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House passes Spokane County wildfire relief bill


(The Center Square) – A bill to provide relief for victims rebuilding after the 2023 Spokane County wildfires passed the House just before the Wednesday cutoff and now moves to the Senate for consideration.

Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1899 replaces the original HB 1899 as proposed by Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane. Instead of providing an option to rebuild under the code in effect at the time of the Gray and Oregon Road fires in 2023, the substitute bill would direct the Department of Commerce to create and administer a new program of disaster relief payments.

The new energy code going into effect on July 1, 2024 has drawn criticism on requirements for use of electric heat pumps as a primary heat source and for limitations on natural gas for space and water heating.

Relief payments could also be used for “providing or increasing electric vehicle charging capacity, and the installation and use of solar panels.” Payments are intended to help residents meet energy efficiency standards exceeding those in place at the original date of construction.

According to the Building Industry of Washington, the new code increases the cost of building exterior walls by as much as 80% due to more stringent framing, insulation and window requirements.

The substitute bill referred to the relief payments as grants, which would have potentially had federal tax implications.

“One of our highly talented staff figured that out,” said Volz, who offered the amendment to align the bill with the IRS language.

As adopted, the amended bill also allows residential structures to be rebuilt using propane for a secondary heating source, a common construction method in many areas of rural Spokane County.

Volz expressed disappointment at the more complicated and expensive program of relief payments.

“We need to do everything we can to get people back into a stable living situation as quickly as possible,” said Volz. “The bill as amended falls far short, but there’s no way we could have moved the original bill” based on environmental concerns from more than half of the House Democratic caucus. “Sometimes we have to take what we can get.”

ESSB 1899 passed the House with 96 yay votes and 1 nay vote by Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham.

The bill must be passed by the Senate and funded in the supplemental budget to take effect.

Ramel did not respond to requests for comment on his opposition to the bill.

Volz said the bill was scheduled for a Senate committee hearing Thursday but then transferred to a different committee. He will be meeting with Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and Sen. Jeff Holy, R- Medical Lake, to discuss moving the bill quickly.