The 67th legislature of Washington State convened Monday under the substantial protection of the chainlink fencing, the Washington State Patrol, and 750 National Guard members, all deployed to restrict public access to the legislative buildings in light of the recent attack in the U.S. capitol. Once inside, masked members filed in and out of the chambers in small groups, voting to allow a largely remote session for the first time in Washington State history. Only a skeleton staff and a few members will remain in-person throughout the session, while the majority of members will participate by zoom from their homes to prevent a 105-day superspreader event. The press will be allowed to observe from the galleries the few members who remain, but capitol buildings will continue to be closed to lobbyists and the general public.
The immense technical hurdles involved in processing policy as well as operating, capital, and transportation budgets in 105 days have resulted in a stark contraction of expectations. Majority party Senate and House Democrats have asked members to introduce fewer bills, 450 fewer than usual at the time of this report and outlined a filter through which members should put prospective legislation. Bills are more likely to be advanced in the Democrat-controlled chambers if they address COVID-19 challenges, improve racial equity, advance economic recovery, address climate change, increase revenue or create savings, and have a clear path in the opposite chamber as well as the governor’s office. For their part, legislative Republicans, who have pleaded for a special session since Spring, are eager to come off the sidelines to oppose the authority of Governor Inslee to impose restrictions without a vote of the legislature.
In addition to the Governor’s mansion, Democrats will again control both the House and Senate in Washington. And though $41.2 million was spent on legislative races during this election cycle, the partisan make-up will remain the same as the 2019/20 session. The House will return with 57 Democrats and 41 Republicans and the Senate will resume with 29 Democrat and 20 Republicans, with Sen. Sheldon (D-35) caucusing with Republicans. Legislative Democrats and Republicans will each welcome ten new members this session. In both chambers, each party lost and gained one seat, but the partisan divide has grown with the elimination of rural democrats and growth of more progressive democrats and conservative republicans. New democrats could be more likely to advance stalled progressive causes, including the capital gains tax, carbon pricing, and a low carbon fuel standard.
Senate Republicans have returned to the virtual campus under the new leadership of Senator John Braun (R-20) who in December replaced longtime Minority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9). Sen. Schoesler will again become a rank-and-file member. In the November election, Senate Republicans lost Senator Steve O’Ban (R-28), a prominent voice on mental health and a fierce critic of Sound Transit. They gained instead Longview Port Commissioner Senator Jeff Wilson (R-19). Senate Democrats lost the longtime moderate rural voice of Senator Dean Takko (D-19) and gained more progressive President of the Tacoma Urban League Senator T’wina Nobles (D-28). Nobles will be the first Black member of the Senate in ten years and joins the largest ever members of color caucus, chaired by Rep. Melanie Morgan (D-29).
The House Democrat seat gain comes from the swing 42nd district with Alicia Rule (D-42), a therapist, who replaced steadfast conservative House Republican Luanne Van Werven (R-42). Like their Senate counterparts, House Democrats also lost a seat in the now Republican 19th District, that of moderate hunting and natural resource enthusiast Representative Brian Blake (D-19). He was replaced by Representative Joel McEntire (R-19), a marine corp reservist and teacher who like his Senate counterpart railed against Seattle politics during the election season.
On Tuesday, the House Public Safety committee heard the first of several police response bills, a policy priority for majority Democrats. The debate over police response follows the deaths of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma and George Floyd in Minneapolis, which elicited months of protests and conversation about racial justice and policing practices. HB 1054 (Johnson, D-30) prohibits peace officers from using chokeholds and neck restraints; using unleashed police dogs to arrest or apprehend; acquiring or using tear gas and certain types of military equipment; intentionally covering identifying badge information; exceptions to the “knock and announce” rule; and establishes restrictions on vehicular pursuits. The hearing drew emotional testimony from individuals whose family members died during interactions with police officers, while law enforcement testimony varied in their support or opposition to various elements of the plan. The legislation is one of many police reform bills this year, including a proposal from Governor Jay Inslee to create a statewide, independent office to investigate allegations of excessive force.
On Wednesday, the House State Government & Tribal Relations committee heard HB 1016 (Morgan, D-29) designating June 19, commonly known as Juneteenth, as a State Legal Holiday. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 when, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, enslaved people in Texas learned the Civil War was over and they had been freed. Forty-six states recognize Juneteenth as either a holiday or day of Observance and momentum is growing to recognize the day as a National Holiday. Governor Inslee has identified the bill as a priority piece of legislation for his office this session and has fully funded it in his proposed budget.
In the Legislature’s first virtual floor debate Wednesday, the Senate took up SCR 8402 (Liias, D-21) to extend two dozen of Governor Jay Inslee’s emergency orders indefinitely until he rules the emergency is over, rather than current law which extends the proclamations 30 days at a time with the approval of the legislature when the legislature is not in session. The resolution faced stern opposition from Senate Republicans who likened the measure to ceding their legislative authority to the governor. This is undoubtedly the first of many debates this session about the governor’s authority to legislate through emergency orders.
On Thursday, the House Environment & Energy committee heard governor request HB 1091 (Fitzgibbon, D-34). The legislation directs the Department of Ecology to adopt rules establishing a Clean Fuels Program to limit greenhouse gas emissions per unit of transportation fuel energy to 10% below 2017 levels by 2028 and 20% below 2017 levels by 2035. The bill would require oil producers and refiners to either reduce the carbon intensity of gasoline and diesel or invest in cleaner fuels. A LCFS bill has failed to pass in past years due to opposition by Republicans and moderate Democrats.
As he begins a rare third term, Governor Inslee has proposed a $57.6 billion biennial operating budget, $5.5 billion more than the current budget. Though the November forecast once again showed an increase to the state’s income, the expected revenue for the current and next biennium is still $3.3 billion less than was projected in February of 2020. To fund his budget proposal, Inslee suggests $1.3 billion in new taxes, including $1.1 billion from a 9% tax on capital gains earnings above $25,000 for an individual or $50,000 for a couple. Governor request SB 5096 (Robinson, D-38) was heard on Thursday in Senate Ways & Means. Over one hundred people signed in to testify on both sides, teeing up a robust debate that will last the session long. If passed, the tax will face a legal challenge from opponents who maintain it is an income tax.
The upcoming week will feature committee votes on two high-profile bills. The House Environment & Energy Committee will hold an executive session on the Clean Fuels bill, HB 1091 (Fitzgibbon, D-34), and the Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee will hold executive session on SB 5062 (Carlyle, D-36), the data privacy bill. Both votes will come on the 21st. Additionally, the Chair of the House Transportation Committee has scheduled a news conference for Monday, January 18 to announce details of a comprehensive transportation funding package. Details of the package are not yet public.
Submitted by Brynn Brady