Last Thursday the Washington State Legislature closed up shop with less than an hour left to go, barely making the deadline to avoid a special session. That particular fact matters to your life in no way at all, though during a late-night press call Democratic leadership argued their timeliness spoke to the party’s ability to govern efficiently, which would be news to anybody who wanted anything during this "short," 60-day Legislative session.
In fairness, the Democrats, who enjoy control over both legislative chambers and the Governor's mansion, faced lots of competing pressures. In 60 days, they needed to figure out how to use billions in federal COVID relief money and higher-than-expected tax returns, fix major problems with a new long-term health care benefit, meaningfully address a handful of persistent crises (housing, health care, climate, oh my!), pass a massive transportation package, and offer policy responses to Republican fear-mongering over inflation and crime.
These mixed pressures produced mixed results, resulting in a $64 billion operating budget full of good stuff but also a long trail of policy fails. If you care about how the state is spending your money, then please join me on a little romp through this year's big wins and losses!
The decisions lawmakers made in the housing sector perfectly reflect the Jekyll and Hyde energy that pervaded this session. Lawmakers knew the state needed to build 250,000 homes yesterday just to catch up with the present need, but they decided to do nothing to incentivize more density anyway.
NIMBY Dems and lobbyists representing NIMBY cities watered-down and then killed Rep. Jessica Bateman's bill (House Bill 1782) to legalize more housing near high-frequency transit. Rep. Sharon Shewmake's bill (House Bill 1660) to legalize backyard cottages in certain areas died. And late Thursday night, dilly-dallying from Democrats and the threat of Republican dilly-dallying in the last several hours of session killed Rep. Davina Duerr's House Bill 1099, the last decent piece of housing legislation on offer this year.
The state requires local governments to update their growth plans every eight years to adjust for expected population changes, and Duerr's proposal would have required cities and counties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled in those plans, plus draw up strategies to deal with expected changes in climate, such as more intense forest fires, floods, droughts, etc.
As I mentioned last Thursday, the realtors' lobby opposed the bill, and so Republicans and conservative Dems opposed it, and so Democrats wasted a bunch of time making dumb changes to it and ultimately let the clock run out. The bill needed to pass this year to cover the most populous areas of the state, who must update their plans by 2024, so there's no comfort in a "maybe next year" narrative.
With the housing crisis intensifying and the world melting a little bit more each year, the impact of Democratic inaction in this regard is difficult to overstate. The failure to pass even the gentlest of density bills means buying a home will remain out of reach for many Washingtonians, at least until the Proud Boys take over the country and transform bidding wars for homes into actual cage matches. The good news is we have eight years to bulk up.
The Legislature also failed to pass a bill from Rep. Strom Peterson that would have given tenants a six-month heads up when landlords hike the rent (House Bill 1904). Because Washington passed just-cause protections without rent controls, landlords who want to kick out tenants for no good reason just raise rents to astronomically high levels, resulting in what tenant advocates call "economic evictions." Though lawmakers dedicated more than $100 million for rent assistance to keep people housed, without rent controls plus incentives to build more market rate housing, some of that money is just feeding the beast. But without that money, life would be even worse. So.
All that said, as I wrote Friday, this year lawmakers spent more money on affordable housing than they ever have before. They approved hundreds of millions of dollars to transform existing structures into supportive housing and shelter, and to fund long-term affordable housing. The Governor's office expects this session's appropriations to create "approximately 3,890 additional housing units," though it's unclear how much of that will be temporary shelter. A 2019 estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition put Washington's affordable housing deficit at nearly 200,000 units. Incrementalism, baby!
On the more positive end of this spectrum, Democrats finally passed some gun control laws. Sen. Marko Liias & Co fought hard against a recalcitrant GOP to push through a bill (Senate Bill 5078) that criminalizes people who sell magazine clips with more than 10 rounds in them. The legislation should force most mass shooters to reload more quickly than they normally would, giving victims a few more seconds to run away. (Incrementalism, baby!) Rep. Tana Senn's bill to criminalize people for bringing guns to local government and school board meetings (House Bill 1630) may also reduce some lethal threats in those arenas.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff's bill to create a hotline and amber alert for missing Indigenous people (HB 1725) also passed, which is a little step in the right direction there.
