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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Taxes, police reform and environment. Washington legislators wrap 'historic' session

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Austin Jenkins
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NW News Network
Following a whirlwind final few days, the Washington Legislature on Sunday adjourned its 105-day session.

Fifteen weeks ago, majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature convened a 105-day session vowing to address the fallout from COVID-19, police accountability, greenhouse gas emissions and issues of racial justice.

On Sunday, Democrats adjourned the session having accomplished much of what they set out to do, including passage of a number of sweeping bills that Gov. Jay Inslee, in a statement, called “historic” in nature.

"This session's accomplishments are as important to the long-term well-being of our state as any session I've seen," Inslee said. 

The final weekend proved a whirlwind. Among their final acts, Democrats approved a roughly $59 billion, two-year state operating budget along with a new – and long-elusive – capital gains tax aimed at Washington’s wealthiest residents.

In addition to new state spending, the next budget will spend approximately $10 billion in one-time federal relief funds. Top areas of federal spending include: $1.7 billion to help schools reopen and address learning loss; $1.1 billion for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, contact tracing and testing; and $658 million for rental assistance.

Democrats also managed to get two significant pieces of climate legislation over the finish line: a low-carbon fuel standard, similar to what British Columbia, Oregon and California have already adopted, and a cap and trade program modeled after California's first-in-the-nation effort to cap carbon emissions. Both were priorities of Inslee, who has made combating climate change his signature issue. Republican opponents said the bills would drive up fuel and energy prices.

And Democrats approved a temporary measure to address a recent Supreme Court decision that found Washington’s simple drug possession statute unconstitutional. Under a last minute deal hammered out between the House and Senate, a person caught with small amounts of drugs will now face a misdemeanor, not a felony.

But instead of arresting and prosecuting drug users, the bill mandates that local jurisdictions divert people into treatment. To that end, the Legislature is committing $90 million to expand access to substance use treatment. In the meantime, an advisory committee will work to develop a longer-term solution with a report due by December 2022.

“It is Black people and people of color who have been the most impacted by this broken system,” said Democratic state Rep. Jamila Taylor in a statement. “We must not return to a felony for possession system that creates catastrophic barriers to recovery.”

The flurry of 11th hour deals resulting in passage of major pieces of legislation marked a decisive end to a mile-a-minute session that saw a staggering number of high-profile bills cross the finish line.

Anxiety and security concerns

The Democrats’ triumphant finale on a spring evening stood in stark contrast to the session’s tense and dreary start on a rainy January day. That’s when National Guard members, some in dripping ponchos, stood sentry six feet apart behind a hastily erected perimeter fence that walled off the legislative building to the public.

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Credit Austin Jenkins / NW News Network
Washington State Patrol troopers and National Guard members protected the state Capitol on the first day of the 2021 legislative session. The unprecedented security followed the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a major breach that same day at the Governor's residence.

The unprecedented security – which included a state patrol vehicle checkpoint at the entrance to the Capitol – followed the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a major breach, that same day, at the governor’s residence.

While the unarmed National Guard soldiers eventually stood down, most of the fencing and the checkpoint, along with a highly visible state patrol presence on the Capitol campus, remained in place throughout the session, much to the consternation of minority Republicans. They decried the security measures and the fact the Capitol building was closed to the public due to COVID-19 concerns. Democrats countered that they trusted the state patrol to determine what security measures were prudent and defended the public health precautions by noting that, unlike in Oregon and other states, there were no confirmed cases of the virus in the Legislature this session.

For Republicans there was a lot not to like about the 2021 session, but not much they could do to thwart Democrats -- who recognized the combination of a global pandemic and a renewed civil rights movement presented an unprecedented opportunity. It was as if the realm of the politically possible was an aperture that had suddenly opened wide. Democrats, with their strong majorities, were not about to squander the moment.

By contrast, Republicans argued that Democrats should have instead restrained themselves because of the unusual nature of the mostly remote session.

“It just really is the wrong time, given the limitations on access that the majority parties have insisted on, to do the types of heavy issues that we’re working on,” said Senate Republican Leader John Braun.

Revenues rebound

Adding to the extraordinary nature of the session was the state’s relatively strong financial position. Unlike in past crises when revenues cratered and lawmakers spent much of their energy cutting the budget, this year revenues defied the downturn and bounced back to pre-recession levels. In addition, the state was showered in federal relief dollars that amounted to manna from heaven for budget writers.

From the get-go, Democrats made clear they were not interested in passing an austerity budget. Quite to the contrary, they argued this moment demanded additional spending to spur the economic recovery, shore up foundational services like public health and address inequities laid bare by the pandemic.

