OLYMPIA — Changes to new policing laws and a retooling of Washington’s pioneering yet bedeviled long-term care act. Addressing funding for transportation projects and salmon recovery. Continuing the coronavirus response. Making housing available and affordable.
Washington’s short, 60-day legislative session begins Monday, but lawmakers have a long list of pressing issues and unfolding crises to confront. Even as the economy recovers and third-term Gov. Jay Inslee enjoys strong support from House and Senate Democratic majorities, these are some of the state’s most fundamental and vexing problems.
The homelessness and housing affordability crises are continuing, gun violence is up and prices are rising, students have suffered amid the pandemic, and state and local officials continue to grapple with continuously evolving waves of COVID-19.
Other matters too, evoke a sense of déjà vu. Democratic lawmakers are poised to rewrite major laws on policing reform and long-term care that they passed in recent years.
Meanwhile, Inslee and Democrats have vowed to make sure the economic recovery amid the pandemic reaches everyone.
“We have had strengthening economic well-being as one of our pillars of what we’re going to work on,” said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.
To do that, lawmakers have no shortage of money to worry about.
Since the pandemic shutdown in spring 2020 caused a sharp downturn, Washington’s tax collections have recovered and continue to soar above projections. And legislators still have over $1 billion in federal COVID aid as they draft a supplemental state operating budget.
That led Inslee last month to propose a supplemental budget proposal that adds $4.2 billion in new spending to the $59 billion two-year spending plan he and legislators approved last spring.
In an interview, the governor said he believed legislative leaders would act on a host of priorities he is pushing.
“Homelessness, mental health, salmon, climate change, criminal law and justice, transportation,” Inslee said. “I do believe there’s broad consensus in the majority party that all those things need action.”
Republicans, consigned to the minority, continue to assail many Democratic policies. They cite problems in new policing laws that prompted law enforcement to stop responding to some service calls and troubles with the long-term care program as two symptoms of single-party rule in Olympia.
And they’re continuing their call for tax reductions as state coffers continue to fill.
“Right now, the people of Washington state aren’t saying ‘Hey, we need more help,’ ” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia. “They’re saying ‘Get out of our way and stop taking the funds we have.’ They’re faced with inflationary pressures.”
Both Republicans and Democrats are calling for policies to address housing affordability and transportation needs, like funding for critical projects and help to address the shortage in state ferry workers and boats.
The session will begin with the House and Senate doing work remotely after the surge in COVID cases due to the omicron variant prompted Democratic legislative leaders to again roll back most in-person work.
While committee hearings were to be handled remotely just like last year, legislative officials had originally planned to have more lawmakers back on the House and Senate floors.
Even as grocery store workers, doctors and nurses, teachers and students slog through their daily lives in person, Washington’s lawmakers will again work largely by teleconference, as least for the first couple of weeks.
In a sign of the omicron moment, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, of Spokane, announced Saturday he had tested positive for the coronavirus but was experiencing few symptoms. The news came a day after Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, announced he had tested positive and was experiencing mild symptoms. The diagnosis came just weeks after the announcement that Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, died after contracting the virus.
Republican legislative leaders last week said they appreciated the difficult decisions Democrats were making to protect lawmakers and staffers amid omicron.
But Braun cited the Biden administration’s general emphasis on testing, as well as testing being done in schools as a path to allow lawmakers to be present at the Capitol.
“While I respect the fact that we ought to be careful with the surge, I think we can do this in person, with testing,” Braun said last week, before Lovick and Billig announced they tested positive.
Policing and crime
Lawmakers last year passed a package of roughly a dozen new laws to overhaul policing in the wake of protests over the deaths of people of color — like George Floyd, and in Tacoma, Manuel Ellis.
Many Republicans and most law enforcement groups last year ultimately opposed many of the policing laws, including the use-of-force statutes.
Lawmakers in both parties, meanwhile, are still working to come up with a long-term approach to narcotics laws, after the state Supreme Court last year struck down the state’s felony-possession drug law. Lawmakers responded by making possession of drugs a misdemeanor. But that provision will expire next year, and lawmakers are expected to continue work on it this session.
Meanwhile, this past summer, as a key new law governing when officers can use physical force took effect, many law enforcement agencies stopped responding to behavioral health calls, saying the new law didn’t allow them to respond. Recent state data has shown at least 101 instances where officers declined to respond or transport a person who had been involuntarily committed.
