What Passed And What Didn't In Washington's Legislative Session
UPDATE: Washington state lawmakers adjourned Thursday night after a short, 60-day election year session during which Democrats flexed their new one-party control to pass a slew of legislation. Here’s a look at some of the bills that passed and some that didn’t. (Note: some of these bills have already been signed into law by the governor, others await his signature.)
BILLS THAT PASSED
- CAPITAL BUDGET/HIRST: In mid-January, after a months-long standoff, legislative Democrats and Republicans reached a bipartisan deal on a thorny water rights issue that cleared the way for passage of a $4.2 billion capital construction budget. That budget funds schools, mental health beds and other infrastructure. The hard-fought deal addresses a 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision in the Hirst case. That decision effectively halted the drilling of non-permitted private wells in several water basins across the state. Republicans insisted the exempt well issue be addressed before they would vote for the capital budget, which requires a 60 percent vote to approve the bonds.
- VOTING RIGHTS ACT: After years of trying, Democrats passed a state Voting Rights Act. It’s designed to address racially polarized voting whereby the influence of a protected class of voters is diluted by the majority. Yakima is an example. Prior to 2015, no Latinos had ever been elected to Yakima’s city council, despite representing more than 40 percent of the city’s population. After a lawsuit forced a shift to district-based elections, three Latinos were elected to the city council. The Voting Rights Act would allow citizens to challenge the election system in their community. If no remedy is adopted within 180 days, the citizen could file a lawsuit.
- SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Lawmakers could not agree on a joint resolution to create a taskforce to address sexual harassment in the Legislature. However, they did pass a trio of bills aimed at addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. The bills were a response to the “Me Too” movement and reporting by public radio, The News Tribune and The Olympian on a sexualized workplace culture at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Two of the bills would protect the right of victims of sexual harassment or assault to speak publicly or pursue a lawsuit, even if they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with their employer. The third bill calls on Washington’s Human Rights Commission to develop model policies on preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace.
- NET NEUTRALITY: Lawmakers passed a first-in-the-nation law to prohibit internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon and CenturyLink from blocking or throttling some internet content while giving priority speeds to content providers who pay extra. The law responds to the Federal Communication Commission’s recent rollback of 2015 net neutrality rules. Under the law, ISPs that operate in Washington will have to provide equal access and disclose information about their network operations. However, the new law faces a possible challenge under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
- TEEN VOTER REGISTRATION: Sixteen and 17-year-olds in Washington will be able to pre-register to vote as part of a new “Future Voter Program” backed by Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman. The new law also requires schools to coordinate voter registration events to coincide with Temperance and Good Citizenship Day in mid-January each year.
- INSURANCE COVERAGE FOR ABORTION: A long-standing priority for Democrats, the so-called “Reproductive Parity Act” requires health insurers in Washington that provide maternity care also to cover the cost of abortions. In addition, health plans in Washington must cover contraception without copays or deductibles. These requirements apply to individual health plans as well as fully-insured small group and large group plans. It does not, however, impact self-insured or association health plans. Currently, individual and small group insurance plans are required, under the federal Affordable Care Act, to cover reproductive services, including contraception, but not abortion.
- NET PEN BAN: Washington lawmakers approved a phase out of Atlantic salmon farming in state waters through 2023. The ban was in response to the collapse of a salmon net pen off Cypress Island last August that released several hundred thousand non-native salmon into Puget Sound. A state investigation determined the net pen that broke apart was in poor condition. In December, the Department of Natural Resources revoked the lease for another net pen near Port Angeles after an inspection revealed “serious safety concerns.” Cooke Aquaculture, the state’s only commercial operator of Atlantic salmon net pens, said the ban will hurt rural jobs and said it was considering lodging a damage claim against the state of Washington under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
- SCHOOL BREAKFAST: Under the “Breakfast After The Bell” law, schools with 70 percent or more students who qualify for free and reduced meals will be required to offer breakfast after the school day begins. The law is designed to address the issue of students coming to school hungry and not having time to eat breakfast before classes begin. The law also requires an analysis to see if offering breakfast has an effect on absenteeism, performance on standardized tests and graduation rates.
- BAN ON BUMP STOCKS: In response to last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, lawmakers banned bump stocks—a trigger modification device that makes a semi-automatic weapon fire more like an automatic weapon. Under the law, sales of the devices are banned beginning this July. The following July, people who already own bump stocks will no longer be able to possess them. During the first year the ban is in place, bump stock owners will be able to sell their devices back to the Washington State Patrol for $150.