Passing a capital gains tax – long a holy grail of the progressive left -- was the icing on the cake. Democrats view the new tax as a way to make Washington’s tax system less regressive.

“We must rebalance the tax code,” said House Finance Chair Noel Frame during the House floor debate.

The seven percent tax is aimed at profits over $250,000 in a year from the sale of such things as stocks and bonds. The money raised, an estimated $415 million a year, will be directed to the state’s Education Legacy Trust Account to support early learning and childcare. Separately, Democrats also passed what they call the Fair Start For Kids Act to expand access to affordable child care. It will, among other things, increase reimbursement rates for providers and expand eligibility for the state’s child care assistance programs.

Republicans, meanwhile, blasted the capital gains tax as an unconstitutional tax on income and questioned the timing of its passage since a bipartisan Tax Structure Work Group has not yet finished its work.

“Why drop this bomb right in the middle of a process that our side entered into in good faith to come up with solutions,” said Republican state Sen. Keith Wagoner, who co-chairs the work group.

The capital gains tax, which Democrats insist is an excise tax, is almost certain to be challenged in court once it’s enacted.

Democrats also approved a $100 document recording surcharge to help fund various housing services, including a new Eviction Prevention Rental Assistance Program. 

Police reform

From the first day of the legislative session, Democrats set out to address the public health and economic crisis while also preparing to tackle systemic and structural change with a particular eye on racial equity.

In the initial weeks, they prioritized COVID relief measures, including an “early-action” bill to distribute an additional $2.2 billion in federal aid to businesses and individuals hit hard by the pandemic. At the same time, the Legislature moved swiftly to boost unemployment benefits to laid off workers while also heading off a massive unemployment insurance tax hike for employers.

Simultaneously, lawmakers began hearing and advancing a slew of police accountability measures prompted by the national outrage over the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma at the hands of police.

In the end, lawmakers passed more than a dozen police reform bills. They included a ban on the use of chokeholds and other controversial police tactics, a statewide requirement that police intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force and a higher bar for when police can resort to deadly force. Other bills would establish a new state office to independently investigate when police kill a citizen and make it easier for the state to decertify an officer for misconduct.

“We have never had a session that has done this much work on equity and accountability when it comes to law enforcement and we may never again,” said Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins.

Among the measures that didn’t pass was a bill to require community oversight boards of police departments and to create an office of independent prosecutions within the Attorney General’s office.

For the most part, Republicans did not embrace the police reform measures which they said were “one-sided” and “partisan.” In a statement prior to the end of the session, Republican state Sen. Jim McCune said the legislation “gets tough on police, but not on crime.”

“We shouldn’t weaken public safety efforts across the state in order to satisfy Seattle sensibilities,” McCune said. “This war on cops needs to end.”

Racial equity focus

Democrats didn’t stop at police reform. They also pursued a number of other policy bills aimed, they said, at making Washington more equitable. In a normal year, any one of the measures would have stood out as significant. This year they were part of a bundle which included bipartisan votes to ban Native American mascot names in schools, establish Juneteenth as a state holiday and replace a statue of pioneer Marcus Whitman with one of tribal treaty rights activist Bill Frank Jr. in the U.S. Capitol.

Another bill will require the University of Washington and Eastern Washington University to comb through property deeds and covenants statewide in search of racial or discriminatory restrictions, with the goal of alerting property buyers and creating a process to strike the unlawful language from the record.

More controversial were votes to automatically restore the voting rights of people leaving Washington prisons and end the practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license for failing to pay traffic tickets. Another bill will allow for the resentencing of an estimated 64 people who have a conviction for second degree robbery and are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole under the state’s “three-strikes” law. Washington no longer considers second degree robbery a strike offense. The group affected by this “look-back” bill is disproportionately Black and over the age of 55.

The Legislature this year also passed bills to improve access to legal representation. One guarantees the right to an attorney for youth in the child welfare system, another provides juveniles who’ve been arrested access to a lawyer before they waive their constitutional rights and a third gives tenants facing eviction access to a lawyer.

Additionally, the Legislature approved a trio of bills to require equity and anti-bias training for K-12 staff and school board members, higher education employees and medical students.

State lawmakers also, indirectly, took on federal immigration policy by approving a bill aimed at forcing the closure of a privately-run immigration detention facility in Tacoma.

In anticipation of the June 30 end of the state’s emergency eviction moratorium, the Legislature sought to rebalance the relationship between renters and landlords. Legislators passed bills to require “just cause” for evictions and require landlords to offer repayment plans to tenants who are behind on rent due to the pandemic.

The wide range of new legislation was trumpeted by advocates for racial justice, who also said they'd continue to push for more reforms.