Democrats have suggested that at least some reluctance by police to administer the new laws reflected political resistance to them.
Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, is sponsoring a bill that among other things explicitly makes clear that police can respond to mental health crises under the use-of-force law he sponsored last year.
In an interview, Johnson, defended last year’s policing-reform efforts.
“We finally had community and family leading the way on bills, rather than leaving it to law enforcement to reform the system,” Johnson said.
But Johnson acknowledged that in some areas, “We may have swung the pendulum too far.”
To that end, he and Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, are sponsoring HB 1726, which also makes changes to the new use-of-force law. That bill would lower the threshold for police to use force in cases of violent crimes — such as suspected murder, robbery and domestic violence — to “reasonable suspicion” down from “probable cause,” according to Goodman.
“The daily work of police is mental health and domestic violence,” said Goodman, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee.
But, “We don’t want to go back to police use of force with low-level offenses,
we’ve seen too many excesses resulting in needless injury or death,” he added.
Another new law that restricted the use of military equipment among law enforcement is also expected to be tweaked to allow officers to continue to use some less-lethal munitions.
Many in the GOP have criticized the changes, claiming they increased crime and made the state more dangerous. Republican lawmakers have geared up their own response, sponsoring dozens of bills this year that would roll back some of the policing reforms, reimpose felony penalties for drug possession and make a slew of changes to the state prisons system.
“During the last legislative session, the majority party dropped the ball on public safety,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
“They systemically removed some critical tools for law enforcement, reduced punishment for criminals … and flat out surrendered on the war on drugs, by in effect decriminalizing felony hard-drug possession,” he added.
Taxes and spending
Democratic lawmakers are also readying fixes to WA Cares, the long-term care program styled as social insurance.
Passed in 2019, the law is funded by a 0.58% payroll tax on workers that was supposed to have started Jan. 1. When the program takes effect in 2025, eligible beneficiaries could begin to claim as much as $36,500 to pay for needs like assisted living or nursing care, meal preparation, respite for family members providing care and transportation.
But a host of criticisms emerged about the hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians who would pay into the program but never receive a benefit.
In response, Inslee announced the state would pause collections of the payroll deduction from employers for the tax while lawmakers worked on fixes.
House Democratic lawmakers now propose to delay the tax until July 2023, allow more people to opt out of the tax, such as people living in Oregon or Idaho but working in Washington, and partners of active military members.
Meanwhile, House legislation would allow older workers set to retire soon but who wouldn’t yet be vested into the program to get some benefits, according to Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle.
Republicans, who voted against the new program, are calling for a repeal and looking for other solutions to address the need for long-term care.
Legislators this year will also draft a supplemental budget. That spending blueprint makes adjustments to the two-year operating budget passed last year that funds schools, social services, prisons, parks and other programs.
Inslee has proposed a $61.8 billion supplemental budget that adds upon the roughly $59 billion two-year spending plan approved last spring. The governor’s proposal would add billions in spending for homelessness, the pandemic response, climate change, raises for state workers and transportation projects, among other things.
The governor’s proposal, which raises no new taxes, also puts additional dollars back into the state’s budget reserves.
The influx of projected money is fairly unprecedented.
“We could be in a position of rewriting a budget,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island and chief Democratic budget writer in the Senate. “Because we have so much more money than we forecast, including from the federal government.”
In addition to spending increases, Rolfes said she’s eyeing potential one-time tax-relief measures to ease the burdens on workers and employers.
One possibility would be to cut rates on employment insurance for employers, which lawmakers did last year. Another would be putting funds into the Paid Family Leave program, which would lower the payroll tax on workers.
But, “I need to make sure that what we do is sustainable over the long term,” she said.
House Democrats are also considering an expansion of a tax credit that helps low-income working families, said Jinkins, the House speaker.
Another option to relieve costs is a bill that would create a student loan program that would, among other things, issue loans at low interest rates, she added.
At the same time, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, is drafting his own expansion of the Working Families Tax Credit, which he supported for years. And Stokesbary is drafting a broad package to reduce, among other things, business and occupation taxes for manufacturing, agriculture and food producers. He described his package as a way to help counter the rising costs of goods and services. It also will include tax reductions to help other businesses along the supply chain.
“With a huge surplus like we have, I think this is the perfect time to be talking about tax cuts,” said Stokesbary, adding: “I make no claims that this alone will solve inflation, but inflation is at a 40-year- high.”