At a press conference over the weekend Democrats hailed the 2021 Legislative session as "historic," declaring an "end to incremental change" in state politics.
Meanwhile, at their own press conference, Republicans did what they have become accustomed to doing: they licked their wounds, promised a backlash at the ballot box, and tried to frame the hybrid session as a hyper-partisan nightmare exacerbated by remote work. As we all know, real legislation only happens when people look each other in the eyes. The constituents and politicians file in, they stare each other down, they file out, and suddenly a bill is born. Eyeball lawmaking, as it's known around here. Handshakes. Pull-asides. Creating conditions for a deadly respiratory virus to ride high on the backs of aerosols and delve straight into the airways of unsuspecting staffers. That's how we do it in real Washington...
Anyway, sorry, on Wednesday the far-right caucus even held a mock award ceremony to honor their least favorite bills. This is how much of a joke these people are.
And yet that joke of a caucus for the most part remained unified against the big Democratic priorities this year, which put a lot of power in the hands of four conservative Senate Democrats: Mark Mullet, Annette Cleveland, Kevin Van de Wege, and Steve Hobbs. With the help of the odd Seattle Senator every now and then, those four watered down major legislation now heralded as progress, and they rendered lots of the marquee stuff tenuous. Committee chairs also bumped out progressive bills along the way.
All that said, yes, after a few years of doing one big thing and then nudging along modest reforms, this year the Democratically controlled Legislature did a lot of big things.
The stuff I'm not even going to get to in this post include restoring voting rights for "roughly 20,000" people with felonies, lifting the ban on public broadband, extending postpartum insurance coverage from 60 days to a year, passing a $59 billion budget that spends big on child care, public health, schools, rental assistance, foreclosure prevention, and unemployment insurance relief for businesses. If Republicans had control, none of that shit would have happened.
And yes, this path seemed somewhat surprising given the low bar Democrats set for themselves before session began. Back in November, Sen. Karen Keiser told The Stranger she'd be surprised if they passed 200 bills this year, given the technical issues they were having with remote legislating. They ended up passing 335 bills, according to the Washington State Wire.
But there's still
plenty of disappointment to go around opportunities to strengthen bills in future sessions. Let's take a quick look.
Again, compared to the past, 2021 was a landmark year for renters. Sen. Patty Kuderer made Washington the first state in the country to give low-income tenants facing eviction the right to an attorney. Her bill also sets up dispute resolution centers, which will help slow the tsunami of evictions once Governor Jay Inslee lifts the moratorium.
Over in the House, Rep. Nicole Macri passed her statewide "just-cause" bill, which requires landlords to give month-to-month tenants more notice and a good reason before evicting them.
She also worked with Rep. Timm Ormsby to raise a fee for filing certain documents with the government. That document recording fee will raise nearly $150 million per year for permanent supportive housing, for landlords who need to recover money for damages to property, and to provide a permanent funding source for rental assistance.
Just to give you an idea of how impressive that it is, last year Macri's just-cause bill didn't even make it to the House floor. And all of the protections in Kuderer's bill were introduced only this year. Plus there's just a lot of landlords in the Legislature.
The caveats: The eviction protections in Kuderer's bill will not be in place before June 30, which is when the current moratorium expires and when a flood of evictions may begin. In the meantime, tenant advocates are petitioning the Governor's office to extend the deadline.
Furthermore, the "just causes" in the just-cause bill are broad. A landlord can simply say they want to kick you out because it's in their financial interest to do so, and then you're gone—but thanks to this bill the landlord must give you 60 days notice beforehand. Before, that
asshole wholesome housing provider could have just given you 20 days notice and no reason at all. And though the bill was watered down in other ways, Macri's bill is stronger than Seattle's current just-cause ordinance, since her bill also applies to the end of certain leases. So, despite what Republican Senator Doug Ericksen says, we're not all living in Seattle now.
And that document recording fee bill to pay for homeless services and rent relief? It almost didn't happen. Michele Thomas, policy director at Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said "multiple lawmakers" told her the Senate's data privacy bill needed to pass in order for the recording fee bill to pass.
The Senate's version of the data privacy bill, feverishly and enthusiastically sponsored by Sen. Reuven Carlyle, gives us better control of our data but essentially insulates big tech companies from private lawsuits when they break one of the rules in the bill. Last week the state Attorney General's Office heard that there were "efforts to revive data privacy legislation and pass a bill that would include an unlimited 'right to cure' provision," and so wrote a letter to members of the House Democratic Caucus explaining why they thought that would be a bad idea.
