas prices are already 40-percent higher than just one year ago. Home-heating-oil prices are expected to rise more than 30 percent, and electricity costs are projected to increase nearly 20 percent. How many of us have budgeted for these higher costs? Regardless, they’re coming our way — and they will put a tremendous financial strain on many of our citizens, especially seniors, the elderly, low-income families and those on a fixed income.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Legislature have the power — indeed, the responsibility — to do something about this pending crisis. And we could do it in a matter of hours during a one-day special legislative session.

The state collects taxes on the natural gas, heating oil and electricity used to heat people’s homes. As the costs go up, taxes go up, too. This is a double hit for citizens, and a windfall for the state. But now is not the time — especially given the state’s $1.1 billion reserve account — to take more money out of people’s pockets. That’s why Senate Republicans have asked the governor to call a one-day special session to cap utility taxes on natural gas and electric bills, and cap or freeze the sales tax consumers pay on home-heating oil.

We also want to expand the low-income home energy assistance that helps our most vulnerable citizens keep the heat on during the winter. The governor has agreed this is a good idea, but wants to address it during the next regularly scheduled legislative session. That means help would arrive in March or April, long after people need it.

So far, the governor has rejected the idea of a special session to help our citizens, saying it would cost too much. Instead, she has called for joint House and Senate hearings in five locations around the state. To me, the choice seems clear: We can either spend about $16,000 to hold a one-day special session and help families heat their homes this winter, or we can spend several times that amount to hold hearings across the state to talk about the problem. The time to help people is now, before they are hit with higher bills this winter.

Higher energy costs will affect us all this winter — and your governor and state lawmakers can do something about it. But waiting until January to introduce legislation and signing it into law in the spring means virtually ignoring the problem. We should hold a special session now to address this issue and help our most vulnerable citizens keep their heat on this winter.

Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, is the Senate Republican leader in the Washington state Legislature.