Washington Lawmakers Adjourn 60-Day Session After Passing Budget & Transportation Package
Listen: Capitol Correspondent Austin Jenkins wraps up the legislative session / Runtime: 4 minutes
That’s a wrap. Washington’s sprint-like, 60-day legisative session has adjourned after majority Democrats approved a hefty supplemental budget along with the first major transportation funding package since 2015. Now lawmakers will be free to hit the campaign trail and start raising money for the 2022 elections. All 98 House seats and about half of the state’s 49 state senate positions are up for election this year.
Like last year, the 2022 session was held mostly remotely because of COVID-19. Although, recently both the House and Senate did allow more members on the floors of each chamber and partially reopened the public viewing galleries. But it still wasn’t anything like a “normal” session.
Compared to typical election year sessions, this one was also notable for its level of ambition. Democrats exerted their majority status and leveraged the state’s strong fiscal position to do things normally saved for a long, odd-year session. A prime example is passage of the transportation funding package.
Minority Republicans decried the Democrats’ go-it-alone approach on transportation. They also argued unsuccessfully for across-the-board tax cuts, as part of the supplemental budget, instead of just more spending. Republicans are as bullish as they’ve been in years about their election prospects in November and spent much of the session arguing that Democrats are out of step with middle-class Washingtonians. Democrats countered that their focus was on addressing the unevenness of the economic recovery, shoring up state services and getting assistance to those most in need.
While Democrats passed a lot of new policy measures this year, they also sought to “fix” some things from last year (specifically around police reform) and hit the pause button on a controversial long-term care benefit program first passed in 2019.
While a lot passed this year, a lot of ideas also didn’t make it across the finish line. Here’s a look at some of what made it across the finish line and what didn’t during the 2022 session.
$5 billion boost in state spending. In one of their last acts before adjournment, House and Senate Democrats agreed upon and passed a significant update to the state’s current two-year budget. The revised $64.1 billion budget boosts state spending by about $5 billion – an unprecedented increase for a supplemental year. Democrats prioritized new spending on things like more school counselors and nurses, pay raises for state employees, increased rates for child care providers and rental assistance for people facing eviction. In the end Democrats abandoned plans for a sales tax holiday over Labor Day weekend and a proposal to waive entrance fees to state lands and fairs for a year. Minority Republicans decried the lack of across-the-board tax breaks, arguing that with significant state surpluses more money should be returned to taxpayers who are coping with inflation and rising gas prices. Democrats noted that they expanded a tax exemption that will benefit 70 percent of businesses in the state. But they also argued it was more important to target spending in what they considered the greatest areas of need. In the words of the Senate budget chair, Democrat Christine Rolfes, “If you are a family receiving state services, your family member will be taken care of more securely and stably.”
Transportation funding package. Big transportation funding packages typically come along every six to eight years or so. For the past two decades, they’ve been bipartisan (because it takes a 60 percent vote to approve the bond measures to fund the package). They invariably include a higher gas tax as the primary source of funding. And they happen in odd-year, long sessions. This year, majority Democrats broke all of those unwritten rules and passed a go-it-alone 16-year, nearly $17 billion package that doesn’t rely on the gas tax or on bonding. Billed as the greenest transportation package in state history, it would fund roads and bridges – including Washington’s portion of a new bridge over the Columbia River at Vancouver — but also rail, transit, bike and pedestrian projects. Instead of the gas tax, funding would come from the state’s new cap-and-trade program, federal funding, a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the state operating budget surplus and steep increases in various vehicle and driver licensing fees.
WA Cares pause. One of the first acts of the Legislature this year was to hit the pause button on the state’s first-in-the-nation long-term care benefit program. Democrats realized the program wasn’t ready for primetime and the timing of a new payroll tax to fund the program wasn’t ideal (given inflation and the pandemic). So they passed an 18-month delay of game. This will give lawmakers and the program time for a reset and to reassess WA Care’s long-term solvency, especially after nearly half-a-million people (representing about a third of the state’s total payroll) took advantage of a one-time opt-out opportunity. Republicans argued the entire program should be repealed. But supporters insist the benefit is needed because most people will need some amount of long-term care in their lifetime.