Moving on to the cop bills: Sometimes Democratic dilly-dallying can be used as a force for good, as it was in the case of a proposal from Sen. Kevin Van de Wege to give police more opportunities to engage in deadly vehicular pursuits (Senate Bill 5919). Republicans repeatedly tried to bring up the bill for a floor vote on the last day of session, but the Senate just didn’t have the votes, according to Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig. The passage of Rep. Jesse Johnson's House Bill 1735 allows cops to touch people when responding to mental health calls, which should prevent them from refusing to work those calls like they did all last year. Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Bronoske's bill clarifying that cops can use less lethal launchers could lead to fewer police killings. Or not.
On the negative end of the spectrum, Democrats happily passed a bill that allows cops to use force against people who try to walk away from a Terry stop (House Bill 2037). Survivors of police violence, criminal justice advocates, and the ACLU spoke out against the bill, warning that it will open the door for physical force to turn into deadly force during brief investigations of low-level crimes.
Allowing that bill to pass while blocking SB 5919 shows how confused Democratic policymaking is on this issue. Republicans will spend lots of money calling Democrats "the party of crime" this year, and passing HB 2037 risks hurting more people while doing nothing to blunt that attack from the GOP.
Democrats basically spent the first half of the session on fixes to WA Cares, the long-term public health benefit that gives elderly Washington residents $36,500 to pay for a nursing home. The benefit will now be delayed until 2026, and people who haven't selfishly opted out will start paying the payroll tax for it next year.
In better news, with the Supreme Court poised to gut nationwide abortion protections this summer, Democrats passed a bill to shore up protections in Washington and encourage more medical providers to offer the procedure (House Bill 1851, sponsored by Rep. My-Linh Thai).
In the operating budget, State of Reform counted up hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen safety nets, including $351 million for "long-term care and developmental disability services;" $114 million for COVID tests, personal protective equipment, and "transitioning patients from acute care to community-based services;" and $100 million to give the homeless workforce a couple stipends. There's also $350 million to shore up the paid sick leave program, and millions to permanently increase the Aged, Blind, and Disabled money stipend, which is a cash grant for those with significant disabilities. Right now, people who get that disability money only receive $197 per month; this funding will increase that payment to $417 per month.
First and foremost, if the Governor signs Rep. Mike Sells's House Bill 1706 — and he likely will — Washington will become the first state in the country to give truckers the right to use the bathroom. That is, port operators will need to start providing restrooms for the hundreds of truck drivers that roll through their facilities every day. Congrats on clearing the lowest bar imaginable, everybody.
Washington will also likely become the first state to authorize its legislative workers to form a union (House Bill 2142, sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli). If all goes according to plan, the people who make the Legislature run will start negotiating their first contract in 2024.
And in passing Seattle Rep. Liz Berry's House Bill 2076, Washington will become the first state Legislature in the nation to give Uber and Lyft drivers a pay raise and other benefits in exchange for denying them the right to claim employee status, as I wrote the other week. The local drivers union wanted to strike the deal to avoid a ballot measure that would probably win and thus strip their benefits, but the larger labor movement, buoyed by better press in recent months, saw the bill as a blow to the nationwide fight against these vampiric companies.
This isn't a first-in-the-nation thing, but Sen. Emily Randall carried a bill to force employers to post salary information on initial job listings (Senate Bill 5761), which is cool. A handful of conservative Democrats in the House (Reps Chapman, Leavitt, Rule, Springer, Walen) and Sen. Mark Mullet voted against it, which is not cool.
In bad news on the labor front, nurses unions blamed hospital executives for successfully killing House Bill 1868, a bill sponsored by Rep. Riccelli that would prevent hospitals from overworking nurses and to fine those who do.
Given that Washington state spends comparatively little on arts funding, advocates seemed pleased with the $45 million that lawmakers approved for cultural and science organizations with budgets under $5 million, which included the $25 million the state appropriated last year but didn't spend due to a drafting error. The budget also includes $5 million to help cultural organizations with budgets over $5 million pay for COVID-19 mitigation efforts. That money will help, but it likely won't be enough to cover the full costs of increased health provisions and smaller crowds.
