By Jim Hedrick, GSI WA State Lobbyist and Spokane Regional Advocate
The 68th Washington State Legislature convened its 15-week (105-day) regular session this week under almost normal circumstances, after having operated in a mostly remote fashion for the past two years. This year, masks are still encouraged and required in most legislator offices and access to all offices is restricted by security, preventing lobbyists and the public from casually dropping by. Some aspects of remote sessions are here to stay, including remote committee hearing testimony. Roughly half of public speakers were remote and committee chairs easily moved from live to remote testimony all week.
Legislative Democrats say they feel emboldened by 2022 General Election results. Democrats are saying the election results prove voters agree with their agenda on abortion, taxes, guns, the environment, and other issues. In a recent interview, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) said “People have spoken in terms of the majorities they sent back to the legislature…Washingtonians have said they trust Democrats to lead.” Democrats picked up one seat in the House flipping the seat in the swing 10th Legislative District (Island County), with Clyde Shavers (D-10) besting incumbent Rep. Greg Gilday (R-10), bringing the House political makeup to 58 Democrats and 40 Republicans. Jinkins will now lead a caucus with a lot of new members who have tilted that caucus decidedly to the left politically.
In the state Senate, the makeup was 28 Democrats plus one who caucused and voted with Republicans (Senator Tim Sheldon, D-35) and 20 Republicans. In the 2022 election, the Democrats picked up the Senate seat in the 42nd Legislative District (Whatcom County) flipping from appointed Republican Senator Simon Sefzik to former Representative Sharon Shewmake (D-42), producing a new 29-20 Democrat majority.
Legislative Democrats who control both chambers, in coordination with Democrat Governor Jay Inslee, have a bold agenda for the 2023 session that includes the following issues:
Gun Violence Prevention – In a recent news interview, Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) said “It’s clear what we have done on guns is not troubling the voters,” calling the election results “yet another affirmation of our approach.” This year, Democrats have introduced bills to ban the sale of assault-style semiautomatic rifles, require a permit to purchase a firearm, make gun makers and sellers liable for selling weapons used in crimes, and grant gun control authority to local governments.
Drug Possession – After the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug-possession law (aka the “Blake Decision”) during the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed a quick fix to classify possession as a misdemeanor but refer people to treatment before charging them. That law sunsets in July. Most lawmakers agree that treatment is needed for people with substance abuse issues, but some members hope to stiffen criminal penalties, while others seek to decriminalize drug possession.
Housing and Homelessness – Governor Inslee has proposed the state raise $4 billion to build affordable housing by issuing bonds outside the state’s debt limit, which will require legislative and voter approval. If passed as proposed, the bond issue would go to a statewide ballot in November 2023 for voter approval. Additionally, there are proposals to allow more units on residential lots, intensify transit-oriented development, eliminate design review boards on residential construction, and cap the amount landlords can raise on rent each year.
Workforce Issues – Republicans and Democrats agree there is a workforce crisis, given nearly every sector is experiencing staffing shortages due to baby boom retirements and the Covid-era resignations. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) recently said “If you look at law enforcement, we have workforce issues; if you look at early learning, we have a workforce issue.” Expect more legislation to expand apprenticeships, provide retention bonuses, and change licensure requirements.
Abortion – In 1991, Washington voters passed Initiative 120, codifying Roe v Wade into state law. 32 years later, Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to amend the constitution to further protect access to abortion and contraception in a post-Roe world. Supporters claim an amendment would offer stronger protections because it is easier for the Legislature to repeal a statute than a constitutional amendment. Amending the constitution in Washington requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber and voter approval.
Budget – As lawmakers prepare to write the 2023-25 budgets, they do so with increased revenue and a few uncertainties that will play out during the session. First, the state is now collecting the new capital gains tax, which is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year for early learning and childcare. Though, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on January 26 that could possibly strike down the law, creating a large hole in budget expectations. Second, the Department of Ecology will hold the first of four annual auctions for carbon emission allowances on February 28 under the state’s new Cap & Trade law. The Office of Financial Management (OFM) anticipates the purchase of “pollution credits” will generate approximately $480 million this year. Legislators will need to agree on how to spend these early proceeds.
Committee hearings this week mostly focused on Governor Inslee’s operating, capital, and transportation budgets, reports due to the legislature from state agencies, and getting this large group of new members up to speed with work sessions on various agencies and topics. This 68th Legislature has 21 brand-new legislators, nine of whom have served previously or are moving from the House to the Senate.
Expect a faster pace on committee hearings on bills next week. The legislature operates on a series of dates whereby bills must advance beyond a certain point in the legislative process to continue to advance. These hard dates are commonly referred to as “cutoffs.” The first “cutoff” is February 17 when bills must be approved by the committee to which they were originally referred. Next week will be committee hearings on gun bills, a bill to reduce plastic packaging used on products, and a bill to protect the consumer health care data of patients who come from out-of-state to receive health care services.