Police reform ‘fixes’. Last year, in response to nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the Washington Legislature passed more than a dozen police accountability measures. But when the time came to implement the new laws, police agencies argued there were unintended consequences. For example, police said they could no longer use some of their less-than-lethal munitions because they violated the ban on military-grade equipment. Some police departments also stopped responding to non-criminal community caretaking matters, like people in a behavioral health crisis. This year, majority Democrats passed so-called “trailer” bills to address some of these issues. Gov. Inslee has already signed into law two of those bills. One makes clear that police can use .50 caliber less-than-lethal rounds. The other says police can use reasonable force to take someone in crisis into custody so they can be taken to the hospital. A third measure defines use of force and expands when police can use reasonable force, including to stop someone from fleeing an investigative stop where probable cause that a crime has been committed has not yet been established. A fourth bill, that would have eased some of the restrictions imposed last year on vehicular pursuits, did not receive a final vote on the last day of the session, despite multiple attempts by Republicans to bring it to the floor. Democrats insist the bills that did pass are responsible adjustments. Families of those killed by police opposed the use of force and pursuit bills saying they “reverse last year’s progress on racial justice, while doing little to provide public safety for Washingtonians.” Republicans argued the changes to last year’s police accountability laws don’t go far enough.
Gun restrictions. After years of trying, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson got a big win when the Legislature passed a long-sought bill banning the manufacture, sale or distribution of gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Washington is poised to join nine other states and the District of Columbia where magazine capacity is already regulated. Ferguson argues this will make Washington safer and help reduce the risk of mass shootings. Opponents object to the idea that magazines that hold more than 10 rounds are “high-capacity” and say the restriction is an unnecessary infringement on the rights of lawful gun owners. Democrats in the Legislature this year also built upon last year’s ban on the open carry of weapons at the state Capitol and at demonstrations anywhere in the state — which supporters said was needed given the current political climate in the state. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Tana Senn will bar openly-carried weapons at school board meetings and at local government meetings. It will also outlaw weapons altogether — even concealed pistols — at ballot counting facilities.
Uber/Lyft driver protections. Drivers for ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft will receive new labor protections, described as the best in the nation, under legislation approved by the Washington Legislature this year. The workforce is made up of approximately 30,000 people, the majority of whom are immigrants or people of color, according to advocacy groups. Under the bill, the drivers will receive minimum per mile and per minute rates along with paid sick leave and workers’ compensation coverage. The bill also requires the establishment of statewide regulations for so-called transportation network companies. In a statement after final passage of the legislation, the Drivers Union called it a “landmark victory.”
Legislative unionization. Legislative staff for Democratic lawmakers staged a rare (perhaps unprecedented) work stoppage after a bill to allow them to unionize failed to pass before a key cutoff deadline. It put Democratic leaders in the awkward position of explaining that while they support unions, they thought this particular pro-union bill needed more work. Needless to say, shortly after the day of protest, a new unionization bill was introduced and soon passed. It grants collective bargaining rights to legislative employees and creates an office of state legislative labor relations. The soonest a labor contract would take effect would be July 1, 2025.
State Patrol diversity. Even as Washington becomes more diverse, the state patrol has remained predominantly white and male. Now state lawmakers are preparing to hold the patrol’s feet to the fire when it comes to efforts to diversify its ranks. The Legislature approved a bill sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Javier Valdez that would require the state Office of Equity to oversee the implementation of the patrol’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion recruitment and retention plan. An independent expert would also be brought in to assist in this effort and do things like conduct a workforce availability study focused on identifying and reaching underrepresented communities.
Sam’s Law (Hazing). In response to the 2019 alcohol poisoning death of WSU student Sam Martinez, the Legislature approved a bill that expands the definition of hazing and places new requirements on fraternities and sororities. The measure also requires all colleges and universities to implement anti-hazing policies and provide education on the topic. The bill was championed Martinez’s parents who said it’s about “transparency” and “education.” A separate bill to make hazing a gross misdemeanor, or a felony in cases where a person is significantly injured, did not pass.
Catalytic converter theft. It’s an epidemic. No, not COVID. The theft of catalytic converters for their precious metals which can be sold for a quick payday. In an effort to address this problem, Democrats and Republicans teamed up to pass a bill designed to crack down on these thefts. The measure adds new requirements for scrap metal dealers who purchase catalytic converters. It also imposes additional fines and creates a catalytic converter theft workgroup at Washington State University.