As Jas wrote last week, Rep. Riccelli also pushed through a bill to add $11.5 million per year to lure more filmmakers to Washington (House Bill 1914). The state is now ready for its close up, etc. etc.
Transportation and the environment
I'm combining transportation and the environment for the purposes of this roundup because our transportation system contributes such a large percentage of the state's emissions, and because you can't really talk about one thing without ultimately talking about the other.
First off, the trail of the dead: Lawmakers killed Rep. Alex Ramel's bill to reduce emissions from gas companies (House Bill 1766), Rep. Duerr's bill to make buildings more energy-efficient (House Bill 1770), and turned Sen. Mona Das's bill to improve the recycling system into a study (Senate Bill 5697).
In better news for the planet, budget writers appropriated $120 million overall to make salmon happier, which will make the orcas happier, which will make the planet happier.
And in more mixed news, lawmakers would not stop calling the 16-year, $17 billion transportation package the “cleanest and greenest” transpo budget ever passed. Though the phrase is cloying, its content is accurate. The Urbanist provides a full rundown here, but the highlight is the few billion lawmakers spent on transit and bike/pedestrian projects. A free transit program for kids under 18 will hopefully create more transit riders in the future, and $50 million to make part of Aurora safer will hopefully lead to fewer deaths on that death chute.
But it's also true, as environmental justice groups pointed out, that the so-called Move Ahead Washington budget spends billions widening roads and back-filling cost overruns for highway projects. The package throws $1 billion at the I-5 Columbia River crossing, and hundreds of millions to widen SR 18 and the Highway 2 trestle, among others. They always think widening these highways will ease traffic, but they're never right. Widening roads only ends up increasing more air pollution. All of this disappointed independent transportation reporter Ryan Packer, and if he's not happy then nobody's happy.
There's also a couple billion to fix the culverts so salmon can spawn in their pools of preference, and another billion to help ferries. I know ferries are essentially an extension of the highways, but I love them, and I will support all ferry funding even if it will only lead to fish-captains steering busted vessels across a boiling Sound.
In even more mixed news, Seattle Senator Jamie Pedersen's proposal to allow us to tax ourselves to speed up transit construction (Senate Bill 5528) also passed. So if we vote the right way on future ballot measures, people might be able to get to Ballard a couple years earlier.
In the last few press conferences, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig made it a point to highlight education funding, which he suggested would have gobbled up most of the headlines during any other year. And there is tons of stuff in the budgets for schools: Nearly $240 million in raises for teachers this year and $630 million to cover raises in the next biennium; $90 million to hire more nurses and counselors and then nearly $550 million for the next budget cycle; and $346 million to cover schools who saw dramatically lower enrollment due to COVID (a budget item that emerged from Rep. Laurie Dolan’s Senate Bill 1590).
On top of all that, leadership keeps touting departing House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan's bill to create the conditions to establish a state student loan program, which would provide student loans at a 1% interest rate for Washington's high school graduates (House Bill 1736). That would go some of the way in making it easier for future students to repay financially crippling loans, which is slightly better than doing nothing. Incrementalism, baby.
So go forth, Washington Democrats
Republicans plan to blame Democrats for crime and inflation, and slam them for not using COVID relief dollars to cut property taxes. To stanch the bleeding in the suburbs, Democrats will likely point to this year's strides in gun safety legislation, a massive transportation package that hits every corner of the state, education spending, abortion protections, and major efforts to strengthen the safety net. Most of that stuff polls well and could work.
Given their failure to pass laws this session big enough to solve the housing affordability crisis, to more dramatically reduce green house gas emissions, to tax the rich, and to add more police accountability measures, the Democrats deserve to lose — but not to Republicans. If Republicans had the keys to any governmental body during the last four years, they would have gleefully slowed the state's economic recovery, watched thousands more people die of COVID in the name of eating indoors a few months earlier at Daddy's Tractor Burger or whatever, rebooted the drug war with a vengeance rather than with a sigh, fracked orca skulls in search of natural gas, and appointed Proud Boys to the state Supreme Court. In order to make more progress in this state, voters will need to replace the old guard with progressives willing to tell powerful lobbying groups to fuck off. Until then, we'll just keep getting these wobbly bargains along with a lecture about how lucky we are to have them.