OLYMPIA — What lawmakers did, often on a partisan basis, during their 2021 session might be without precedent in breadth and scope.
A capital gains tax. A clean fuel standard. New rules for use of force by police. A ban on open carry of weapons at rallies. More protection for renters from evictions. A sales tax rebate for working families. And much more.
They did it in a pandemic. And they did it all virtually.
What can be expected when legislators convene Monday for their 2022 session?
They will be fixing and fine-tuning measures they already passed.
Then Democrats, who hold comfortable majorities in the House and Senate, want to build on or extend initiatives they pushed through last year. Republicans, meanwhile, want to hit the brakes on new spending, get some of the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus back in the hands of taxpayers and bolster public safety. Members may unite on how to use billions of federal dollars for COVID-related recovery. They’ll quickly divide on reducing the emergency powers of the governor.
And with the pandemic still raging, they’ll be doing it all virtually, again.
It’s a 60-day session.
The short length should tamp down expectations. Plus, all House seats and roughly half those in the Senate are up for election this year. That should keep lawmakers motivated to finish on time.
Here are eight things to watch this session.
Delaying the start of the new long-term care program will be one of the first actions of the Legislature. This signature policy of Democrats aims to provide eligible individuals with money for care and services they may need as they age or become ill. That money would come from a 0.58% payroll tax on workers that employers were supposed to start collecting Jan. 1.
But Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee don’t want them to do that. They’ve called for a pause to address concerns with the way the law is written. For example, the law prevents thousands of workers who pay into the program from getting benefits because they live out of state. There is also a question of whether the program is sustainable if too many workers opt out.
Two bills with potential fixes are on the docket. Both delay the collection of the payroll tax until July 2023. That will give Democrats this session and the next one to try to get it right. Republicans will push to repeal it entirely.
Laws passed in 2021 dealing with police tactics and use of force are going to get retooled. Law enforcement officials say the laws contain language effectively limiting their abilities in some situations, like pursuits. They say it curtailed assistance to designated crisis responders in dealings with mentally ill people who are not committing a crime or otherwise endangering the community. Democrats say clarifying language is needed, not an overhaul. Republicans say crime is up as a result of those laws. They are making public safety a focal point of the legislative session.
North of a billion dollars of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money remain to be allocated. Look for it to be parsed out through the supplemental budget into the state’s ongoing health care response to the pandemic and economic recovery programs for people and businesses. Whether with this federal aid or state tax dollars, lawmakers are expected to ensure public schools don’t lose money because of a drop in enrollment during the pandemic.
Washington is awash in money. Tax collections are up. Federal dollars for the pandemic and infrastructure are flowing. In May, Inslee signed a two-year $59 billion budget. In December, the governor’s supplemental budget outlined at least $3 billion in new spending when ARPA money is included. Lawmakers have many ideas on how to spend it. Democrats want to expand the Working Family Tax Credit program, bolster child care and mental health services, and help more families suffering from food insecurity. Republicans want property tax relief and would like to begin steering some sales tax collections into transportation to offset a projected long-term decline in gas tax revenue.
There’s bipartisan interest in reducing the number of homeless people and increasing the stock of permanent and transitional housing. Inslee laid the foundation for debate with a budget devoting about $815 million in state and federal funds to the effort. He has also embraced changing state laws to increase density in cities by allowing the building of duplexes, triplexes and quads within a half-mile of major transit stops.
A transportation package?
No way, not during a 60-day session, right?
Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, the new chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, is going to propose something. It will have projects. It won’t have a gas tax, he says. Where will the money come from? Most likely the clean fuel standard and carbon pricing program. Those will generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year when up and running. Plus the federal infrastructure law will deliver several billion dollars to the state in the next five years.
Resistance to using general fund dollars for transportation is fading, too. Inslee signaled as much in his supplemental budget when he penciled in $324 million from that pot to build new hybrid-electric ferries.
Taking aim at guns
A few months back, a new law kicked in barring the open carry of guns at the Capitol and at or near permitted public demonstrations. This session there will be attempts to extend similar prohibitions to places where ballots are counted and school boards meet.
Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, is pushing House Bill 1618 to ban firearms and other dangerous weapons from election offices, ballot counting facilities, voting centers and student engagement hubs. Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, authored House Bill 1630 to bar weapons from public meetings of school boards, city councils and county councils. These bills will get public hearings Wednesday.
Also this session, Democrats are going to try again to outlaw the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines — those that carry more than 10 rounds — and impose new limits on making and selling homemade guns.
Mistruths and consequences
Gov. Jay Inslee wants to make it a crime in Washington for elected officials and candidates to knowingly lie about elections. He’s crafting legislation to make it a gross misdemeanor for those in office, or seeking office, to make false statements that are intended to sow doubt about election results and, he said, are “likely to incite or cause lawlessness.”
Whether this would be constitutional is unclear. A state Supreme Court ruling makes it legal for candidates to lie about other candidates. Inslee, in a statement, said the U.S. Supreme Court has limited speech intended to incite violence. That’s his target.
“We’re talking about candidates and elected officers knowingly throwing bombs at democracy itself when doing so is likely to result in violence,” Inslee said.
It’s certain to ignite partisan passions. But probably it’s too incendiary for Democrats to pass, because many of them face election this year.
Washington — more precisely Bainbridge Island — is the birthplace of pickleball. Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, a pickleball player, wants to designate it the state’s official sport. In the meantime, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, is pushing to make “The Evergreen State” the official nickname for Washington. Both bills are getting hearings this week.
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