Pickleball state sport. Invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965 by former Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard and friends, pickleball will now become Washington’s official state sport. The game, which combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong, is now the fastest growing sport in the nation, drawing interest from young and old. When signed by the governor, Washington will become the 16th state with an official state sport, joining obvious pairings such as Hawaii and surfing, Minnesota and ice hockey, Alaska and dog mushing, and less obvious designations such as Colorado where the state sport is pack burro racing or Maryland, where it’s jousting.
Sales tax holiday. With the state in good fiscal shape, but inflation taking a bite out of people’s pocketbooks, minority Republicans this year urged across-the-board tax cuts. Democrats, though, were more interested in targeted approaches when it came to tax policy. One of the ideas they landed on was making state parks and fairs free for a year. They also seized upon the idea of a sales tax holiday timed to Labor Day Weekend when families are shopping for back-to-school supplies. But in the end all of those ideas dropped out of the final budget. House and Senate Democrats said they simply couldn’t get on the same page and figure out the details with limited time.
Independent police prosecutions. For the second year in a row, a proposal from Democratic state Rep. Debra Entenman to create an independent prosecutions unit within the office of Attorney General died after getting a public hearing. Under Entenman’s proposal, the attorney general would have the authority alongside county prosecutors to investigate and prosecute cases involving the use of deadly force by police officers.
Fake COVID vaccine cards. Democratic state Sen. Jesse Salomon wanted to make it a crime to sell or use a fake COVID-19 vaccination card. He hoped it would have a deterrent effect and send a signal to prosecutors to prioritize these cases as a matter of public health. The bill made it out of committee but died before getting a floor vote. By the time the legislative session wrapped up, COVID case counts and hospitalizations had plummeted and Gov. Jay Inslee had lifted his requirement that people show proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend large events. King County, the state’s most populous, had also dropped its vaccine or test mandate for admission to bars, restaurants and other venues. Asked if his bill is moot now, Salomon replied: “Ask me when the next wave comes.”
Criminalizing lies about elections. Warning of ongoing “threats to democracy,” Gov. Inslee made headlines at the beginning of the session for proposing legislation to make it a crime for politicians to incite lawlessness by making false statements about election results. Inslee used the one-year anniversary of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to unveil his proposal. “The violence of January 6 of last year is just a warning of what is coming and the basis of it is the ‘Big Lie,’” he said at the time, referring to the false assertion by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen. But while Inslee got help crafting his bill from top First Amendment experts and personally testified in favor of the proposal in committee (something he doesn’t often do), his fellow Democrats in the Legislature never embraced the idea. It died without a vote in the state Senate.
Expanding state voting rights. With voting rights legislation stalled in the “other” Washington, Democrats in Olympia pushed for an expansion to the state’s 2018 state Voting Rights Act. One key provision would have required some local jurisdictions to get permission (or preclearance to use the legal term) before making changes, like reducing the number of ballot drop boxes. A separate bill would have expanded automatic voter registration through the state’s motor voter law. But both failed to pass. The motor voter change died in committee. The voting rights act expansion cleared the state Senate but faltered in the House. In a statement, Sen. Rebecca Saldana, the sponsor, said the preclearance issue “continues to be hard to wrestle with,” but said she intends to introduce a new version of the bill again next year.
Workplace ergonomics regulation. In 2003, Washington voters approved a business-backed initiative that repealed state regulations designed to protect workers from on-the-job hazards that could contribute to musculoskeletal disorders. The initiative also banned the Department of Labor and Industries from adopting new so-called ergonomics rules. Flash forward to this year and Democrats in the Washington House introduced legislation to repeal that prohibition. This set up a classic business versus labor fight in the Legislature. That fight played out on Valentine’s Day evening with all-night debate — you might call it an epic battle of the wills — as minority Republicans fought tooth and nail to amend the bill into oblivion and Democrats refused to table the issue. In the end, the measure passed by just two votes. But once it got to the Senate, Republicans redoubled their efforts and introduced more than 40 amendments to the bill (compared to the 15 House Republicans offered). Needless to say, Senate Democrats didn’t even bring the bill up for a vote.
