Wednesday, March 20, 2019
HALFWAY HOUSES: Last week marked the halfway point of the Legislature’s 105-day regular session in Olympia, and the cutoff for new bills to be passed out of their original chambers. The deadline left just 681 bills out of some 2,150 bills introduced still under consideration for this session.
Some bills had early bicameral support, including a measure that would move the state’s presidential primary from May to March of next year; and a more generous approach to allowing members of Washington’s tribes to register and vote.
More contentious is Senate Bill 5078, which would require that presidential and vice-presidential candidates release copies of their federal income tax returns for the last five years if they want to appear on the state presidential primary ballot. The law is similar to one passed by the New Jersey legislature in February.
In law enforcement, the two chambers readily brought Initiative 940, the measure voters passed in November making it easier to prosecute police officers for negligent shootings, into alignment with earlier legislation. The changes were supported by both backers of the initiative and police groups. And lawmakers fully funded a buyback program for bump stocks. The Legislature banned the rapid-fire devices in 2018, but neglected to allocate money for the buybacks in the budget that year.
A measure to remove the death penalty from state law has passed the Senate and awaits action in the House. The move comes after the state Supreme Court unanimously struck down capital punishment as arbitrary and racially biased. The legislation would make that court ruling permanent by removing capital punishment as a sentencing option for aggravated murder. The governor has pledged to sign the order.
Among the most hotly debated issues as the chambers approached their deadline were a broad range of health care issues, from universal health care and a public option, to telemedicine and behavioral health.
A proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee to create a limited public health care option cleared the House and awaits action in the Senate. Dubbed “Cascade Care,” the law would require the state to contract with a private insurer to offer plans with capped administrative costs and doctor’s fees, which backers hope would translate to competitive premiums.
Passing the House along strongly partisan lines, the bill was supported by Democrats Reps. Jeff Morris and Debra Lekanoff in the 40th Districts and Rep. Sharon Shewmake in the 42nd District. Republican Luanne Van Werven voted against expansion of the public health care option.
A companion bill in the state Senate similarly passed along party lines. Senate Bill 5526, which would increase the availability of quality, affordable health coverage, passed 36-13., with Anacortes Sen. Liz Lovelett favoring the bill and Ferndale Sen. Doug Ericksen rejecting it.
The two bills will likely be combined and a single version would then be considered for final passage.
A similar rift split support for Senate Bill 5822, which would provide a pathway to establish a universal health care system for the residents of Washington state. This bill would set up a work group to design a government-run, socialized health care system available to all residents. The measure passed the senate by a vote of 28-21 after Republicans offered a number of amendments that would reinforce the private insurance market—essentially undermining the original intent of the bill. The amendments failed.
Republicans fought hard in lengthy sessions against measures intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase fuel efficiency standards in Washington.
House Bill 1110 would direct the state Department of Ecology to impose low-carbon fuel limits on gasoline and other transportation-related fuels with a “clean fuels” program. Under the bill, carbon emissions of transportation fuels would have to be reduced to 20 percent below 2017 levels by 2035. The measure would require utilities to eliminate coal as an energy source by the end of 2025 as the first step toward the goal for utilities to provide carbon-free electricity by 2045. Rep. Van Werven voted against HB 1110, while Democrats in the 40th
and 42nd district s supported it.
Ericksen stormed against a companion bill in the Senate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, speculating “this will become the vehicle for a cap and trade program that will hammer Washington consumers with higher costs for gas and diesel.”
The Legislature also made progress in the areas of housing security and homelessness, passing a range of bills that make it easier for local governments to respond to a growing crisis.
Making good headway, freshman Sen. Lovelett cosponsored a bill that streamlines permitting for communities that have declared a state of emergency due to the level of homelessness.
Joint bills might similarly ease the restrictions of cities and counties to adopt ordinances, development and zoning regulations that authorize creating accessory dwelling units within designated urban growth areas. Others would require at least 15 percent of the money used in a given funding cycle to be used for the benefit of homeownership projects for lower- income households. Particularly innovative bills would allow cities and counties to use real estate excise taxes (REET II) for the construction of affordable housing projects and rehabilitation of facilities for those experiencing homelessness.
The realities of the Legislature are these: In times of their majority or in times of deadlock, Republicans get their way. Given the rigid divisions of the state, that’s most of the time. Only when they’re out of power can state government make significant progress on responsive legislation.