OLYMPIA — No one saw a legislative session quite like this coming.
It ended Sunday, and the magnitude of what transpired, often on a partisan basis, might be without precedent in the breadth and depth of its impact on residents’ daily lives.
Democrats used their majorities in the House and Senate to muscle through social, economic, environmental and tax policies, some of which had eluded them for years. They pushed through bills to expand child care, reform policing, put a price on carbon, levy a capital gains tax and ensure equity is embedded in state laws.
“When we came in we had a choice,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said Sunday. “Do we just come in and do the minimum and get out of town? Or do we rise to the occasion to meet the moment? We chose to move our state forward.”
And they did, during a 105-day session of the Legislature that was conducted, for the first time, online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of us came in with a lot of trepidation,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo. “I am really excited and proud of what we accomplished. This was a session of justice. We really tried to look at who’s being left out and how to help everybody move forward.”
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, called the session historic, both in how it was conducted and what lawmakers achieved.
“If we hadn’t done a single thing, it would be historic,” she said. “We have never had a session that has done this much on equity and police accountability. I’m not saying the work we’ve done this year will fix everything. It will advance us.”
Historic is how Republican lawmakers viewed it too — but for far different reasons.
“We have never seen this many tax bills,” House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, told reporters last week. “It could not be more regressive. It could not weigh more heavily on the middle class. That is not going to be the kind of history to make.”
Sunday brought a last round of spirited partisan debates before final action on a capital gains tax and a clean fuels program, two of the session’s most controversial bills, and a two-year $59.2 billion budget which passed with a single Republican vote.
“I’m not against everything we did,” said Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor. “I think we did too much. We don’t have to do everything this year.”
Nothing justified the quantity of new taxes and higher fees, he said. State tax collections are strong, and there are billions of federal dollars to assist those impacted by the pandemic, Muzzall said.
“I’m a conservative but I’m temperate,” he said. “It scares me. I don’t know if we can afford it.”
It sure didn’t seem possible when lawmakers finished the 2020 session 13 months ago. At the time, the pandemic was heating up, the economy was shutting down and there were forecasts for a multibillion-dollar budget hole.
In the ensuing nine months, the economic landscape and political climate changed, in some ways drastically.
The first of three federal relief packages generated a little revenue for the state. George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the probe of the death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma ignited protests and calls for police accountability. The election in November fortified Democratic majorities in the Legislature, adding progressives and members of color, and put Democrats in control of Congress and the White House.
By January, when state lawmakers launched their virtual session, Democrats had high ambitions.
“This session truly is one that I think will go down in history as one where we have changed lives of individuals for the better,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, deputy majority leader.
Here are some of the most discussed legislation this session:
Budget: The two-year budget spends $59.2 billion in state tax collections and roughly $10 billion in federal COVID-19 relief dollars to deal with the state’s ongoing pandemic response. It also strengthens the safety net of social services, expands child care and confronts long-term challenges posed by wildfires.
The 1,100-page spending blueprint funds, for the first time, a working families tax rebate. It covers the costs of a slew of policing reforms and anti-racism training in public schools and colleges, and it bolsters treatment and outreach for those with substance use disorder.
Carbon pricing: Some of the state’s largest polluters will soon face limits on their carbon emissions. Under the so-called cap-and-trade approach, the state will impose limits on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Those limits will go down over time. Companies will thus need to curb their emissions or buy allowances. Those dollars will get used to curb the number of vehicles on roads and to offset negative impacts of pollution on communities.
Clean fuel standard: A new clean fuels program, similar to ones in California and Oregon, will require fuel producers and importers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with gasoline and other transportation fuels. Starting in 2023, fuel producers will need to develop blends which, when burned, produce less carbon emission.
Capital gains tax: A new tax looms for those who pocket more than $250,000 in capital gains from the sale of long-terms assets like stocks and bonds. A tax rate of 7% would be imposed on amounts in excess of $250,000. Collections would start in 2024. An estimated 8,000 taxpayers, or fewer, could be affected. It is certain to face a legal challenge from those who contend it violates the state constitution’s ban on taxing income.
Tax rebate: Roughly 420,000 taxpayers could be in line for annual rebates of $50 to $1,200 starting in 2023. That’s an estimate of individuals and families eligible for a Working Families Tax Exemption. This program has been on the books since 2008 but never funded until now.
Law enforcement: Officers will be barred from using chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants; will face restrictions on when they can undertake vehicle pursuits; and must obtain approval from an elected official to use tear gas to quell a riot. Other reforms will create a statewide standard for use of force, make it easier to decertify officers, and require cops to intervene when they see fellow officers engaging in the use of excessive force. Also, a new state agency is created carry out independent investigations when a person dies at the hands of an officer.
Controlled substances: It will be a misdemeanor to knowingly possess illicit drugs without a prescription. This is an element of a multi-faceted response to a state Supreme Court decision nixing a state law that had made drug possession a felony. With the lesser penalty, there will be treatment, outreach and recovery services for those with substance use disorder and financial help for courts dealing with thousands of cases affected by the legal ruling.
Child care: Under the Fair Start Act, the state will hike child care subsidy rates, extend health coverage to child care workers, improve payments to providers and steadily expand access to early childhood education and assistance programs.
Tenant rights: Evicting tenants, now barred by a statewide moratorium, will be different when the moratorium ends. Justifications for eviction are getting clarified and protections for tenants are expanded. And Washington will be the first state to guarantee a right to legal counsel for qualified low-income tenants facing an eviction.
Open carry: People will be banned from openly carrying guns and other weapons at the Capitol and at or near permitted public demonstrations across the state.