Money, drugs, hackers and the wait continues for Phase 3

Here’s what’s happening on Day 47 of the 2021 session of the Washington Legislature.

NO CAPTION NECESSARY: Logo for the Cornfield Report by Jerry Cornfield. 20200112

2021 Washington Legislature, Day 47 of 105

Everett Herald political reporter Jerry Cornfield: | @dospueblos

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OLYMPIA, Feb. 26, 2021 — Good morning. Welcome to Friday.

The U.S. House could vote today on the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. As now written, it would steer in excess of $10 billion into coffers of cities, counties, school districts and state government.

Estimates are that the state will get at least $7.6 billion in direct aid — $4.3 billion for its ongoing pandemic response and $3.3 billion for elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and child care assistance. Another $2.4 billion is earmarked for cities and counties with close to a billion dollars in aid to transit agencies and airport operators.

Where the state is concerned, money in the new package would be on top of $2.2 billion of federal funds lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee recently decided on how to distribute. Those dollars aren’t spent yet, and in many cases won’t be for months.

With this much federal assistance, majority Democrats and the governor can expect questions on whether they will still pursue the full slate of new taxes they had proposed this session.

Meanwhile, all counties in the state will remain in the second phase of Inslee’s “Healthy Washington” reopening plan for the foreseeable future.

Inslee announced a “weekslong pause” on counties going backwards Thursday and said he’ll be working on what the next phase will look like. He said he wants to talk with civic leaders, business owners, workers and “anybody we can find on the Planet Earth to help us.”

Legal bombshell

Washington begins a new era today in which possession of a controlled substance, also known as drugs, is no longer a crime.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a provision of state law that made felony drug possession a crime arguing it criminalized “innocent and passive possession, even by a defendant who does not know, and has no reason to know, that drugs lay hidden within something that they possess. The legislature’s police power goes far, but not that far.”

It’s a mess for prosecutors and law enforcement officers. They’ve got to figure out who might be in jail on such charges and thus eligible for release. It is worth noting some county prosecutors had already been edging away from filing felony possession charges involving small amounts of some narcotics.

Still those in law enforcement may look to lawmakers for a fix spelling out elements needed for a righteous bust for possession. At this stage in the session, it won’t be easy if there is even interest. Deadlines for policy and fiscal bills have passed so any ‘Grand Bargain’ would need to come together quick.

That may be hard to do. This bill to decriminalize drug possession got lots of support in House Public Safety Committee.

Defense build-up

Senators want the state to do a better job preventing hackers from getting into agency files. That massive hack of files held by the state Auditor’s Office will bring such urgency.

In a unanimous vote, they passed Senate Bill 5432 this week to create an Office of Cybersecurity that would bolster agencies’ defenses against hackers and investigate all major cybersecurity incidents.

Utility bill reprieve

Know someone struggling to pay their gas and electric bills? Good news, state regulators extended an order barring investor-owned energy utilities from disconnecting customers for nonpayment through July 31. It had been set to expire April 30.

As of December 2020, almost 277,000 residential electric and natural gas customers across the state have past due balances totaling $79.1 million, a 65% increase from 2019, according to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Last year, the five investor-owned utilities — Puget Sound Energy, PacifiCorp, Avista, Northwest Natural Gas, and Cascade Natural Gas — dispersed assistance funds to more than 91,000 low-income customers and customers who lost income due to the pandemic, the commission reported.

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