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Legislative Session Update: February 6-10

By Jim Hedrick, GSI WA State Lobbyist and Spokane Regional Advocate

Jim Hedrick

Next Friday, February 17th serves as the “cutoff” for bills to be voted out of policy committees in their house of origin. A lot of committee time is now devoted to “executive action” where committee members caucus, debate, amend and vote on bills rather than public hearings. Many tough issues still exist, and one of the most significant the legislature must find a solution to this session surrounds drug possession. After the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug-possession law (the Blake Decision) during the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed a quick fix to classify possession as a misdemeanor but refer or “divert” people to treatment before charging them. That law sunsets in July.

On Monday, the Senate Law & Justice Committee heard a suite of four proposals aimed at addressing drug possession and substance use disorder, including SB 5624 (Dhingra, D-45) which sought to decriminalize possession up to a personal amount, and SB 5035 (Padden, R-4) which would have made possession a Class C Felony. Ultimately, the Thursday committee moved just one bill. SB 5536 (Robinson, D-38) increases the penalty for knowing possession of a controlled substance or counterfeit substance to a gross misdemeanor; creates a pretrial diversion program for individuals charged with possession of prohibited substances; and provides for vacating possession convictions contingent on the individual completing substance use disorder treatment. This bill received pro testimony in committee on Monday by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) as well as a large number of cities.

The legislature continues to struggle with the issue of vehicular police pursuits. After Senate Law & Justice Committee Chair Sen. Manka Dhingra announced earlier this session she would not grant a public hearing to a bill that would return the evidentiary standard of reasonable suspicion for police pursuits in certain circumstances, Senate Bill 5533 was introduced to study and develop a model pursuit policy for peace officers. The prime sponsor is Sen. John Lovick (D-44) a retired state patrol Trooper and former Snohomish County Sheriff. SB 5533 calls for a model vehicle pursuit policy that must consider certain circumstances related to vehicle pursuits including where vehicle pursuits may not be justified, where peace officers should consider the use of tactics other than engaging in a vehicle pursuit, factors influencing the termination of a pursuit, procedures and tactics for officers engaged in a pursuit, peer-reviewed research findings pertaining to pursuit policies, procedures, and pursuit results when officers terminate or pursue to conclusion. SB 5533 was approved by the committee and has been referred to the Senate Ways & Means Committee and is scheduled for a hearing next week.

On Tuesday, the House Health Care & Wellness Committee hosted “Tooth Day,” with a work session on oral health access and several dental care bills, including a policy that would establish the profession of dental therapy in federally qualified health centers (FQHC) and similar clinics in Washington, HB 1678 (Riccelli, D-3). Advocates from the Statewide Poverty Action Network, the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, and NeighborCare testified that expansion of dental therapy will provide further access to dental care, particularly for people in communities of color, low-income families, and residents of rural communities. Opponents of the bill, including the Washington State Dental Association, say the training required in the bill is insufficient for the procedures in the bill that are currently performed by dentists. The bill attracted a fair amount of attention, with 788 people signed in not wishing to testify, 405 pro, 382 con, and 1 other.

Private detention facilities have been in the news in Washington of late, after reports of hunger strikes and use of chemical agents were confirmed last week by GEO Group which runs the ICE Processing Center in Tacoma. A bill heard Tuesday in the House Community Safety, Justice & Reentry Committee would seek to regulate private for-profit detention facilities as public facilities are regulated. HB 1470 (Ortiz-Self, D-21) creates a private right of action and civil penalties for violations of laws related to private detention facilities; specifies conditions for the operations of private detention facilities; requires state and local agencies to inspect private detention facilities for compliance with food, workplace conditions, water, and air quality, and performance audits; and makes private detention facilities subject to the Public Records Act. Days are numbered for private, for-profit detention centers as a result of a 2022 law by the same sponsor that prohibits use of these facilities in Washington state as their contracts expire.

On Wednesday, the House Environment & Energy Committee heard HB 1505 (Slatter, D-48), a bipartisan bill that establishes a B&O and Public Utility Tax preference for alternative jet fuels that produce less carbon in the environment. Along with other provisions, it directs Washington State University to convene an alternative jet fuels workgroup to make recommendations to the legislature on how to develop the alternative jet fuel industry. According to the bill’s sponsor, aviation accounts for 10% of Washington State’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Senate Energy, Environment & Technology Committee heard SB 5577 (Torres, R-15), a bill Wednesday that would increase broadband access in underserved communities. It establishes the Capital Broadband Investment Acceleration program, a grant program under Governor Inslee’s Statewide Broadband Office. Under the bill, $200 million in state capital funds will be used to finance the program in rural and distressed counties. Supporters of the bill say upcoming federal dollars are not enough to put broadband in the most remote places in Washington.

SB 5082 (Kuderer, D-48) passed the Senate floor this week. The bill would remove the advisory votes that appear on the general election ballot to survey voters whenever the legislature passes a tax increase. Advisory votes are nonbinding and have no legal impact on state policy. Supporters of advisory votes say they are an opportunity for voters to have a say. Opponents say they are expensive to print and are complex to read. Instead of advisory votes appearing on the ballot, the bill requires the creation of a public website with summaries of operating, capital, and transportation budgets, graphs of state budgeted expenditures by object for the most recent biennium, a table charting state and local expenditures relative to personal income, and information on measures analyzed under Initiative 960. The bill passed 30-18, with one excused.

On Thursday, the Senate Transportation Committee heard a bill aimed at fixing the dwindling workforce and chronic staffing issues at the Washington State Ferries. Insufficient staff contribute to the vast majority of the unprecedented number of cancellations on the system’s routes in recent years. The bill, SB 5550 (Liias, D-21) requires the WSF to develop programs and policies for employees to gain maritime credentials and pilotage while on the job, evaluate management practices and staffing models, and adopt a DEI implementation strategy and employee surveys to perform an in-depth cultural assessment and remediation plan. The bill is expected to cost $20 million per biennium.

Next week should see the release of some bills necessary to implement legislative budgets including a bill to increase the state and local property tax levy from 1% to a growth factor of 1% plus the growth rate of inflation (CPI) and population growth and a bill to leverage more Medicaid reimbursement for hospitals.

For More Information
Public Policy developments change fast. Note this is a wrap-up of the week of February 6-10. You can find prior week wrap-ups here: January 30-February 3, January 23-27January 16-20, and January 9-13. Check out GSI’s 2023’s State Agenda. For more details about any of the bills in this article, visit the Washington State Legislature page to search by bill number. For more information contact Jake Mayson, Director of Public Policy.

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