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Natural gas, opioids and DUIs: Highlights from week 3 of Washington's legislative session

The Washington Legislative Building in Olympia is seen on a gray, rainy day, with some tree branches in the foreground
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
The Washington Legislative Building on Jan. 26, 2024.

The third week of this year's legislative session marks the final full week of committee work before the first cutoff deadline – which means time is running out for many bills still waiting to see some action. But plenty of proposals are well on their way forward.

The House started the week off with more disagreement on what to do with GOP-backed policy initiatives filed to the Legislature, as Republicans continue to call for public hearings on the initiative measures and Democrats continue to reject those efforts.

Several of the initiatives would roll back policies passed by the Democratically-controlled Legislature, including limits on police car chases, key parts of the state's Climate Commitment Act, and the state's capital gains tax.

The Secretary of State's office notified the Legislature late Thursday that the final of the six policy initiative had been certified.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) told reporters this week Democrats are thinking about whether or not to propose an alternative for any of the measures, and that if they decide to, it could mean a public hearing on the related initiative.

The Legislature has until March 7 to take action.

House lawmakers also debated the future of natural gas in the state, as House Bill 1589 hit the floor.

The bill's main focus is a more climate-friendly energy grid. Part of the current version would ban future natural gas hookups from large companies that serve more than 500,000 natural gas customers, namely Puget Sound Energy. It's the second year in a row the bill has been debated in the Legislature – last year, the legislation barely passed the House and stalled in the Senate.

Republicans spoke out against the bill, saying now isn't the time to make the change, and that natural gas alternatives won't keep up with demand. Several pointed to the recent cold-weather snap and the subsequent requests from utility companies that their customers use less energy.

"So many of our communities rely on natural gas and other sources of energy to stay warm," said Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-Centralia).

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Beth Doglio (D-Olympia), says it's still a work in progress, and that the bill will change over the coming weeks.

"You'll see a very different bill in the other chamber as we move forward," Doglio said.

Ultimately the bill passed 52 to 45, and now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

The opioid crisis

On Monday, a small group of lawmakers and tribal leaders in Olympia called for more urgent action to address the opioid crisis.

Leaders from Lummi Nation, the Nisqually Indian Tribe and the Makah Tribe spoke at Monday's press conference, highlighting the devastation opioids have wrought on their communities. They threw support behind a few proposals that they say could speed up efforts to expand behavioral health and treatment facilities and improve coordination across governments, including House Bill 1877.

Among their requests: a renewed ask for Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency as Washington grapples with a dramatic spike in overdose deaths.

It isn't the first time – Indigenous leaders called for more urgency from the state last year as tribes across the region gathered together to swap ideas and coordinate response and prevention plans. So far, the governor hasn't called a state of emergency on the issue, saying in November he doesn't know how that would help. But a few tribal nations have declared their own emergencies, and some leaders worry that without one at the state and federal levels, the response to the crisis won't reflect the urgency of the problem.

"I ask this rhetorically, how many funerals have you been to this past year?" Lummi Nation Chairman Tony Hillaire said Monday. "Sometimes for us it's every day."

The opioid crisis came up again in Olympia Wednesday, as Gov. Inslee met with health officials for a public performance review of the state's response so far, and Republican senators highlighted a suite of bills targeting opioid prevention.

The Attorney General's office also announced a $149.5 million settlement with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson over its role in the opioid crisis. The settlement could give state lawmakers a financial boost later this session when they decide how much money to put toward fighting fentanyl and preventing more opioid deaths.


Meanwhile, legislation that would allow people currently in prison to have their sentences reviewed – and potentially shortened – received public committee hearings this week.

House Bill 2065 would follow up on a law change made last year.

Lawmakers narrowly approved a bill in 2023 that means crimes a person committed as a kid can no longer be used to make their prison sentence longer after they commit a new crime as an adult. But part of last year's bill that would have applied that policy to people already in prison didn't make it through the Senate.

This year's bill would require resentencing hearings for incarcerated people who had time added for juvenile crimes. It hasn't moved yet, but Senate Law & Justice Committee Chair Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) said this week she'd give the bill a hearing if it makes it out of the House.

The bill is particularly important for tribes too – 20 tribal nations and Indigenous community groups signed a letter urging the Legislature to make the change, citing the especially acute impact sentencing enhancements for juvenile crimes have had on their communities.

A bill heard Tuesday, House Bill 2001, would allow incarcerated people to petition courts directly to review their sentences, giving judges the authority to consider those instead of waiting for a prosecutor to initiate the process.

André Peñalver, a superior court judge in Pierce County, told a House committee he supports the idea because judges don't know what the future will look like when they sentence someone.

"Absent a crystal ball, a judge can only guess – a second look removes the need for a crystal ball," he said. "It allows a judge to sort out after the fact, with a clear record, who can safely re-enter society."

The legislation has broad support from justice reform groups, including incarcerated people and survivors of crimes. But people opposed to the bill say that courts and prosecutors are "overwhelmed" and have limited resources to do that work.

DUI threshold

A proposal aiming to reduce traffic deaths in the state also made an appearance this week. Lawmakers brought forward House Bill 2196 in a committee Thursday. It would lower the legal blood-alcohol content limit for charging an impaired person for driving under the influence.

"In 2023, we lost at least 800 lives on our roadway, and that is the highest we've seen in 33 years," said Debbie Driver, Inslee's transportation policy advisor.

Right now, the state’s legal limit is a concentration of .08% of alcohol in a person’s blood. Under HB 2196, it would drop to .05%. A similar proposal was considered in 2023.

Experts say the number of alcoholic drinks it would take to exceed that lower limit depends on a person's size, sex and whether or not they're eating food. According to one study, it would take the average 170-pound male at least four drinks on an empty stomach to exceed the .05 limit in two hours.

Other updates

Elsewhere, the House approved House Bill 1618, which would remove the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits based on childhood sexual abuse. The original version of the bill would have applied to past cases, but concerns about the potential cost of years' worth of lawsuits prompted the chamber to change the bill so it only applies to future cases. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

And on Friday morning, the Senate Housing Committee made some interesting changes to a rent stabilization bill before appearing to pass it. The original version of Senate Bill 5961 would have capped annual rent increases at 5%, but the Senate committee raised the cap to 15% and set an expiration date for the cap in 2044.

It's still early in the process, so the bill will likely change even more if it keeps moving forward. But Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-Tacoma) says the latest version of the Senate bill is an effort to ease concerns raised by the bill's critics, while still offering some relief to struggling renters.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the Senate Housing Committee passed SB 5961, the rent stabilization bill. That is incorrect. While the committee did appear to pass the bill on a voice vote, one lawmaker on the committee, Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver), did not sign the official voting paperwork to pass the bill and announced days later that she would not support the bill. That means the bill stalled in committee before a key cutoff deadline.

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.