OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers began their work in January focused largely on addressing the state’s homelessness crisis and figuring out transportation funding in light of voter-approved car-tab-fee reductions.
Democratic lawmakers also hoped to use their House and Senate majorities to pass sweeping new laws on climate change, firearms restrictions and other policies sought by progressives.
But by the end of the 60-day legislative session — which wrapped up last Thursday — the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus dominated discussion in Olympia.
Lawmakers approved the use of $200 million in state budget reserves to fund response to the outbreak of COVID-19.
And spooked by potential economic fallout from the pandemic, lawmakers slashed spending they had originally proposed for the state supplemental operating budget. The supplemental spending plan makes adjustments to the current, two-year operating budget and brings state spending for the 2019-21 cycle to $53.5 billion.
That operating budget funds everything from schools and parks, to prisons, mental-health programs and public-health offices. But as society shuts down to slow the spread of COVID-19 and business everywhere drops off, lawmakers worry that reduced tax collections will hurt the state’s bottom line.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island called it “an unprecedented change in situation” for budget writers. Lawmakers drafting the supplemental budget had to simultaneously spend enough on the COVID-19 response while making sure the state has enough money to avoid the impacts of an economic slowdown.
The pandemic “is going to require us to monitor the economy really closely, and monitor public-health spending really closely,” added Rolfes, chief Democratic budget writer in the Senate.
In the meantime, while Democratic lawmakers passed some bills sought by progressives, large pieces of legislation on climate change and firearms restrictions stalled. Republicans didn’t see that as bad news.
The session “seemed to start out with this huge progressive agenda, and almost all of that fell by the wayside,” said House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.
Here’s a look at notable legislation that passed and some bills that failed:
Coronavirus funding: The Legislature passed House Bill 2965, which allows for the use of $200 million from state budget reserves to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Most of that money will go to local and state health departments who are on the front lines of virus response.
Homelessness and affordable housing: The supplemental operating budget contains $160 million for homelessness and housing affordability, including grants for local governments to fund shelters and additional dollars for the state Housing Trust Fund. Lawmakers passed several housing-related bills, including HB 1590. That legislation allows city and county councils the authority to vote to raise local sales-and-use taxes to be used for housing, as an alternative to putting such questions before voters on the ballot.
Boeing tax change: Lawmakers sent a bill to the governor’s desk that for now ends the state’s Business & Occupation (B&O) tax preference for aerospace manufacturers. Senate Bill 6690 was sought by Boeing as a way to resolve a dispute at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and avoid retaliatory trade tariffs. Legislators have worried that WTO tariffs could ripple out far beyond aerospace, hurting Washington products like agricultural exports.
Transportation funding: The Legislature approved a supplemental transportation budget that, for now, avoids significant cuts to transit service or road projects. The budget comes as lawmakers attempt to respond to I-976, the measure voters approved last November to slash car-tab fees.
Firearms: With bipartisan support, legislators passed House Bill 2467, which centralizes the fragmented background-check system by housing it with the Washington State Patrol. Democratic lawmakers also created a state Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention, which is geared at using data to better understand why and where gun violence happens in the state.
Comprehensive sex education: Democratic majorities approved SB 5395, which requires all public K-12 schools to teach sex education. Opponents are working to put the law on the Nov. 3 election ballot as a referendum.
College affordability: Early in the legislative session, lawmakers approved an overhaul of the B&O tax that funds a program to make tuition at public colleges significantly more affordable or free for students around the state.
Diversity and inclusion: The Legislature approved the creation of a statewide Office of Equity. The measure comes after voters in November reaffirmed a longstanding ban on affirmative-action programs in state contracting, education and employment. The new office is geared at promoting equitable opportunities and reducing disparities in the state government.
Climate change: Senate lawmakers for the second year in a row decided not to act on a House-approved bill, HB 1110, to implement a low-carbon fuel standard. Supporters have called the legislation a key piece for restricting greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation system, though opponents criticize it because it would likely raise fuel prices. Lawmakers also took no action on a bill to expand Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive authority to put clean-air restrictions in place on some businesses. Both bills were key priorities this year for the governor.
Death penalty repeal: Inslee in 2013 put a moratorium on executions and the state Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the law, all but ensuring the end to capital punishment. But Democratic lawmakers — joined by a few Republicans — have continued to push to remove the law from the books. The Senate passed the repeal this year, but it stalled in the House.
Firearms restrictions: Legislation to ban so-called assault weapons — always seen as a longshot in Olympia — didn’t move forward this year. Democratic lawmakers made a stronger push to ban the sale or transfer of high-capacity magazines. But two different versions of the legislation sponsored by Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, stalled.
Cannabis business investing: Multiple proposals to open the cannabis industry to investors from outside Washington failed to advance.
Consumer data privacy: Several proposals to give consumers more power over their personal digital data failed to advance. Most notable among those was SB 6281 to implement European-style data-privacy laws. The measure had strong support in the Senate. But many House lawmakers believed it did not go far enough in giving consumers legal remedies when companies violated the proposed regulations.