I asked Carlyle if he threatened to hold up the homelessness funding for the sake of his privacy bill. In an email Carlyle said, "The document recording fee passed (with my vote) and the privacy bill did not so your palace intrigue is a little untimely and, I hope you can appreciate, relatively uninteresting."
Ugh, sucks to get owned by a guy who won't deny he threatened to withhold his vote for homelessness funding and renter relief in order to pass a bill that would protect giant tech companies from lawsuits.
In other renter and housing-related bills, Publicola reported on House Democrats gutting abundant housing bills and weakening a good bill that requires cities to contemplate affordable housing and shelters in their planning.
The War on Drugs
Halfway into the session, the Washington State Supreme Court basically decriminalized drugs. Rather than thank the Court for doing their dirty work and then just pumping a bunch of money and effort into standing up diversion programs and treatment and recovery centers everywhere, the Legislature re-criminalized drugs as a misdemeanor and pumped a bunch of money into standing up diversion and treatment programs. I blazed my tirade against that decision Monday, and Charles offered a smarter breakdown on Tuesday. Suffice it to say that resuming the drug war for two years is not a major achievement, though Sen. Manka Dhingra, Rep. Roger Goodman, and Rep. Lauren Davis did the lord's work trying to educate that body on the issue.
The big-ticket item in this category is the capital gains tax, one of the many bills that Democrats have been trying to pass for nearly a decade. The version that passed will raise $5.7 billion for child care and education over the course of the next 10 years, which is astoundingly good. When placed alongside the Working Families Tax Rebate, which returns anywhere between $300 to $1,200 per year to the state's poorest families, the tax also helps balance our famously unbalanced tax code.
Caveats: Lawmakers slashed revenues in half compared to an earlier version, which means half the money for our chronically underfunded schools and child care systems. As expected, two groups have already filed lawsuits, so implementation will hinge on a state Supreme Court decision. That's all part of the plan, though. The lawsuits give the Court an opportunity to overturn the old ruling that defines income as property. If that happens, then Washington will have a much easier time making everyone pay their fair share in taxes.
The brouhaha over this tax, however, crowded out efforts to pass other progressive tax legislation needed to right our tax code, including a wealth tax, a statewide payroll tax, an excess compensation tax, and a more progressive estate tax.
All that said, Seattle Rep. Noel Frame's Tax Structure Work Group will have done its work by 2023, and so that may be the more appropriate year for these larger reforms.
The cop bills
The two truly earth-shattering policing bills were SB 5134 and HB 1202. The former would have prevented police unions from using disciplinary and accountability policies as bargaining chips in contract negotiations, and the latter would have allowed people to sue cops for misconduct. Neither of those bills made it out of their respective chambers.
A bunch of other policing bills made it through, but they're kind of piecemeal, and some were significantly weakened. Rep. Jesse Johnson's police tactics bill bans chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and shooting at moving cars. The legislation also creates a workgroup to determine whether cops should sic dogs on people, limits the kinds of stuff departments can get from the military, puts politicians on the hook for tear gas use, and places restrictions on initiating car chases. Most of those restrictions were stronger in earlier versions, but Republicans pitched fits.
Republican Sen. Mike Padden was particularly pissed about the passage of HB 1310, which requires cops across the state to use force as a last resort "when possible." The statewide standard for use-of-force is good, but the language could be stronger.
A lot of the work this session also went into SB 5051, sponsored by Seattle Sen. Jamie Pedersen. That bill essentially sets up the enforcement and transparency mechanisms for those new laws regarding police misconduct. It overhauls and expands the state's Criminal Justice Training Commission, a group of Governor-appointed cops, lawyers, and civilians that will now have the ability to proactively investigate officer misconduct and decertify cops in the state. Those changes will make it harder for bad cops to jump from department to department when they fuck up. The commission will also keep a public, searchable database that includes the rap sheet on every cop in the state.
Though Washington didn't end up ending qualified immunity or reforming the union contract process for cops, this restructured commission puts Washington ahead of the curve in terms of police accountability.
The climate legislation
In the final days of session the Legislature passed bills to put a price on carbon and to scrub transportation fuels over time, all in an effort to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The cap-and-trade bill, enthusiastically and feverishly sponsored by Sen. Carlyle, caps carbon emissions and stands up a pollution trading market that will raise billions over the next decade for green projects and transit.