Redistricting commission reforms. After Washington’s once-a-decade redistricting commission faltered at the finish line, Democratic state Sen. Jamie Pedersen introduced legislation to reform the process. The state Senate unanimously approved Pedersen’s bill to require, for instance, that future commissions make their maps publicly available at least 72 hours before any final vote. But once the reform measure reached the House it lost momentum and never got a vote. Nonetheless, changes are still coming to the redistricting commission as the result of a legal settlement in lawsuits challenging the commission’s compliance with the state’s open meetings act. As part of the settlement, the state’s next redistricting commission will have to adhere to new transparency rules. Meanwhile, technically, the Legislature has about a decade until the next redistricting to pass a redistricting reform bill.
Emergency powers reform. For more than two years Washington has been under a governor-declared public health state of emergency. Washington’s emergency powers statute gives the governor broad authority to issue sweeping emergency orders and to decide when the emergency is over. This autonomy hasn’t sat well with minority Republicans who’ve been calling for changes to the emergency powers act since 2020. But this year even some Democrats embraced the idea of giving the legislative branch more of a role. To that end, Democrats in the state Senate passed a measure that would have authorized the top four top legislative leaders (two Democrats and two Republicans) to end a state of emergency (if they all agreed) after 90 days if the Legislature wasn’t in session. Critics said the reform didn’t go far enough and instead favored a Republican proposal in the House that would have capped any state of emergency at 60 days, unless the Legislature agreed to extend it. While that bill quickly died, the House did briefly take up the Senate bill only to abruptly table it and then never brought it up again. The topic briefly reared its head again on the final evening of the session. That’s when Senate Republican leader John Braun tried to force a vote on a resolution declaring that the COVID state of emergency should be lifted. Democrats quickly shot down the effort.
Middle housing. A top priority of Gov. Inslee, this bill would have required cities to allow multi-family housing in single family zoned neighborhoods as part of an effort to expand access to affordable housing. Not surprisingly, cities pushed back on the idea calling it a “one-size-fits-all” approach. To double the chances of passage, Inslee found sponsors for the legislation in both the House and Senate. But after a flurry of high profile and well attended public hearings, both companion measures failed to advance. The House bill got the furthest, making it out of two committees and onto the floor calendar but never came up for a vote. In an end-of-session statement, Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, a Democrat who serves as president of the Senate, blamed “legislative politics” for the bill’s demise and warned “our housing crisis will only worsen until we join our West Coast neighbors in passing laws to allow the building of more housing of all types that are affordable to all residents.”
Minimum staffing standards (hospitals). In 2019, majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature passed a long-fought bill mandating meal and rest breaks for nurses and other front line hospital staff. This year the sponsor of that bill, state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, was back with a bill to establish minimum staffing standards for patient care. An example would be one staff member for three non-critical patients in the emergency department. Proponents said the new protections would help address burnout and staffing shortages — issues exacerbated during the pandemic. Opponents argued just the opposite and said the standards would lead to long wait times and hurt care, not improve it. The measure passed the House, but died in the Senate. In a statement, the union coalition backing the bill said “we’re not giving up. We’ll continue to fight for safe staffing standards.”
Homeless encampments on state property. Gov. Inslee requested legislation this year to create a new office within the Department of Social and Health Services to help move unhoused people from encampments in public rights-of-way (think alongside the freeway) into permanent housing. Inslee highlighted this proposal in a news conference with city officials from both sides of the Cascades. But while the bill passed the Senate, it died in the House. Critics worried the bill was a pretext for potentially criminalizing homelessness and sweeping camps. Before its demise, the bill was overhauled to remove the focus on reducing the number of people camped in public rights-of-way. While the bill didn’t pass, the state’s supplemental budget does include about $50 million to address encampments in public rights-of-way.
It’s not easy being in the minority and Republicans did much lamenting about the 2022 session. Per usual, they weren’t included in budget negotiations. They also didn’t help craft the transportation funding package, which historically has been a bipartisan endeavor. And they watched most of their priority bills die. Examples include: increased penalties for assaulting a police officer, suspension of the state gas tax through the remainder of 2022, a property tax exemption on the first $250,000 of a home’s value, expansion of the state’s new working families tax credit and a requirement that teachers make classroom materials and syllabi available on school district websites. House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox also expressed dismay that the Legislature didn’t adopt proposals to make it easier or cheaper to build single-family homes, despite the state’s significant housing shortage. “I think that is as serious a failure as you could possibly have,” Wilcox said.
Tom Banse contributed reporting.