OLYMPIA — The first new Washington House speaker in a generation. A state representative accused of domestic terrorism. A flurry of ideas to cut homelessness and make housing more affordable.
As the gavels descend Monday on Washington’s 2020 legislative session, state lawmakers face a blend of new dynamics and at least one big shared goal: to combat the homelessness and housing affordability crisis that has spread across the state.
“Bring people inside, that ought to be the goal of the state of Washington in our legislative session this year,” Gov. Jay Inslee said last week.
Yet, they’ll gather in a “short” 60-day legislation session that occurs in even-numbered years — and in this year’s big election season, no less — where lawmakers often don’t have the time or political will to make heavy-duty decisions.
Much of the direction will be up to Democrats, who retain big majorities in the House and Senate, and Inslee, who is running for a third term.
But Republicans walk through the Capitol doors with what they see as their own mandates from the people. Voters in November decisively approved Initiative 976, reducing car-tab fees that fund transportation projects around the state. And voters narrowly rejected a measure to reinstate affirmative action in public education, hiring and contracting.
There will debates and clashes on other issues, too: legislation on climate change, health care and how to regulate for people’s digital privacy and new firearms restrictions. What to do about transportation spending in light of I-976, which is now being challenged in the courts by the city of Seattle, King County and others.
All of that unfolds amid two fresh story lines for Olympia.
One is the change of power in a House whose members have practically only ever known the 20-year reign of former Democratic Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle.
Chopp returns Monday as a rank-and-file legislator. Taking his spot is incoming Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma — the first woman to hold the post. The coming weeks will demonstrate whether that transition among Democrats is choppy or smooth, and whether the House will move further to the left on some issues — or not.
Meanwhile, a House-commissioned investigative report released last month concluded that Republican Rep. Matt Shea planned and participated in domestic terrorism against the United States for his alleged involvement in three standoffs in recent years. That report was forwarded to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
With the release of the report, Shea was kicked out of the Republican House caucus, and both Jinkins and GOP House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox have called on him to resign.
In light of the allegations, Jinkins has said she doesn’t believe Shea belongs in the House. But Democrats will have to discuss it further before considering a vote to expel him, she has said.
In a statement Friday, Shea said he has been falsely accused and called the allegations “a lie.”
The lawmaker from Spokane Valley — who did not participate in the investigation — said that despite the accusation he has not been contacted by the FBI or U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“If the Speaker actually believes what she says, that I am a ‘domestic terrorist,’ she should respect the ability and proper role of prosecutors and federal law enforcement to make a charging determination,” Shea wrote.
It remains to be seen whether House lawmakers will hold a vote to potentially expel him from the Legislature.
Going that route would mean holding some kind of hearings during the session, Jinkins said last week.
“Because Rep. Shea deserves to get yet another chance to be heard,” Jinkins said. “If he so chooses.”
Homelessness and housing
Last year, lawmakers passed a slew of housing bills. Those new laws are intended to cut down evictions and require landlords to give longer notice to tenants being told to leave. They approved other legislation to spur the growth of condominiums and tiny-house communities and encourage more density in cities.
They provided new funding for affordable housing, and passed an ambitious plan to reshape the state’s mental-health system, which could also help the housing and homelessness crisis.
But the tent camps in Seattle, Olympia and elsewhere serve as a painful reminder that the elected officials have much more to do.
In his proposed state supplemental budget released ahead of the session, Gov. Jay Inslee laid out a plan to spend more than $300 million over three years to expand housing programs and build new emergency shelters, to try to reduce unsheltered homelessness in Washington by half.
The proposal includes $66 million in grants to local jurisdictions to build shelters, and $30 million to convert or build “enhanced” shelters that operate 24/7 or offer residents more services or flexibility. Inslee would spend $26 million to expand the Housing and Essential Needs voucher program for people with serious illnesses and provide $4 million to remove “waste and contaminated materials associated with vacated homeless encampments.”
That plan would pay for that by tapping the state’s emergency reserve, or “rainy day” fund, instead of cutting state services or raising taxes.
Because Republican support is needed for the vote threshold to access the rainy-day fund, Democratic legislative leaders have acknowledged that funding source is an unlikely option.
“I know that we’re going to prioritize housing and homelessness, I’m just not sure if we’ll end up doing it exactly that way,” said Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andy Billig, of Spokane.
GOP Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, criticized Inslee’s plan of using one-time money from the rainy-day fund to create ongoing spending, saying “That is not sustainable, period.”
Wilcox, the House minority leader, also said lawmakers need to make it easier and less expensive for housing to be built.
Just building more housing won’t be enough, said Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle. Lawmakers need to make sure communities are building more dense housing, like duplexes and triplexes in residential neighborhoods, and providing support for people, such as those with disabilities, who need to find and maintain affordable housing.
Democratic lawmakers are planning to sponsor legislation intended to keep people from becoming homeless, such as providing more protections for renters.
Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, said he wants lawmakers to press forward on three fronts. He wants to redirect some existing funding to help divert people from becoming homeless over the long-term by helping them early on. Zeiger also suggested more grant funding for cities to create job programs for homeless people who want to work but face barriers to employment.
And he called on lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 6109, a GOP proposal to create a special court-appointed guardianship pilot program. Zeiger said it could “improve care for people who are struggling with drug addiction and mental illness” by helping set up treatment programs for them.
Climate change, firearms, health care, taxes
Democrats and Inslee also are pushing for more legislation on climate change, health care and firearms regulations.
The governor has proposed several climate-related bills this year, but is especially keen to see a low-carbon standard for transportation fuels reach his desk for signature.
That proposal was the one major plank of Inslee’s climate-change push last year that stalled, passing the House but failing to reach the Senate floor.
While proposals and debates may erupt this year over tax policy, big changes, like a new tax on capital gains, are unlikely this session, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
A Republican proposal to take some sales-tax money currently funding state operations and use it to replace transportation revenue that could be lost from the car-tab cuts is also unlikely, according to Rolfes, the Senate’s chief Democratic budget writer.
With lawsuits seeking to block I-976 still in the courts, lawmakers probably won’t make any big decisions until a ruling, she said.
Smaller changes, like closing a tax break that benefits companies warehousing and reselling prescription drugs like opioids might be on the table this year, she added.
Meanwhile, Republicans like Rep. Jim Walsh of Aberdeen and Sen. Judy Warnick of Moses Lake have sponsored bills to provide temporary cuts in the state property tax.
“It’s about taxes,” said Walsh, describing what the session means to him. “It’s about what I believe are my constituents’ exasperation with increasing nickel-and-dime taxes, and I think the people in the state are exasperated.”
Some Democrats are meanwhile pressing for new restrictions on firearms, including legislation that bans semi-automatic rifles. But legislators have largely let the most sweeping gun regulations be decided at the ballot.
One patch of common ground: Republicans and Democrats are pushing for a measure to strengthen the state’s existing gun-purchase background-check system by consolidating the current, fragmented process under one authority, like the Washington State Patrol.
After much of last decade’s work consumed by overhauling and funding Washington’s K-12 school system, lawmakers this year are virtually certain to ignore a new $5.6 billion proposal recommended by a state work group to hire more nurses, school psychologists and other types of nonteaching staff.