"This stunning session is the result of a Black community that strategically pursued bills that improve the whole of Black Life in the state," said Sakara Remmu of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance in a statement.  Remmu added: "We are not done." 

Guns, elections and wildfires

Filling gaps was another theme of the legislative session.

For example, to aid people in a mental health crisis, the Legislature imposed a new tax on telephone service to fund an enhanced crisis response system and the implementation of 988 as a new crisis hotline

To speed the expansion of broadband service to underserved areas of the state, lawmakers passed a bill that allows local governments to offer retail telecommunications service. 

And to address the state’s forest health and wildfire danger, the Legislature approved a bipartisan bill that commits $500 million over the next eight years to speed forest restoration and firefighting response, and help improve the resilience of communities.

State lands commissioner Hilary Franz called it a “historic step.”

“We are rejecting the notion that we must simply accept devastating fire seasons as a fact of life in Washington,” Franz said in a statement following passage of the bill.

On the election reform front, Inslee has already signed into law a measure to ban fraudulent ballot drop boxes. Last fall, the California Republican Party came under fire after it set up its own ballot boxes in several communities. However, a bill to make it a Class C felony to harass an election official did not pass despite the state’s elections director facing threats last year.

In addition to the cap and trade and low carbon fuel standard bills, several other environmental measures also passed this year, including a ban on certain Styrofoam products and a bill known as the HEAL Act which requires the Department of Ecology and other state agencies to apply the principles of environmental justice to their work.

In another example of the shift in the art of the possible this year, majority Democrats approved a bill to ban the open carry of weapons within 250 feet of demonstrations and at the state Capitol. Historically, Democrats have shied from gun-related issues, instead preferring to let them be decided at the ballot. But the political dynamic changed last year after armed groups showed up at racial justice marches and after a pair of violent clashes resulted in shootings on and near the Capitol campus in December.

Republican laments

In the waning days of the session, minority Republicans lamented the fact that Democrats ignored their repeated calls to consider reforming the governor’s emergency powers. For months, Republicans have chafed at Inslee’s virtually unfettered ability to govern under an extended state of emergency that has now continued for more than a year.

Among the proposals Republicans wanted considered was a measure that would have required legislative approval for any emergency that extends beyond 60 days.

“[It’s] a big disappointment to us because we think a lot of people would like to have some clarification of when emergencies end; we have no clue when this one will end,” said House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox.

While Democrats and Republicans sharply diverged on a number of issues, the session never ground to a halt as it has this year in Oregon where Republicans have employed techniques to slow and even stop deliberations. In fact, in Washington there were plenty of examples of unanimity. 

Perhaps, the most notable example was the enthusiastic embrace from both sides of the aisle of a working families tax credit. Designed as a refund on the sales tax that lower-income families pay, the Legislature this year both expanded eligibility and, for the first time, funded the credit which has been on the books for more than a decade. An estimated 420,000 taxpayers will benefit from the rebate which will pay up to $1,200 to a family with three or more qualifying children that makes less than $50,594 ($56,844 if it’s a married couple filing jointly).

What didn’t pass

Given the number of notable bills that passed this session, it would be easy to lose sight of what didn’t pass. That list includes a Seattle-style tax on sweetened beverages, a limit on how many bullets a gun magazine can hold, repeal of the state’s death penalty statute and restrictions on top state officials becoming lobbyists.

The Legislature also killed a bill to expand access to the state’s Death with Dignity Act, a proposal to repeal Washington’s prohibition on affirmative action policies and a number of criminal justice reform bills that would have made it easier to review long prison sentences.

A deal on a multi-year, multi-billion dollar transportation funding package to pay for such things as a new bridge over the Columbia River in southwest Washington, state ferry electrification and fish culvert replacements also failed to materialize. However, implementation of both the cap and trade and low carbon fuel standard bills is contingent on future passage of a gas tax increase to fund new projects. If a deal can be struck on a transportation package, it's possible the Legislature will meet in special session later this year to approve it. 

In the end, the 2021 legislation session will be remembered not just for the volley of major pieces of legislation that saw final passage, but also for the technological feat that allowed it to happen at all. Never before has the state Legislature attempted a mostly remote session. Notwithstanding the inevitable hiccups and frustrations expressed by Republicans, committees were able to meet, the public was able to testify and floor sessions were able to be held via Zoom. 

“I think there was a lot of concern before session that either the House or the Senate or both might break down completely and not be able to pass bills and that just hasn’t been our experience,” said Democratic state Sen. Jamie Pedersen.

This story has been updated.

This story has been corrected. The maximum rebate under the Working Families Tax Credit is $1,200, not $950 as the story originally stated.