Week of January 18-22

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is annually one of the busiest days on campus, with busloads full of constituents travelling from every corner of the state to meet with their legislators. Not so this year. The Senate and House quietly passed resolutions honoring Dr. King to empty galleries, the capitol closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[passster password=”WACD1942″]Outside the legislative buildings security remains tight, with State Patrol and National Guard forces on high alert for potential violence during the week related to President Biden’s inauguration. The cost for the Washington State Patrol’s added security alone has already topped $1.6 million. Governor Inslee announced Thursday that the temporary fencing will remain for the foreseeable future and while the National Guard will draw down its presence, there will be increased State Patrol presence guarding the fenced area.

The virtual bodies worked several bills advancing civil rights on Monday. Among them, the Senate Law & Justice committee heard SB 5027 (Padden, R-Spokane Valley) which requires closed captioning be activated on televisions in public places. Violations of this proposed law would be a violation of the Washington State Law Against Discrimination and be subject to fines. This concept, supported by disability advocacy groups, was voted out of committee unanimously on Thursday. The bill has failed to advance to a House floor vote in previous years.

The House and Senate Democrats also continued to hear and exec bills this week as part of their comprehensive “Police Accountability” agenda. On Monday, the Senate Law & Justice committee heard SB 5051 (Pedersen, D-Seattle). Among other elements, the bill:

  • increases the number of non-law enforcement members on the Criminal Justice Training Commission from two to five members,
  • expands the background check requirements for persons applying to be an officer; expands the conduct for which certification may be revoked,
  • requires employing agencies to report all separation and disciplinary matters to the CJTC,
  • removes confidentiality of complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions for certified officers and requires this information be maintained on a publicly searchable database.

The bill is supported by the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability and opposed by law enforcement organizations. The proposal was voted out of committee on a party-line vote Thursday alongside SB 5066 (Dhingra, D-Redmond), the “duty to intervene” bill that establishes clear standards for police officers to intervene in and report the use of excessive force by fellow officers. On Thursday, the Senate Law & Justice committee also heard SB 5089 (Kuderer, D-Bellevue) which increases the minimum age and education requirements for new police officers.

This week, senators heard two bills seeking to legislate the reopening of schools and businesses, undoing several of Governor Inslee’s emergency orders. On Monday, the Senate Early Learning & K12 committee heard SB 5037 (Braun, R-Centralia). This bill requires school districts and charter schools to reopen in counties with less than a 5% positive coronavirus infection rate or fewer than 200 cases per 100,00 people for two weeks. Districts in counties where the case rate is below 350 per 100,000 over two weeks would be required to offer in-person learning to students in kindergarten through grade 8. To meet the requirement to offer in-person learning, districts could offer a hybrid schedule or schedules that rotate between in-person and distance learning. The rules established in the bill cannot be overridden by emergency order or by the Governor, with thresholds set in the bill lower than those of Governor Inslee and the Department of Health. Proponents, including new parent group Washington Alliance 4 Kids, attended the hearing in large numbers, maintaining the bill levels the playing field for children across the state by providing directions rather than suggestions for reopening. The proposal faced resistance from the Department of Health and the Governor’s Office and was opposed by the Washington Education Association and other labor unions. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a vote to move it out of committee.

On Wednesday, the Senate State Government and Elections committee heard SB 5114 (Braun, R-Centralia) which allows businesses whose activities are currently limited under Governor Inslee’s Healthy Washington-Roadmap to Recovery plan to open immediately under Phase 2 of the plan. The bill also moves public health data review and decision-making from the Department of Health and the Governor to the Legislature. Most significantly, the bill would allow indoor dining at 25% capacity. Over 1600 people signed in, the vast majority of whom were in favor. The Department of Health registered concerns and a few healthcare workers testified against the bill. The turnout and organizing energy for this bill cannot be understated. In a regular in-person session, these 1,642 people would have undoubtedly turned out en masse, packing hearing rooms with crowds overflowing on every inch of the capitol campus. The bill is not yet scheduled for a committee vote.

