Washington lawmakers are done this year. Here’s what they passed — and didn’t — in 2019

Apr 29, 2019

Washington lawmakers just wrapped up an action-packed, 105-day session with passage of the first state budget to exceed $50 billion and a bundle of tax hikes to fund it.

For the first time since 2012, Democrats enjoyed solid majorities in both the House and Senate. The Legislature this year also welcomed a large class of 29 new lawmakers who represented the most diverse class of freshman legislators in state history.

Democrats flexed their newfound power to fund progressive priorities, raise taxes and pass sweeping new policies. In doing so, they delivered Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s now running for president, some long-sought wins on his signature issue of combating climate change.

Here’s a look at some of what passed and what failed.

A note: some of these bills still await Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.

WHAT PASSED

I-1000: This initiative to the Legislature seeks to overturn Washington’s 20-year-old, voter-approved restriction on affirmative action in state contracting, education and hiring.

Majority Democrats waited until the last day of the 105-day session to vote on the measure. Earlier, at a joint House-Senate public hearing on the initiative, they heard testimony in support from all three living former governors, including Republican Dan Evans who said the measure would “help us throw the doors of opportunity wide open.” But opponents from the group Asians for Equality countered it would legalize discrimination and “penalize hard-working Asians by our skin color.”

I-1000 would once again allow the state to use affirmative action policies to address discrimination or underrepresentation so long as those policies did not rely on quotas or constitute preferential treatment. The day after the initiatve passed, opponents filed a referendum to overturn it at the ballot in November. 

Nurse rest and meal breaks: After 10 years of trying, Washington healthcare workers got a big win in 2019 with passage of a bill requiring hospitals to provide uninterrupted meal and rest breaks to nurses and techs. If a rest break is interrupted because of an emergency, the worker must be given another 10-minute break.

The bill got national attention after Republican state Sen. Maureen Walsh said in a floor speech that nurses in small, rural hospitals “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” Walsh later apologized, but that didn’t stop a tidal wave of backlash.

More than 770,000 people signed an online petition calling on Walsh to shadow a nurse on a 12-hour shift. Walsh’s office was also inundated with 1700 decks of playing cards, which the senator from Walla Walla said she will donate to nursing homes, senior centers and veterans’ centers.  

Three-strikes-you’re-out: Citing racial disparities in sentencing, the Washington Legislature this year voted to remove second degree robbery from the list of “three strikes” crimes.

This change to Washington’s “persistent offender” law has been proposed every year since voters overwhelmingly passed it in 1993. That law requires life without parole sentences for people convicted of three “most serious” felony crimes. Second-degree robbery has been one of the crimes that counted as a strike, even though it typically doesn’t involve a firearm or bodily injury.

Approximately 60 people with second degree robbery convictions are serving life sentences in Washington. These individuals are disproportionately African American. The new law won’t affect people already in prison, but will apply to future cases. 

Affordable Care Act protections: Republicans in Congress have tried and failed multiple times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The law, known as Obamacare, has also faced constitutional challenges in the courts. As an insurance policy against the law being overturned, majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature voted this year to enshrine many of the federal protections in state law. Those protections include a prohibition on insurance carriers rejecting an applicant because of a pre-existing condition and a prohibition on annual or lifetime limits on insurance benefits. 

Measles exemption: In order to attend school or a licensed daycare, Washington law requires that children be vaccinated for diseases like measles, whooping cough and diphtheria. Exemptions are allowed for medical, religious or philosophical/personal reasons. But in the wake of a measles outbreak in southwest Washington, lawmakers voted this year to eliminate the philosophical/personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The issue proved to be one of the most controversial of the session as families who oppose vaccine requirements packed the public hearings and demonstrated at the Capitol. 

Long-term care coverage: Washington lawmakers passed a first-in-the-nation long-term care benefit program.

Beginning in 2025, the program will provide individuals up to $36,500 to pay for services like in-home care, assisted living, nursing home and respite care. The benefit will be paid for by a 0.58% employee-paid payroll tax beginning in 2022. That would work out to approximately $24 a month for someone making $50,000 a year, according to the Associated Press.

To qualify for the benefit, individuals will have to work a certain number of hours per year and pay into the system for a minimum number of years. To cash-in on the benefit, the Department of Social and Health Services would have to assess a person and determine they are in need of help with at least three daily living tasks. 

Human composting: Washingtonians may soon have a new option for how their remains are handled in death. Call it human composting. Washington is poised to become the first state in the nation to allow a chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis, or “recomposition,” to breakdown a human body into organic material. There’s already a startup company in Seattle, called Recompose, that’s ready to commercialize the process which was tested at Washington State University. 

Clean electricity by 2045: Gov. Jay Inslee is running for president on a climate change agenda. One of his top priorities during the 2019 session was passage of measure to mandate all electricity sold in Washington come from non-carbon emitting sources by 2045.

Majority Democrats passed the “governor request” legislation, which also requires the phase-out of coal-fire electricity by 2025. Opponents noted that most of Washington’s electricity already comes from hydropower and warned of potential electricity rate hikes and “brownouts” in the future as a result of the policy. Supporters, however, cheered the bill’s passage, calling it a big step toward the goal of decarbonizing the electricity grid. Washington joins states like California and New Mexico in adopting a clean electricity mandate. 