- TEACHER SALARIES/PROPERTY TAX RELIEF: In the last days of the session, majority Democrats in the House and Senate agreed on a supplemental budget that aims to fully fund teacher salaries by September of this year, as required by the Washington Supreme Court. Lawmakers hope that by putting nearly $1 billion more into schools this year, the court will find the state is no longer in contempt of court in the McCleary school funding case. The budget also provides for one-time property tax relief in 2019 for Washington homeowners. They are feeling a double whammy as a new state property tax to pay for schools kicks in this year before a corresponding reduction in local levies takes effect next year.
- PRIVATIZING HOMECARE WORKFORCE: One of the most controversial bills of the session, this union-backed measure will allow the state to contract with a private entity to manage the state’s homecare workforce. Washington has about 37,000 homecare workers who care for the disabled and elderly in their homes. Often it’s family members caring for family members. These individual providers, as they’re known, are represented by the Service Employees International Union, a major campaign contributor to state Democrats. Republicans say privatization is a costly (for taxpayers) end-run around a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows homecare workers to opt out of union representation. Supporters note the bill was requested by the Department of Social and Health Services and say it will streamline management of a growing workforce.
- EQUAL PAY: In the first update to Washington’s Equal Pay Act since 1943, lawmakers approved a measure that prohibits employers from requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements preventing the discussion of wages. The bill also says employees can’t be retaliated against for sharing wage information with colleagues. It also gives employees who believe they’re the victim of wage discrimination the ability to file a complaint with the department of Labor and Industries. Supporters say it’s an important update to Washington law and another step toward closing a persistent wage gap between men and women in the workplace. Employers and business interests were not successful in getting lawmakers to add “pre-emption” language that would prevent local governments from passing additional equal pay requirements.
BILLS THAT DIDN’T PASS
- CARBON TAX: Gov. Jay Inslee’s third-time’s-a-charm effort to put a price on carbon failed despite an intensive effort by “Team Carbon,” the name given to a group of Democratic lawmakers who championed the proposal. In January, Inslee unveiled a $20 per metric ton tax on industrial carbon emissions designed to raise $3.3 billion over four years. Senate Democrats scaled that back to $10 per metric ton and then later settled on $12 per metric ton. The bill sought to exempt energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries like aluminum and aerospace manufacturing. While the idea of a carbon tax gained the support of major utilities and companies like Microsoft and passed out of two Senate committees, it still faced stiff opposition from the business community. In response to the bill’s failure, tribal, environmental and labor groups have already introduced a carbon pricing initiative for 2018.
- AGE 21 GUN BILL: Despite having one-party control of the Legislature, Democrats were not able to pass a proposal to raise the age limit from 18 to 21 to purchase semi-automatic rifles and to require enhanced background checks for those same guns. The bill also included provisions to address school safety. The proposal appeared to have renewed momentum following the Parkland, Florida school shooting, but also faced opposition from many Republicans as well as more conservative and rural Democrats. The bill's failure to advance stood in contrast to action by a Republican-led Florida Legislature to enact similar restrictions on long-gun purchases.
- DEATH PENALTY: Opponents of the death penalty gained more yardage this year than ever. A death penalty repeal bill not only passed out of a Senate committee--a first--but it passed off the floor of the Senate with some Republican votes. However, the bill failed to get a vote in the Democratically-controlled House. The prime sponsor of the repeal bill was Republican, Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla, whose district includes the Washington State Penitentiary where death row is located. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg came to Olympia to testify in favor of repeal saying “it’s not a deterrent, and frankly, we don’t do it very well.” Washington currently has a governor-imposed moratorium on executions.
- SEXUAL HARASSMENT RESOLUTION: In the wake of the “Me Too” movement and revelations about sexual harassment in the Washington Legislature, the Washington House passed a resolution that called for the creation of a 14-member, bicameral task force to address the workplace climate at the Capitol. However, that resolution was never brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson said some staff were concerned their voices wouldn’t be heard on the taskforce. Despite the failure of the resolution, legislative leaders pledged to continue to work on the issue in the coming months. “Everybody is taking it seriously and we are looking for solutions,” Nelson said. “It’s no longer just under the rug.”
- SMOKING AGE TO 21: The Legislature failed to pass a measure that would have raised the legal age to buy tobacco and vapor products in the state from 18 to 21. The bill would have made anyone who sells to a person under 21 guilty of a gross misdemeanor. The bill was requested by the Department of Health and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. After languishing, the proposal got a last-minute boost and was approved by the state House the night before adjournment, but it failed to garner enough support from lawmakers to put it to a vote in the state Senate before the scheduled end of the legislative session.