OLYMPIA — Washington’s short, every-other-year legislative sessions are not usually the place for big, bold changes. But this year, typical election-year sleepiness has made way for a flurry of sweeping proposals.
With a sharp increase in projected tax collections from a recovering economy, lawmakers are negotiating a state supplemental budget with a 16-year transportation-funding package. Both are boosted by billions of newly projected tax dollars.
Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have notched some successes, such as Friday’s passage of a bill to limit the sale and distribution of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds.
Other bills being sent to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature include legislation to reduce some insulin copayments from $100 to $35 and a requirement for many employers to disclose the beginning salaries to job applicants.
And Democrats this session moved swiftly on two of their biggest priorities: rewriting recently passed legislation on policing and a first-of-its-kind long-term care program to address a host of concerns over the new laws.
Early in the 60-day session, lawmakers passed — and Inslee signed — bills to delay and expand exemptions for WA Cares, and push back the effective date and related payroll tax to fund the program. The governor on Friday signed two policing bills into law.
With the Legislature scheduled to end Thursday, however, the coming days are make-or-break for the rest of Inslee and fellow Democratic lawmakers’ plans.
Many pieces of the governor’s agenda have stalled, from affordable-housing legislation to climate-change proposals. Also foiled for the year was Inslee’s unique, high-profile proposal to create a gross misdemeanor penalty for candidates or elected officials who lie about election results.
Now, legislators are in their last push to get bills through the House and Senate and to finish negotiations over the state’s supplemental budget and a transportation package.
“We’re very committed to a historic transportation package, the greenest transportation package in the history of the state,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said last week in a session with reporters.
“We have the opportunity to come out of this pandemic now with a budget that actually puts people, many, many people, in a better position than they were when we went into this,” she said. “And that’s what we’re focused on trying to do.”
Big proposals that stalled
Democratic lawmakers have already abandoned many of their ambitious proposals for the year.
They include a Democratic- and union-backed bill to create minimum hospital staffing standards, which stalled after a bitter dispute with the hospitals.
Inslee and lawmakers this year introduced several bills that would reshape Washington’s zoning laws to spur residential construction. Those efforts are necessary to blunt a spiraling housing crisis that has put homeownership and affordable housing out of reach for people across Washington state.
But lawmakers — many of whom own houses, according to state financial disclosure reports, and sometimes own extra properties that they rent out — weren’t willing to advance big zoning changes this year.
Legislation sought by Inslee and sponsored by Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, would have required cities with more than 20,000 people to allow duplexes or fourplexes on some single-family lots. That bill died earlier in the session.
Another dead bill would have boosted accessory dwelling units. Examples of those include stand-alone structures like backyard cottages as well as mother-in-law apartments inside existing houses. House Bill 1660 passed the House last month, but stalled Friday in the Senate.
“We’re at least a quarter of a million homes behind to keep up with our current population, and we fall further and further behind every year,” Bateman said in an interview.
She described accessory dwelling units as “the most politically popular, the softest form of infill” that can help older residents age in place, while providing younger people, like college students, affordable housing.
Failure of the bills shows “there’s a disconnect between the solutions that are needed and the people that are in decision-making positions,” Bateman said.
Another bill requested by Inslee, to create an office to address homeless encampments around state-owned rights of way, like around highways, also faltered.
Inslee-backed climate proposals have also stalled, such as one intended to boost flagging salmon populations. Another climate bill on the governor’s agenda, which sought to strengthen energy codes, also failed to advance.
In a question-and-answer session Friday with reporters, Inslee said he would look to the budget for investments to reduce the threat of climate change.
Budget negotiations underway
This year’s state spending package makes adjustments to the current two-year, $59 billion state operating budget, which funds schools, parks, prisons, social services, public lands and other government programs.
Approved last spring, that budget increased state spending by roughly $5 billion — and directed an additional $10 billion in federal coronavirus aid on top of that.
With more tax dollars pouring in, Senate Democrats last month put forth a supplemental spending package to increase spending to $63.7 billion for the 2021-23 spending cycle. House Democrats released their own supplemental proposal, which increases spending to $65 billion over the budget cycle.
Those budget plans followed Inslee’s $61.8 billion supplemental proposal. On climate issues, the governor has proposed spending $100 million per year for rebates for those buying electric vehicles and $100 million to expand solar energy.
House and Senate Democratic budget writers are in closed-door negotiations and must reach an agreement in the coming days to pass a budget by Thursday.
“It’s definitely a bigger-than-average year” in terms of spending, said David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management. “But there’s also a lot of needs.”
All three budgets focus on similar priorities, but negotiations will have to agree on spending levels and priorities.
One thing all the proposals do is send $2 billion from the supplemental operating budget to the state’s transportation budget. Those dollars help fund an ambitious $16.8 billion proposed Democratic infrastructure package that avoids hiking the gas tax.
The package directs about $7 billion into highway maintenance and projects, and provides $3 billion for transit, $2.5 billion for fixing Washington’s fish culverts, and expanding the state’s ferry fleet.
An additional key piece of funding — a proposed export-fuel tax — was yanked from the plan after an outcry from neighboring states. Transportation negotiators are now trying to figure out how to replace that funding.
Republicans, consigned to the minority in the House and Senate, have spent years criticizing the increased spending in Washington’s budget during a surge of tax dollars.
This year, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, proposed reducing the state’s sales tax by a penny and cutting Business & Occupation taxes in some sectors, such as food processing and manufacturing. The proposal would also give one-time grants to businesses hit hard by the pandemic, such as restaurants and hotels.
That framework, dubbed SAFE Washington, even makes room for Democratic priorities, such as funding raises for state workers and leaving money in budget reserves for unanticipated expenses.
“The SAFE Washington framework funds all of this and still leaves a four-year surplus of $2.1 billion for other new spending items,” Stokesbary wrote in a statement. “It is time to stop claiming we want to help working families, and to actually implement real tax relief for them.”
Changes to policing
Democratic lawmakers last year acknowledged they intended to tweak some of the dozen-odd policing-reform bills that passed last year after sustained protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Manuel Ellis and others.
One key bill, which defined when police can use physical force, took effect last summer. After that, some law enforcement agencies stopped responding or using force during some calls for service, including for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Law enforcement officials have contended the law doesn’t allow them to get involved except in specific scenarios, such as an imminent threat of injury.
The state Attorney General’s Office echoed that concern in a formal opinion released in January.
In response, legislators have passed House Bill 1735. Among other things, the bill adds language making clear that officers can respond in community-caretaking situations, and can still enforce Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act.
Inslee signed it into law on Friday, and it took effect immediately.
Another bill signed the same day, HB 1719, restores the ability of officers to use some less-lethal munitions — specifically 40-mm foam-bullet launchers — that was restricted by a law passed last year.
Two other, more controversial pieces of legislation responding to last year’s policing reforms remain in play.
Legislators are still debating House Bill 2037, which would reduce the threshold for law enforcement to briefly detain someone — known as a “Terry stop” — in situations where someone is actively fleeing a lawful temporary investigation.
Versions of that bill have passed both chambers with votes from Republicans and many Democrats. Many progressive Democrats, however, have voted against the bill.
Another bill still in play would lower the threshold for law enforcement to engage in some vehicle pursuits, which were restricted under last year’s laws.
In an interview, Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, a former Washington State Patrol trooper and Snohomish County sheriff, said he came to support the reversal after he held listening sessions with law enforcement officers and local elected officials.
“While I hate pursuits, I hate them with a passion, I would terminate most of them when I was a State Patrol sergeant,” Lovick said. “But we have to give them some latitude to handle some pursuits to a certain degree.”