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AI, guns, and initiatives: highlights from Week 2 of Washington's 2024 legislative session

The Washington Legislative Building is seen from the side under a blue sky with only a few little clouds here and there
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
The Washington Legislative building on Jan. 19, 2024.

The second week of the 2024 legislative session in Washington flew by faster than the first.

Monday was a holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but lawmakers got right back to work amidst a lot of buzz at the capitol.

A Senate committee heard a firearms bill, Senate Bill 5444, which would restrict where a person can openly carry a gun – the next day, a House committee held hearings on five others.

Later in the week, that same House committee made some changes and approved three of the firearm bills. That includes House Bill 2118, which would require gun dealers to beef up their security protocols, and House Bill 1903, which would require people to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 24 hours.

The House State Government and Tribal Relations committee heard testimony from incarcerated people on House Bill 2030, to restore voting rights for people convicted of crimes, a proposal that's stirring pushback from Republicans.

Derrick Jones is the president of the Black Prisoners Caucus at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. He told lawmakers the bill is a step toward making communities safer and confronting the racist origins of mass incarceration.

"Imprisoned citizens, although existing at a physical distance, also have an intimate responsibility to their communities," said Jones. "And that responsibility must come to realization, must come to full bloom before we're released."

Also this week, supporters of Washington's capital gains tax celebrated a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear a case challenging it. But critics remain optimistic that the tax won't last – a proposed ballot initiative could lead to it being repealed.

Speaking of initiatives, House Bill 2205 got a hearing– that's the bill that would create a 25-foot buffer zone between initiative signature gatherers and protestors. The Secretary of State's office testified in support of it.

The Secretary of State also sent lawmakers notice that two more of the six Republican-backed proposals qualified for consideration – Initiative 2117 would repeal key aspects of the state's Climate Commitment Act, and Initiative 2081 would create a so-called "parents' bill of rights," outlining parents' authority over their kids' schooling.

Lawmakers haven't found agreement on how to handle the initiatives so far. Republicans have pushed for Democratic leadership to hold committee hearings on the proposals.

"Like the idea, don't like the idea – it doesn't matter," said Senate Minority Leader John Braun (R-Centralia). "We should be paying attention, and one of the best ways to pay attention is to hold a hearing and hear from folks."

But Democrats have so far rejected those efforts, pointing to limited time the Legislature has to cover everything else on its agenda this year. House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) says Democrats are looking at each proposal separately – and points out that many initiatives sent to the legislature in the past didn't get hearings.

"What that says is that there's not a standard rule about are they all heard, are they not heard," Jinkins said.

Still, the initiatives are exempt from cutoff deadlines, meaning debate over the initiatives will stay open until the Legislature takes action or the session ends in March. If lawmakers don't enact the initiatives into law, they go to voters in November.

Elsewhere in Olympia, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together to voice support for keeping the state on Standard Time year round. There was also bipartisan skepticism about making that change, with lawmakers saying they prefer Daylight Time instead.

The push to "ditch the switch" isn't new; lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 to move the state to Daylight Time only, but that shift hinges on Congressional approval. According to lawmakers behind this year's bill, Senate Bill 5795, Washington doesn't need Congressional approval to switch to Standard Time year-round.

That means moving to Standard Time all the time is the easiest option to avoid changing clocks twice a year, unless Congress gets moving on it – which isn't likely any time soon.

A House committee approved House Bill 2114, a rent stabilization bill that got a lot of attention during week one, but with some hesitancy expressed by committee vice chair, Rep. Mari Leavitt (D-University Place), who said she didn't like the bill.

"I think that this bill… is not going to have the impact that we hope that it will," Leavitt said, noting that she's concerned about the impact that the rent increase cap could have on small landlords.

On Wednesday, advocates and caregivers rallied for more Medicaid and affordable housing funding, pointing to critical unmet needs for adults with disabilities.

And on Thursday, a protest against child marriage came to the capitol to rally support for House Bill 1455, which would end child marriage in the state. That bill passed the House on opening day and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee finished the week looking at House Bill 2243, which would create a public land trust to help fund child care. The proposal would essentially mean revenue from a chunk of state-managed forests would fund a program designed to help providers start doing business in child care deserts.

Also at the end of the week, a House committee heard a series of bills aimed at Artificial Intelligence, including House Bill 1934 to create an artificial intelligence task force in the state. Rob Eleveld, who co-founded a nonprofit aimed at creating more AI regulations, told the committee that simple kitchen appliances have more rules than the rapidly-changing technology.

"To sell a toaster you actually have to make sure peoples' house won't burn down – there is literally no accountability or responsibility for releasing or generating AI models right now," Eleveld said.

That hearing happened around the same time a Senate committee voted a similar bill forward with a few changes. The adjustments made to the Senate bill sped up the task force's timeline to conduct its work, slimmed down the overall size of the group (the original proposal included more than 40 people on it) and gave the bill an "emergency" clause – meaning it would go into effect immediately upon being signed into law.

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.