Talking shopp with Frank Chopp, topp popp of the Democratic stock. Okay, Ill stopp.
Talking shopp with Frank Chopp, topp popp of the Democratic stock. Okay, I'll stopp. WASHINGTON STATE LEGISLATURE
During a phone interview yesterday with House Speaker Frank Chopp about the Democratic legislative agenda this session, I learned that he does not like being compared to Vladimir Putin.

In November of last year, Rep. Chopp said he’d step down as Speaker after this session in an attempt “to provide an orderly leadership transition" after serving in that role for 20 years. But he also said he planned to continue to run for the seat in the 43rd Legislative District, which he’s held since 1994. That move seemed weird to me. Can a guy so accustomed to wielding power in the House really prevent himself from being a backseat Speaker for as long as he serves?

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“If you brought that up in our caucus you’d be shouted down,” Chopp said when I compared his move to the brief “tandemocracy" between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin—an extreme example, to be sure, but not completely dissimilar. “That’s just outrageously wrong.” Chopp reasserted his preference to not “displace people as committee chair” next year, which may restrain his ability to continue to set the legislative agenda once he steps down. As a regular member, Chopp pledges to “work on the priorities of the caucus," and argues that the next Speaker "won't be told what to do."

"This is a team sport here," Chopp said. “We get a lot of things done, particularly if you don’t worry about who takes credit for them,” Chopp said.

For a guy who doesn’t want to take credit for all the things he's done, he sure sounds like he wants more credit for all the things he’s done. On the phone, Chopp kept threatening to take me on a “5 or 6-hour tour” of all the affordable housing projects he’s secured land and money for. (Confidential to Chopp: I’d love to go, so long as we can pause long enough for me to submit my applications.) And in a preview of his priorities, he also pointed to several massive problems he wants to not take credit for solving later, including big investments in housing, mental and behavioral health, health care for low wage workers, and education.

On Tim Eyman’s stupid $30 car tabs initiative

Since Eyman dredged up enough signatures to send to the legislature his $30 car tab initiative, which will bankrupt transportation funds in several cities across the state if people end up voting for it at the ballot, Chopp says they’ll have to hold a hearing on the bill as a matter of course, “probably in the Transportation Committee.” Democrats don’t plan on passing the initiative, Chopp says, which would send it to the November ballot. He’s hoping one of few possible legal challenges might hobble Eyman’s effort: “I’m not a lawyer—I’d have to check with attorneys, but Sound Transit, which collects a large part of [the tab money], have already bonded against that revenue stream and have dedicated it to paying back the bonds to fund transit projects, so I think that one is a real issue in terms of its implementation.”

On the housing crisis

In light of Microsoft’s $500 million investment last week, Rep. Chopp says he wants to work toward allocating $200 for the Housing Trust Fund, a number many housing advocates have been calling for. Gov Jay Inslee’s budget currently only includes $140 million for preserving and building “approximately 2,500 affordable and innovative housing units.” Last month the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force determined King County alone needs to build 244,000 units of housing in the next 20 years to end the housing crisis.

Chopp emphasized that he started the HTF fund before he was in the legislature, along with Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. He added that the state had allocated $200 million out of the capital budget at least once in the past, and so he thinks “that’s a very good number.” Chopp thinks adding money to the HTF is a particularly good investment because “every dollar you put in you get four dollars from other sources,” so that $200 million actually translates to $800 million when you factor in revenue from rent and federal tax credits. A 2015 study found that you get 6 dollars for every 1 dollar of investment. Of course, these dummies will be more likely to invest $200 million in housing if you yell at them to do it, so call your state house rep when you have a spare moment and demand as much.

Chopp also stressed that there are "about 80" housing trust fund projects that have been or will be constructed in his own district, pointing to new developments at Broadway and Pine and another one on Madison and Boylston that will rise 18 stories and contain 300 units of housing, 100 of which will be for homeless seniors. He also mentioned his push to force cities like Seattle to provide land and air rights for housing, citing four projects up in Northgate that will be constructed as a result.

“This is extremely important. I tend to just get things done and not spend as much time on talking about it,” he said.

On the state's failing mental health system

"For some reason, we have bipartisan support for behavioral health," Chopp said when I asked if he liked any of the proposals laid out by GOP senators and Gov. Inslee last year.

He said he liked the proposal to authorize $500 million in bonds for new mental health facilities, considering the fact that the state's largest one failed a federal inspection in 2018, but Chopp says his caucus has "a different way of doing it."

He personally plans to focus on workforce development, "because we need more mental health workers," and supportive housing, because "you can have the greatest treatment system on earth, and yet if they don’t have a home for people it’s all for naught."

"We have 105 days, and our priorities have got to be happening on behavioral and mental health,” Chopp said. "We have people dying on the streets because they’re homeless and mentally ill. The situation with mental health has got to be vastly improved."

On amply funding our public education system

Chopp says he's "pleased" the Supreme Court concluded that the state is now fully funding basic education following last year's compromise on McCleary. Education advocates strongly disagree with that perspective. Still, Chopp argues the House Democrats need to do more, especially regarding special education funding. "We’ll put some additional money for special education," he said.

"We have other ideas than the governor" on education, Chopp added, including more funding for the Washington State Need Grant (a program that provides financial aid to 70 percent of the state's median family income), providing more financial aid to more Washingtonians in general, and—my personal favorite—addressing student loans. "I’m very upset about loan interest," Chopp said. "We hope to go into lowering those high interest rates, and also paying for those loans for students who go into high demand degrees such as mental health care or school councilors," he said. Throw in journalists hot take news aggregators and you got yourself a deal, Chopp!

On health care for low wage workers

Chopp calls health care "a close second" in terms of his legislative priorities for this session, but says he "prefers the Basic Health Plan model" to the Governor's public option proposal. Details on the essential differences between the plan he's talking about and Cascade Care, the bill the governor backs, were thin. But Chopp says they're forthcoming, and that both his and the governor's proposals "address the same goal" of "providing an option for lower wage workers who can't afford health care now," and so "there is agreement on that."

On how the hell they're going to pay for all this

Every advocate needs between $200 and $500 million for their project, and if they don't get it the people of Washington will continue to be undereducated, underhoused, under cared-for, and underwater in a number of ways. In most cases, lawmakers are factoring in money from a capital gains excise tax—a tax on the sales of stocks and bonds—to pay for these projects. But does Chopp have the will to push for it?

He seems rosier about variations on a capital gains tax that also reduce property taxes, which would dramatically cut the amount of money going to desperately needed projects.

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As for closing tax loopholes for giant corporations? "I would urge people to get into specifics on that," he said. "Which one?" When I mentioned the $227 million in tax breaks for Boeing, who cut 6,000 jobs in the state last year, Chopp said, "Our agenda is education, health care and jobs, and a lot of people thought that was necessary for the jobs part of it. I’m for whatever the votes can be had for."

And what about the future of the Democrats in Washington, Frank Chopp? Are they in trouble?

"There’s a strong probability that we’ll keep the majority in 2020," Chopp said.