A presidential visit and a Blake bill passes in the Senate

It’s Day 57. Another key deadline nears. Here’s what’s happening in the 2023 session of the Washington Legislature

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2023 Washington Legislature, Day 57 of 105

Everett Herald political reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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OLYMPIA, March 6, 2023 — Welcome to the Monday edition. Hope you had a nice weekend.

We start this week with a historic event, then turn our attention to a critical deadline.

This morning, Sauli Niinistö, president of the Republic of Finland, addressed a joint session of the House and Senate. He just might be the first foreign head of state to speak to the Legislature in this manner.

He also met privately with Gov. Jay Inslee before the duo met with reporters from Washington and Finland.

Tonight, Niinistö, will sit down with Democratic Sen. Marko Liias, of Everett, for a fireside chat at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard.

Liias, the son of Finnish immigrants, said he wanted to engage him on a range of subjects including the war in Ukraine and European security now that Finland is joining NATO. Strengthening economic ties between Finland and Washington is another topic he planned to broach.

On the clock

State senators enjoyed the full weekend away from the office. Not House members. They spent all Saturday and part of Sunday in session, finally adjourning around 2 a.m.

It’s because time is running out for hundreds of bills. Pretty much any legislative ideation not tied to one of the state’s budgets needs to be passed out of its house of origin by 5 p.m. Wednesday. Otherwise it’s done until 2024.

As of Monday morning the House floor calendar had 90 bills. One is the much-massaged middle housing legislation. Another is the 139-page WRAP Act, a sweeping rewrite of recycling rules. An assault weapons ban and a requirement to obtain a permit to buy a gun are also on the calendar.

A whole bunch more are sitting in the House Rules Committee, their authors lobbying furiously to get them out and onto the floor. Among them is the highly controversial rewrite of rules for police chases.

In the Senate, the regular calendar had 95 bills as of Monday morning. Hospital staffing standards, a hot topic, is not on the list as it is stuck in the Senate Rules Committee for now.

Divided passions

On Friday, the Senate approved a sweeping response to the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision. The 28-21 vote on Senate Bill 5536 provided some Republicans a reason to smile and revealed the deep divide among Democrats on the best approach to those illegally possessing drugs.

Fourteen Democrats and 14 Republicans backed the bill. Fifteen Democrats and six Republicans dissented.

Let that sink in for a moment. Rarely does a majority party bring a policy bill up for a vote if their caucus isn’t on board and willing to pass it without any votes from the minority party. Expect a similar result should this bill get a vote in the House.

The court ruling in 2021 erased a longstanding law making simple drug possession a felony. Lawmakers responded by making possession a misdemeanor, requiring cops refer people to treatment before arresting them and setting June 30, 2023 as the date for those changes to expire.

What passed would make possession a gross misdemeanor. It envisions offering individuals a chance to avoid arrest, or prosecution, or jail time by getting treatment. They could even get a conviction vacated by completing treatment.

Supporters call it the right balance of compassion and accountability. Opponents in the Democratic caucus say it will push people into the criminal justice system from which they will emerge worse off. A sore spot is recently added language requiring judges to sentence a person convicted of simple possession to at least 21 days in jail if they fail to comply with substance use disorder treatment as a condition of probation.

“This is a very challenging public policy to talk about, to think about and to try to resolve,” said the weary prime sponsor, Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, in Friday’s floor debate. “This is not the last (version). I’m sure it will change.”

Probably right. House Democrats I spoke with Saturday said they have a few tweaks in mind.

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