OLYMPIA — It’s hard to imagine a more consequential 105 days for state government in Washington’s recent history.
At the start of the legislative session in January, state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee faced a host of vexing uncertainties.
COVID-19 case counts had hit their peak and it remained to be seen whether the federal government would provide the state more financial relief. Questions lingered about whether legislators could pass changes to policing laws, to say nothing about big climate policy. And nobody knew whether a stodgy old institution like the Legislature could even survive a floor vote by teleconference without a complete meltdown.
But the real surprise for Democrats was what actually happened: For once, just about everything went their way.
After years of campaigning and proposing big progressive priorities, Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate brought big bills to the floor, one after another, and passed them.
They approved a tax on capital gains and funded a long-ignored tax exemption for low-income families. Aided by federal dollars, lawmakers built an ambitious new two-year state budget that boosts spending across the board.
At the same time, pushed by months of organizing and demonstrations over killings of people of color by law enforcement, legislators passed a full slate of law enforcement accountability bills.
And in the waning days of the session, Democratic lawmakers even found their “grand bargain” — a compromise that included the passage of clean-fuels legislation and a carbon-pricing program that puts Washington at the forefront of ambitious climate policy.
Lt. Gov. Denny Heck called this year’s session “the most consequential legislative session I’ve seen during my 48 years in and out of government service.”
Inslee echoed those remarks, saying he hadn’t seen anything like it in his own long political career.
Many of those big progressive wins are still tenuous.
The new capital-gains tax — long seen as a proxy for a fight in the courts of revenue policy — has already drawn its first lawsuit.
Democrats’ ambitious carbon-pricing plan appears contingent on lawmakers agreeing on a new transportation-spending package that would include a 5-cent hike of the gas tax.
And the killing of Manuel Ellis last year was among the cases that raised questions about whether previous law enforcement accountability measures have been effectively implemented.
The qualifiers haven’t dampened the mood for Democrats, who in any other year might have seen just a fraction of victories.
Inslee and others credited the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic and protests against policing. They praised the skill of Democratic legislative leaders — and pointed to a more diverse group of lawmakers that pushed hard for sweeping change.
Inslee even credited Republican legislative leaders for civil debate, which he said “helped democracy work in a civil way where people could reach decisions after honest debate.”
The governor took some credit for himself, too, after years of proposing big ideas in Olympia that more often than not landed with a thud.
“I have certainly created a vision … and if not an expectation, at least a goal for the Legislature,” the governor told The Seattle Times. “And I think those things certainly set the bar high, and the Legislature got over it.”
For the Republicans consigned to legislative minorities, the session marked a sharp and unwelcome turn to the left.
In a news conference April 26, they took some credit of their own for moves such as pushing early on for Democrats to fund the Working Families Tax Exemption and to put some money toward unfunded state pension obligations.
But they critiqued the new $59 billion two-year state operating budget as spending far too much money. They assailed the new climate policies they fear will raise the prices of gas and saddle businesses with too much regulation.
And Republicans lamented that Democratic leaders ignored proposals to restrict the wide-ranging emergency powers used by the governor to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m not feeling particularly hopeful this morning because of all of the very partisan issues that were pushed through, crammed through this legislative session over the last 105 days,” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, in that news conference.
Budget and spending
Largely untethered from the mazes of legislative offices and House and Senate chambers, lawmakers joined much of the professional class as they worked remotely amid the pandemic.
Inslee worked primarily from the dining room table of the state residence behind the Capitol building. Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, handled some budget negotiations from her college-age daughter’s bedroom. Some lawmakers worked from their couches, they said, while others enjoyed the solitude of using their offices in a largely empty Capitol campus.
The budget — Washington’s sprawling spending blueprint that funds schools, parks, prisons and social-services programs — had been top of lawmakers’ minds amid the COVID-19 outbreak and economic downturn. A steep initial drop in tax collections brought a massive projected budget shortfall.
Across 2020, lawmakers heard pleas from people in their districts, which reminded Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, of her time as a SeaTac council member.
“You know, ‘my uncle, my son, myself, my partner are experiencing these different tragedies for the first time, can you help us get connected?’” said Gregerson, one of the budget negotiators, of her constituents.
But three events in March set Democrats up to spend big on programs across the board to address those types of questions.
Washington’s tax collections continued their rebound, fueled by a surge in sales taxes, real estate taxes, marijuana receipts and other factors. The March revenue forecast boosted projections further.
That came just a week or so after the U.S. Congress approved more than $10 billion in federal aid for the state.
The combined windfall gave lawmakers room to spend big on issues like child care, said Rolfes, the chief Senate Democratic budget writer.
The new budget boosted funding for, among other things, health care subsidies and cash assistance. The windfall also allowed lawmakers to fund other neglected key policies, said Rolfes. That included $130 million for wildfire response and forest health, and $147 million for the state’s long-neglected public-health system.
The federal dollars meanwhile showered money on rental assistance, vaccine deployment and help for K-12 schools to reopen amid the pandemic.
And there was a third key moment in March: the Senate approved an initial version of the new 7% tax on capital gains above $250,000.
“It was when it passed out of the Senate, I felt like it was 90% sure that it would pass the Legislature,” said Rolfes.
For years, Inslee and many Democrats had wanted big-ticket climate legislation to curb carbon pollution. But they hadn’t been able to lock down the votes in the Senate.
So when Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, managed to get his carbon-pricing bill through the Senate — by the slimmest of margins — with just a little over two weeks left in the session, House Democrats kicked into high gear.
The night it passed, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon urged his Democratic colleagues to keep an open mind on it despite a variety of questions and concerns.
“We have seen many bills proposed during my time in the Legislature to move towards carbon pricing … and this session we are closer to fulfillment of this priority than we ever have been before,” wrote Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle.
With some Democrats in the House preferring a different carbon-reduction approach, Fitzgibbon turned to Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, to help find a deal.
The final product added substantial sections to address environmental justice for communities of color and people disproportionately affected by pollution, said Lekanoff.
It also included a commitment to help Native American tribes near the coastal regions deal with climate change, said Lekanoff.
Lekanoff supported the final version, saying, “We have to take the first bold step” against climate change.
Meanwhile, Fitzgibbon had passed his clean-fuels legislation — intended to gradually lower the carbon content in fuels like gasoline over a period of years — out of the House before, only to see it stall in the Senate.
In the final days, he worked with Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, and one of the few remaining moderate Democrats.
“I think that I tried to find a way to do the bill to minimize the impact for consumers at the pump … to make sure we didn’t lead to big spikes in gas prices,” said Mullet, of the compromise version that passed the Legislature.
Changes to law enforcement
Democrats, meanwhile, put forth ambitious proposals to reshape policing after the killings of George Floyd, Manuel Ellis and other people of color at the hands of law enforcement.
Those bills included restrictions on police tactics and guidelines for when officers could use deadly force, and requirements for officers to intervene when witnessing such force. Other legislation required the collection of use-of-force data and made it easier to decertify officers for bad actions.
A couple of bills, like one to collect use-of-force data and a Republican-sponsored proposal seeking to boost the diversity among people seeking a career in law enforcement, had broad support.
But overall, “There was a lot of uncertainty on how many of these different topics would actually be able to pass,” said Gregerson.
Yet lawmakers passed all of those bills, sometimes through legislative compromises that weakened the initial proposals.
“It was one of the first times I felt like we actually saw the humanity of every single person that wanted to be involved in the process,” said Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way and sponsor of two key bills, in a news conference the night the session ended.
Lawmakers’ success came from “putting equity at the center,” said Johnson, “and making sure families and community was the voice that elevated these bills.”