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Legislative Session Update: January 29-February 3, 2024

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

Jim Hedrick 2024

A Legislature that could use a Cutoff
Wednesday, January 31, the day by which policy bills must be voted out of policy committees, has passed and bills with a financial impact to the state must now quickly be heard and voted out of a fiscal committee by Monday, February 5. The exception of course, are bills that are NTIB, or “necessary to implement the budget,” a designation the majority can place on bills. Bills that are NTIB live on until the end of the session regardless of whether they have passed the usual requisite hurdles.

There Actually is a Free Lunch
The Senate Early Learning & K-12 committee heard SB 5964 (Nobles, D-28) on Monday, a bill that would require school districts, charter schools, and state-tribal compact schools to provide breakfast and lunch at no charge to any requesting student beginning in the 2024-25 school year. The companion, sponsored by Rep. Riccelli (D-3) is currently in the House Appropriations committee. A similar idea was attempted by Rep. Riccelli last year but was gutted by the end of session due to the high fiscal note. Over a thousand people signed in pro, representing school districts, faith communities, PTAs, pediatricians, children’s advocacy groups, and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Gift Cards
There was a lot of anticipation on Wednesday as committee votes where scheduled on the hard-fought, controversial issue centered upon gift cards sold by retailers. House Bill 2094 by Representative Emily Alvarado (D-Seattle) and companion Senate Bill 5987 by Senator Jasmine Trudeau (D-Tacoma) would allow consumers to cash out their gift cards with a $50 balance or less. Under current law the threshold is $5. The bill would also allow consumers to use gift cards with other forms of payments to make purchases. Retailers strongly opposed the bill arguing the change would add incentive for consumers to use gift cards to launder money, force businesses to maintain cash and making businesses vulnerable to crime.

Consumer advocates say the last time the state created policy on unused gift cards was in 2004. At that time unspent balances represented $3 million a year, but now unused balances have increased to hundreds of millions of dollars. Proponents also argue that because current law allows retailers to limit how gift cards are used, cards with small balances are often discarded or left unused. Neither HB 2094 or SB 5987 met the committee cutoff and are no longer advancing this session.

The proponents, largely Labor interests who want to use the bills to leverage large retailers for the purpose of organizing their employees, have spent a significant amount of money on political ads and a media campaign. Given the controversy surrounding the issue lawmakers are reluctant to continue the issue but the well-financed proponents seem adamant about getting a political win this session. Stay tuned.

Schools Chief
The race for the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) got a bit more interesting this week. Former Representative and current Bellevue computer science teacher Chad Magendanz (R) joined incumbent Chris Reykdal (D) and fellow teacher Reid Saaris (D). Magendanz, who served in the House between 2013-2017 left state politics when he narrowly lost his bid for Senate against Mark Mullet (D), who is now running for Governor. Magendanz’s website suggests he will campaign on “challenges to our cherished way of life in the decline of student achievement, the erosion of local control and parental rights, and promotion of partisan political ideology in our classrooms.”

AI
Tuesday, Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order to develop guidelines for how the state adopts generative artificial intelligence into its own systems to ensure its ethical use. WATech, the agency operating the state’s technology and information security services, will work with the governor’s cabinet agencies to submit a report identifying potential generative AI initiatives that could be implemented in state operations. The plan would develop initial guidelines for how the government may procure, use, and monitor the use of generative AI.

Grocery Merger
Grocery Current Attorney General and frontrunner candidate for Washington state Governor, Bob Ferguson (D) filed suit on January 15 to block the proposed Kroger-Albertsons grocery merger nationwide, asserting the merger of the two largest supermarket companies in Washington state will limit shopping options and eliminate competition. More than half of all grocery stores in Washington are currently owned by either Kroger or Albertsons. Kroger alone has more than 21,000 workers in Washington. This proposed merger received legislative attention Tuesday when SB 6007 (Conway, D-29) was voted out of the Senate Labor & Commerce committee. The bill would require the successor grocery employer to maintain a preferential hiring list of current eligible grocery workers and retain those workers for a 180-day transition period. Unions say SB 6007 protects the safety of food and medicine sold to Washington State families by preventing sudden mass layoffs of the skilled and licensed employees. The Washington Food Industry Association was opposed when the bill was heard originally.

Full Tilt Floor Action Next Week
After the February 5 fiscal committee cutoff, both chambers will turn their attention to floor debate. They will spend long days and nights voting to send bills to the opposite house until February 13.

Cutoff Dates:
February 5 – Fiscal Committee Cutoff
February 13 – House of Origin Cutoff
February 21 – Opposite House Policy Committee Cutoff
February 26 – Opposite House Fiscal Committee Cutoff
March 1 – Floor Cutoff March 7 – Last day of Regular Session

For More Information
Public Policy developments change fast. Note this is a wrap-up of the week of January 29-February 3. You can find the prior week wrap-up here: January 22-26January 15-19, and January 8-12, 2024. 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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