Tobacco (and vaping) at 21: After several failed attempts, Washington becomes the ninth state to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21 beginning in January 2020. The bipartisan bill was introduced at the request of Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Washington Department of Health. In a statement, Ferguson said: “By passing this bill, the Legislature is saving thousands of Washingtonians from a lifetime of addiction and smoking-related illnesses.” Sponsors say they’re confident the new law will lead to a reduction in the number of youth who smoke or vape. 

Eviction notices: In response to Washington’s housing and homelessness crisis, Washington lawmakers changed the Residential-Landlord Tenant Act to require landlords give 14-days-notice prior to eviction. The current requirement is three days. Other provisions in the bill require landlords to use a uniform “notice to pay and vacate” that includes information on tenant resources. The Attorney General is required to make that notice available in 10 different languages. A separate bill that passed requires landlords to provide tenants 60-days-notice of a rent increase. 

Presidential primary: In 2020, Washington’s presidential primary will be held one week after Super Tuesday in March, instead of in late May. The move, approved by lawmakers this year, aims to make Washington more relevant in the selection of presidential nominees. It was made at the urging of Republican Sec. of State Kim Wyman and comes as Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, runs for president. To participate in the primary, voters will have to select a party ballot. Wyman objected to that requirement. Following the change in law, Washington Democrats decided for the first time to use the primary results, instead of caucus results, to allocate presidential delegates. 

Daylight saving: There’s a lot Democrats and Republicans disagree about. But one topic almost all Washington lawmakers could agree on this year: it’s time to #DitchTheSwitch. The Washington Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill to adopt year-round daylight saving time and end the disruptive tradition of twice-yearly time changes. It’s an idea that’s also gaining traction in Oregon and California. But it’s not a done deal yet. But before Washington can say goodnight for once and for all to standard time, Congress will have make a change in federal law — something it seems in no hurry to do.

WHAT FAILED

Mandatory sex ed: A proposal from state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal to make sexual education mandatory in schools passed the Washington Senate, but died in the House. Currently, it’s estimated that 60% of Washington high schools and 30% of middle schools already teach sex ed.

But Reykdal argued the time has come to make it mandatory because of a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among young people and also because one-in-five 12th graders report they’ve been forced into kissing, sexual touch or intercourse. The required curriculum would have included an emphasis on affirmative consent -- meaning the conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. The proposal included an opt-out provision for parents who didn’t want their kids in the class. Even so, opponents said parents and local school districts, not the state, should decide if sex ed is taught. The measure is likely to be reintroduced next year. 

Low-carbon fuel standard: Another priority of Gov. Jay Inslee, this measure would have required progressively cleaner fuel blends by 2028 and 2035 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline and diesel. The measure passed the House, but died in the Senate. Under the Washington bill, the carbon intensity of transportation fuels would have had to decrease to 10% below 2017 levels by 2028 and be 20% lower by 2035.

The majority of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions come from tailpipe emissions. California and Oregon have each already adopted so-called low-carbon fuel standards. Supporters heralded the legislation as a way to encourage the production of cleaner fuels and reduce emissions. But opponents, led by the Western States Petroleum Association, lobbied heavily against the measure. They said it would raise fuel costs and warned the biofuels industry wasn’t mature enough to meet the standards.  

Death penalty repeal: Last October, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty statute unconstitutional because “it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” The ruling effectively ended capital punishment in Washington. But opponents, including Attorney General Bob Ferguson, hoped lawmakers would go one step further and repeal the law altogether.

For the second year in a row, the Washington Senate passed a repeal measure with some bipartisan support. But, as before, the House did not bring it up for a vote. Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat and the prime sponsor of the bill, said it would have passed if a vote had been allowed. In a rare attack on a fellow Democrat, Carlyle blamed Speaker of the House Frank Chopp for not allowing a vote. “This decision rests squarely and unequivocally on the desk of the Speaker,” Carlyle told The News Tribune. House Democrats responded that it was a matter of priorities.  

Data privacy: After coming out the gates strong and passing the Washington Senate nearly unanimously, a sweeping data privacy law modeled after protections in the European Union faltered and ultimately died in the final weeks of the legislative session.

The Washington Privacy Act was billed by its sponsors as a model for the nation. It would have given Washington consumers the right to access their data from companies that collect it and request corrections if they found errors. Under certain circumstances consumers would also have been able to request that a company delete their data. The bill also sought to restrict the use of facial recognition.

But once the bill reached the House it ran into trouble. Civil liberties and privacy advocates were suspicious that companies like Microsoft supported the bill and said the consumer protections didn’t go nearly far enough. Last minute efforts to find a compromise failed to revive the bill and it never received a vote on the House floor. Lawmakers say they will continue to work on this issue during the legislative interim. 

Dwarf tossing ban: When Republican state Sen. Mike Padden learned that some bars and strip clubs hold dwarf-tossing events, he was not amused. So, he introduced a bill to ban the contests.

“It ridicules and demeans people with dwarfism,” Padden said in a press release in January.

At a public hearing, people with dwarfism testified about the abuse they encounter in everyday life. But The Spokesman Review spoke with a little person, Mighty Mike Murga, who makes money being tossed and who opposed the bill.

“If you’re not cut out for it, don’t do it,” Murga told the newspaper. The bill was voted out of committee, but then died. 

This story has been updated.