The low-carbon fuel standard, sponsored by Seattle Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, aims to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels to 20% below 2017 levels by 2038 and to spur the growth of the local biofuel industry.
Both ranked as top, longtime priorities for Governor Inslee, and both completely transform the way the state will handle carbon emissions reduction. Both also put us ahead of California, which implemented similar policies years ago. It is difficult to overstate the immensity of these bills for Washington.
Caveats: Language in both bills conditions their implementation on the passage of a multibillion-dollar transportation revenue package that must include a 5-cent gas tax, and that may include climate-killing highway expansions. The Legislature will address that bill......at some point.
At a press conference Sunday, transportation committee leaders said they plan to continue work toward a deal after session, and Seattle Sen. Rebecca Saldaña hinted that the contents of President Joe Biden's federal transportation package will have major influence on the conversation. Lawmakers plan to pass some kind of compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill by 2023, either at a quick (and possibly remote) special session or in next year's short session. Both cap-and-trade and the LCFS need a couple years before they begin anyway, so the contingency isn't that big of a deal—unless they don't come to one, which is possible. Gov. Inslee may sever that tie with a veto, which is another contingency, but a good one. He's said he's not prepared to make a decision on that one way or another yet.
Contingencies aside, conservative Democrats (and Seattle Sen. Bob Hasegawa) worked to weaken both bills. The low-carbon fuel standard originally aimed to hit its target by 2035, but Democrats helped push the date back to 2038. The compromise bill also prevents Washington from reducing carbon in fuels beyond 10% unless the state also builds a new biofuel plant and increases the amount of feedstock grown within the state by 15%.
Extending already-too-modest deadlines in the middle of a climate crisis is bad. Demanding we hit agricultural targets is porky bullshit. Tying the bill to a massive transportation package that will pour a lot of cement for expanding highways is self-defeating. Can all of that be fixed? Sure. Rep. Fitzgibbon gives an answer that could pretty much serve as the thesis for this post: "I think it's a win to get the program in place, and we can strengthen it in years to come," he said over text.
The cap-and-trade bill contains strong language to reduce air pollution in neighborhoods that border polluters, and also an offset program that wisely invests in sequestration programs on tribal lands. However, this market-based, British Petroleum-backed (and Black Lives Matter Alliance-backed, and Washington Environmental Council-backed, and Quinalt Nation and other tribes-backed) solution to emissions reductions also features plenty of initial free allowances (permits that allow polluters to pollute without paying) upfront for certain "energy-intensive, trade exposed" facilities. Those facilities threatened to take their emissions (and their precious, precious fossil fuel jobs) elsewhere unless they got what they wanted. The extent to which the ever-lowering cap itself will reduce emissions remains debatable, though everyone seems to agree that reductions will come from the green programs the pollution market funds.
So why not just put the price on carbon and invest in those solutions? Environmental justice groups and progressive lawmakers in the House and Senate tried. Their bill was called Washington STRONG. It raised a bunch of money with a carbon tax and no offsets or allowances, but politics got in the way. The idea reportedly didn't poll well, and voters rejected a similar initiative at the ballot three years ago.
All of that said, it's hard to get too worked up about setting up a system with clear air pollution standards that will also raise billions for green projects, especially when the Legislature also passed the HEAL Act. That bill defines environmental justice in state law (to paraphrase: treat everyone the same and fix environmental disparities), and it creates an environmental justice council to review policies at state agencies and recommend ways to make them more just. The original version of the bill mandated agencies apply those recommendations, though, so that's where it got watered down.
Guillermo Rogel Jr, a lobbyist for Front and Centered, the environmental justice group fighting for the bill, said he didn't feel as if Democrats gutted the bill. Rather, he considered passage "a foothold for action," which is exactly what I'd say if I knew I had to go back Olympia next year and try to strengthen the bill. The council must meet by January of this coming year, and Rogel says they'll know more about "what kind of adjustments we might have to make" in order to strengthen the council's power.
Deric Gruen, who also works for Front and Centered, said the bill aimed to get state agencies to view their work through an environmental lens, the bill that passed does that. "It's this upstream analysis that becomes part of the public record that folks who are effective can look at and be apart of. It’s not a one-trick thing but more of a process," he said.
Despite the concessions, the progressive hope and the Republican fear here is that standing up these big structures, no matter how wobbly, was the hard part. So long as Democrats keep hold of all chambers, they can return each session to buttress and patch and lay groundwork for more truly fundamental change.