OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington lawmakers had no shortage of weighty topics they tackled this session while having to conduct their work amid a pandemic that meant most meetings and votes were done remotely.
By the time they concluded their 105-day session Sunday night, they had approved nearly a dozen measures on police reform, passed two key climate measures — cap-and-trade and a low-carbon fuel standard — that had long been priorities of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, and passed a new capital gains tax on high-profit stocks and bonds that had languished in previous legislative sessions.
The Capitol building has been closed to the public since last year due to COVID-19 and legislative leaders said that at the start of the year no one knew how a mostly remote session would turn out.
And while there were a fair share of technical glitches along the way — members losing connectivity during votes, the inevitable accidental muting during testimony — lawmakers noted the increased access for the public who could now testify on bills from their homes anywhere in the state, instead of having to drive to Olympia to do so.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said that there are variety of reasons that the Democratic majority was able to accomplish so much this year, in spite of the circumstances, including the fact that several of the bills passed had been worked on or discussed for years.
“The pandemic pressed us to do bigger things,” she said.
Republicans, who are in the minority in both the House and Senate, expressed frustration both about new taxes in the two-year $59 billion budget that was approved, as well as their stalled efforts to limit the governor’s emergency powers.
“As we end the session, we go back to one-person rule with the governor calling all the shots until he decides that the emergency is over,” said Republican Sen. John Braun.
Last summer, lawmakers worried they were looking at a revenue shortfall of potentially $9 billion due the pandemic. But the state revenue forecast steadily improved throughout last year, and that — plus the billions from the federal stimulus relief package — meant that they were no longer looking at potential cuts to programs.
For the budget that ends mid-2023, lawmakers used a total of $10.6 billion in federal COVID-19 funding, separate from the state spending, with money allocated to school reopening and funds for schools to address learning loss by students, vaccination distribution, and other efforts related to the pandemic.
Here’s a look at just some of the measures that passed this year:
POLICE REFORM: Among the measures spurred by the killings of George Floyd and other Black people by police last year are bills that ban no-knock warrants, chokeholds and neck restraints and restrict the use of tear gas and high-speed pursuits; that create an independent office to review the use of deadly force by police; that require officers to intervene if their colleagues engage in excessive force; and that make it easier to decertify officers for bad acts. Others include a bill authorizing the state auditor’s office to review whether deadly force investigations followed procedures; one requiring reasonable care when officers use force — including exhausting de-escalation techniques; and one requiring the collection of data on police uses of force so the state can better understand how and when officers do so. Inslee has already signed a bill reforming the arbitration system by which officers can appeal discipline after it passed with bipartisan support.
CLIMATE CHANGE: A measure that would require fuel producers and importers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with gasoline and other transportation fuels directs the Department of Ecology to adopt a clean fuels program similar to ones in British Columbia, California and Oregon got final approval from the Legislature. It would require fuel producers to start reducing the carbon intensity in their products starting with 0.5% in 2023 and working up to 20% below 2017 levels by 2038. The cap-and-trade measure approved over the weekend would make Washington second in the nation, joining California with such a measure to cap carbon pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and set specific limits for individual businesses, which would have to then purchase credits for allowed emissions. Implementation of both measures hinge on the passage of a transportation revenue package that increases the state’s gas tax by five cents. Legislative leaders said that just needs to be done before January 2023.
CAPITAL GAINS TAX: Starting in January 2022, the measure would impose a 7% tax on the sale of stocks, bonds, and other high-end assets in excess of $250,000 for both individuals and couples. Business owners are exempt from the tax if they were regularly involved in running the business for five of the previous 10 years before they sell, own it for at least five years, and gross $10 million or less a year before the sale. Retirement accounts, real estate, farms and forestry would be exempt from the proposed tax. The tax is estimated to raise $415 million a year and directed to support child care and early learning. Once signed into law, the measure is certain to face a legal challenge from opponents who say the measure is a tax on income that violates the state constitution.
ECONOMIC RECOVERY: The expansion and funding of a tax credit for low income workers and families was one area of the state budget that saw bipartisan support. The state tax exemption was created in 2008, but has never been funded before now. Under the measure awaiting Inslee’s signature, the base amount would now range from $300 to $1,200, depending on the number of children a taxpayer has. The base amount phases out as income levels increase, with a minimum credit of $50. Lawmakers also used federal money to help with economic recovering, to extend the state's rental assistance program, money for child care grants, and money for grants to adults who have been impacted by COVID-19 but are unable to access other benefits due to their citizenship status.
GUNS: Once signed by the governor, people will be prohibited from openly carrying guns and other weapons at the Capitol and surrounding grounds and at or near permitted public demonstrations across the state. In addition to prohibiting openly carried weapons in the state Capitol or on the western part of the Capitol campus, the measure bars people from carrying weapons, either on their person or in their vehicle, while attending a permitted demonstration at a public place or while being within 250 feet of the perimeter of a permitted demonstration. The bill adds permitted demonstrations and Capitol grounds surrounding the legislative building to the list of designated places where firearms are already prohibited statewide, including restricted areas of jails, courtrooms, taverns and commercial airports.
DRUG DECRIMINALIZATION: Lawmakers addressed the state’s approach to drug possession after the Washington Supreme Court struck down its previous law as unconstitutional — a ruling that left no prohibition on having small amounts of drugs. The measure that passed this weekend reclassifies possession of controlled substances, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The previous law, before being struck down, had made it a felony. Under the measure, police would divert a defendant’s first two offenses to treatment before the case even made it to a prosecutor, and the state would vastly expand its addiction treatment services and outreach, including to homeless residents. The provisions making drug possession a misdemeanor would expire in two years — reverting to current law, with no prohibition on drug possession, unless lawmakers made additional changes before then.
RACIAL EQUITY: Among the measures approved was making Juneteenth a paid state holiday. The day — June 19 — commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free in 1865 in Galveston, Texas, where Union soldiers brought them the news two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Another measure automatically restores the voting rights to felons once they leave prison, and one allows for resentencing of some people serving life without parole under the state’s three-strikes law due to second-degree robbery convictions. A measure to ban Native American mascots in most schools was also approved, as was a move to replace a statute of missionary Marcus Whitman at the U.S. Capitol with one of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member who championed treaty rights and protecting the environment.
AP writer Gene Johnson contributed from Seattle