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Passing bills, bills, bills: Highlights from week 5 in the WA Legislature

The Washington Legislative Building is pictured, looming over the viewer with a cloudy sky seen behind
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
The Washington Legislative Building, Feb. 9, 2024.

The week started off with more cutoff deadlines looming – and more notable pieces of legislation were left behind Monday, before lawmakers in both the House and Senate chambers hit the floor for the rest of the week.

Policies on the move

In the House, lawmakers approved House Bill 1579, which would create a new prosecution office in the state with the authority to charge police for deadly use of force.

Legislation that could change the way cities approach their general elections, House Bill 1932, passed after lengthy debate on the proposal. Right now, cities and towns elect local officials in odd-numbered years, but the bill would allow local governments to switch their general elections to even-numbered years, when voter turnout is higher.

House lawmakers were split on the idea. Critics worry voters in cities that might make the change will be more focused on national campaigns and become fatigued with lengthy ballots.

But supporters say the change could spur civic engagement, and prompt more voters to weigh in on local issues. Only about 36% of Washington voters across the state filled out their ballots for last year's general election – compared to a much-higher turnout of 63% in 2022.

Meanwhile, the Senate sent a few notable measures across the rotunda too.

Senators signed off on Senate Bill 6009, which bans police from hog-tying people in their custody.

They also passed Senate Bill 6298, which would make members of the clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect. A similar version stalled out last year over disagreements on whether or not clergy should be required to report abuse they hear about in confession, and this year's version attempts to strike a balance between concerns on either side.

The Senate also approved a bill that would create new safety rules for workers at strip clubs and other adult entertainment establishments, Senate Bill 6105. Interestingly, the chamber added language into the bill requiring the state's Liquor and Cannabis Board to repeal its lewd conduct rules, in response to recent citations at gay bars in Seattle.

Lawmakers also spent a lot of time debating a controversial bill about regulating hospital mergers, Senate Bill 5241, before it passed 28 to 21. The bill would require the Attorney General's office to oversee proposed mergers and ensure that they don't limit peoples' access to end-of-life, reproductive, or gender-affirming health care.

And Senate Bill 5444, which would ban the open carry of guns in some zoos, libraries and transit centers, also gained Senate approval along party lines.

Nearly all the bills passed off the floor this week now go to the opposite chamber for further consideration, but the first bill of the session to make it through both sides of the Legislature also gained final approval. House Bill 1964 aims to improve enforcement of the state's fuel tax, and passed both chambers with broad bipartisan support.

And even though Seattle's NFL team won't be playing during this weekend's Super Bowl, the Senate spent a few minutes praising former Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll Friday morning.

The Senate passed a resolution formally congratulating Carroll for his accomplishments across his career in the NFL – including leading the Seahawks to the franchise's first Super Bowl win in 2014. It was announced in January that Carroll would no longer be head coach after 14 years in the role. Carroll wasn't in attendance, but Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) wore a Seahawks jersey on the floor as she spoke on the resolution.

What fizzled

Republicans held a press conference Thursday condemning a proposal to raise the 1% cap on annual hikes to local property taxes. The following day, Democrats made clear that Senate Bill 5770 wouldn't be moving forward this session. The bill would have allowed local governments to raise the amount of money they make from property taxes.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) told the Washington State Standard that the decision to leave the bill behind this year was in part due to "the voter mood" as several initiatives, mainly targeting taxation, are almost certain to go to ballots in November.

A proposal pitched in response to the frustration over fuel costs, Senate Bill 6052, seems to have stalled.

The measure was a priority for Gov. Jay Inslee – especially to help defend his signature Climate Commitment Act, as critics blame it for changing gas prices. The bill aimed to create more state oversight for gas companies and the way they set prices. But the bill didn't get a hearing or a vote in the Senate Ways and Means Committee before Monday's cutoff, with proponents of the bill attributing its demise to the policy's complexity and financial cost.

Another bill that would have expanded on lawmakers' 2023 effort to provide more kids with free school meals also didn't make it. This year's bill, House Bill 2058, would have required any public school to offer kids free lunch and breakfast – but it also didn't get a vote.

Lawmakers also didn't take action on a solitary confinement reform bill, and advocates say with the lapse of House Bill 1087, the Legislature missed a critical moment to make some meaningful changes before a massive shift in leadership in the state next year.

Also of note, Rep. Spencer Hutchins (R-Gig Harbor) announced he won't seek re-election later this year. Every member of the House of Representatives is up for re-election this fall, as well as about half of state Senators. Hutchins said in a statement announcing his decision that the demands of being a lawmaker have "taken a heavy toll" on his family and livelihood.

Lawmakers will spend more time on the floor at the beginning of next week – most bills have to make it out of their chamber of origin by Tuesday, Feb. 13, in order to keep moving forward this session. Next week lawmakers will also get a new look at the state's revenue forecast and begin releasing their plans for changes to the state's current two-year budget.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. Rivers' home city.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.