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy, Environment & Technology committee heard governor-request SB 5126 (Carlyle, D-Seattle), known as the Climate Commitment Act. The bill establishes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions for the state’s largest emitting industries and authorizes the Department of Ecology to administer a program that ensures compliance through the sale, tracking, and accounting of greenhouse gas credits, which are called allowances. Proceeds from the sale of allowances will be directed into the climate investment account for investments that support clean transportation, natural climate resilience solutions, clean energy transition, and emissions reductions projects. All projects funded from the account must meet strong labor standards and support environmental justice and equity goals. The bill has not yet been scheduled for executive session. This legislation will be another test of Governor Inslee’s ability to bring the legislature along on his climate agenda after several failures in past years. His agenda also includes the establishment of a clean fuel standard; requirement that new buildings be carbon free by 2030 with elimination of fossil fuels from existing buildings by 2050; and a $428 million investment in clean transportation, clean buildings, and clean energy projects.

SB 5182 (Kuderer, D-Bellevue) was heard Wednesday in Senate State Government and Elections. The bill repeals the requirement that advisory votes for tax increase legislation appear on the ballot and voters’ pamphlet. Advisory votes were established in 2008 with the enactment of Initiative 960. Through an advisory vote, voters advise the Legislature whether to repeal or maintain a tax increase enacted by the Legislature in the most recent session. The results of advisory votes are nonbinding and do not result in a change to law. The bill has not yet been scheduled for executive session.

On Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled a 16-year $25.8 billion transportation package that includes an 18-cent increase in the gas tax, indexed for inflation going forward, as well as a new fee on carbon emissions. Combined with existing state and federal rates, the total gas tax would be 85.4 cents per gallon, the highest in the United States. By comparison, the gas taxes in Idaho and Oregon are 50.4 and 54.4 cents respectively. The proposal does not rely on new bonds, thus greasing the political wheels for majority Democrats because it needs only 50% approval, instead of the tougher 60% consensus that is required to sell state-backed bonds. The bulk of the package is funded by the $17.6 billion gas tax increase. The carbon fee aspect of the proposal would provide $8.2 billion, with the fee starting at $15 per metric ton of emissions, rising to $20 in the next biennium and $25 in the 2025-27 budget cycle. The program would fund replacement of fish-blocking road culverts and the electrification of diesel ferries. Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs is expected to present the Senate proposal as early as next week. Hobbs has said the plan will be similar to the 15-year $17 billion package he has proposed in the past, which is funded by raising the gas tax, and either a flat fee on carbon emissions or a cap and invest system.

On Thursday, the Senate Housing & Local Government Committee heard SB 5139 (Das, D-Kent), a bill prohibiting landlords from imposing rent increases within the first six months after the current eviction moratorium is lifted in March. After a six-month period, landlords would also be limited to charging any rent increases more than 3% above last year’s consumer price index rate and that any rent increases should be based on the base monthly rent as of March 1. Not unexpectedly, the bill is opposed by the rental housing industry, which prefers HB 1228 (Barkis, R-Lacey), a bipartisan bill that would provide direct rental assistance funded by the state and federal government, as well as offer dispute resolution specialists for communication between landlords and tenants. HB 1228 is scheduled for public hearing next week in the House Housing, Human Services & Veterans committee. SB 5139 has not yet been scheduled for executive session.

A control on rising health care prices was also discussed this week when the Senate Health & Long Term Care committee heard SB 5020 (Keiser, D-Des Moines) on Friday. This bill requires the Health Care Authority to assess a penalty against a drug manufacturer on revenue generated from a price increase on a prescription drug that is not supported by clinical evidence. It also prohibits manufacturers from withdrawing a drug from the market to avoid paying the penalty. All revenue collected pursuant to the penalty must be deposited into the foundational public services account. The bill is opposed by pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical companies who contend the bill gives an unaccountable, non-governmental entity the power to fine companies doing business in Washington.

On Friday, Democratic leaders released a $2.2 billion COVID-19 package they say will expand testing and vaccine availability, extend support to schools, provide grants for small businesses, as well as give housing and food assistance. Highlights of the package include $618 million for vaccine administration, contract tracing and testing (includes emphasis on helping school districts reopen safely); $668 million for schools as they resume in-person learning plus dedicated funding to help students catch up from learning loss during the pandemic; $365 million for rental assistance to help tenants and landlords impacted by the pandemic; $240 million for more than 12,000 small business assistance grants (administered through the state Department of Commerce); $70 million to assist undocumented immigrants who have been impacted by the pandemic but do not qualify for federal or state assistance; $26 million for food assistance to individuals and households in need; and $50 million in grants to help childcare businesses stay open and expand capacity. The majority of the funding in the package is a result of federal stimulus dollars approved by Congress. Senate Democrats and House Democrats will hold a joint media availability to discuss the package on Monday, January 25.[/passster]