WA Legislature considers establishing a new state housing agency

homes in Seattle

Homes and apartments in the Queen Anne neighborhood, seen from the Space Needle in a May 2022 photo. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Forty-seven Democrats are pushing a bill through the Washington House to study the creation of a new state agency — a housing department. 

The Housing Committee heard testimony Tuesday on House Bill 2270, which would have the Office of Financial Management hire a consultant to study consolidating all the state government’s scattered housing-related sections into one department. 

That consultant would also be asked to identify gaps in the state’s housing efforts; set up a clear mission for the new agency; recommend how the proposed department would be structured; and come up with a cost estimate for the reorganization. If the bill passes, the consultant’s recommendations would be due Dec. 1. 

Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Spanaway, proposed a similar bill in 2022, but it never made it out of committee. This year’s bill has 46 Democratic co-sponsors in addition to Morgan. 

“We have not been able to end homelessness,” Morgan told the committee Tuesday. Washington would need roughly 1.1 million new housing units to do so, she said. With the housing department proposal, “We will go from a broad patchwork to a one-stop shop,” Morgan said. 

No one testified against the bill Tuesday.

Those testifying in favor included the Association of Washington Business, the largest business coalition in the state; Futurewise; Habitat for Humanity for King and Kittitas counties; the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance and Local 1199NW of the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers. 

“It’s a good move for the state of Washington,” said Morgan Irwin, representing the AWB.

A member of the public, Arthur West, said: ”What I see now is various agencies putting band-aids on the problem.”

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A watchdog group reports that Washington’s public agencies are making it harder for the public to gain access to information, eroding the state’s Public Records Act. 

The Washington Coalition for Open Government, a group that pushes for public access to government information, released its report this week, revealing several key findings, including longer wait times for records than in previous years and an increase in exemptions in public records law.

The Coalition found that public officials and agencies often obstruct people requesting public information — for example, creating long administrative appeals for denials and imposing deadlines to pay fees before a requester can access records. Sometimes agencies take a lengthy time to respond to requests, or simply fail to respond altogether. 

Data from the report shows that requesters are waiting longer than in previous years to receive information: In 2019, people waited an average of 15 days, which increased to 23 days in 2022. 

Public officials are also becoming creative with ways to withhold public information, like using “legislative privilege” or releasing redacted and blacked-out documents in response to requests. None of the officials that violated the act were held accountable by the public records act. 

From 2012 to 2022, the list of exemptions for disclosing public records has increased more than 30%. 

The report also found that agencies also fail at maintaining and organizing records. The Coalition said agencies spend more time and money searching for documents due to this disorganization.

Not only is their document organization inadequate, but the Coalition found that staff members of these agencies are often improperly trained on how to handle public records. The training that public employees receive from the Office of the Attorney General creates bias and tilts them to favor nondisclosure over transparency, according to the report.

Recommendations from the study include making data accessible to people in a timely manner. They also ask for the government to act transparently and implement pro-transparency recommendations from the Attorney General’s Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee. 

The crowd of Republicans seeking outgoing U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ seat in the 5th Congressional District is growing. The candidates come to the race with various levels of local, state and national government experience. 

McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, announced earlier this month she would not seek reelection after two decades in Congress. The 5th Congressional District covers 16,054 square miles in the easternmost part of the state and spans from Canada to the Idaho and Oregon borders. 

Among them is Spokane City Councilman Jonathan Bingle. A former pastor and founder/owner of the businesses Bent Trivia and Bent Events, he is a notable conservative in a City Council that recently elected progressives for mayor and Council president. 

Also running is State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber. Maycumber, R-Republic, has represented the 7th Legislative District since 2017 and is the current House Republican Floor Leader.  

Ferry County Commissioner Brian Dansel also has filed documents with the Federal Election Commission. Dansel was appointed to the commissioner position in 2023 and also served in the position from 2010 to 2013, when he was elected to the Washington State Senate. Most recently, he worked in the Trump administration as a special assistant to former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. 

Cathy McMorris Rodgers
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (U.S. House of Representatives)

Rene Holaday, a radio host and former aide to former State Rep. Matt Shea, also confirmed her candidacy on Radio Free Redoubt, a broadcast outlet that describes itself as an “emerging safe haven and refuge for God-fearing, Liberty-loving patriots.” 

Another Republican candidate is John Guenther, a retired state employee on another election run after running for U.S. Senate in 2022, placing fourth in the primary behind Sen. Patty Murray and Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley. Rounding out the Republican field is Anthony Jensen. 

The Republicans join Democratic candidates who earlier announced their campaigns: Ann Marie Danimus, Carmela Conroy, and Bernadine Bank. McMorris Rodgers has handily defeated Democratic opponents since her first Congressional election in 2004. Lisa Brown, former State Senator and Commerce director, came closest when she received 45% of votes in her loss to McMorris Rodgers in 2018. Brown recently started her first term as Spokane mayor.

Former Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, whom Brown defeated in the general election in November, told The Spokesman-Review that she was considering joining the Congressional race. 

Hundreds of protesters gathered on the Capitol steps in Olympia on Tuesday afternoon to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and raise awareness of increased discrimination in Washington. 

The event was organized by the Washington Coalition for Peace and Justice, a coalition of Palestinian-Americans and allies working to enhance the lives of Palestinians across Washington.

No state legislators attended or spoke at the rally, sparking criticism from activists.

Although some Washington cities have passed ceasefire resolutions, including Seattle, Olympia and Bellingham, the Coalition is calling on the Washington Legislature to pass one at the state level, saying demonstrations like this are needed to pressure the federal government to do the same.

“I’m angry that we have to be here begging for the absolute bare minimum, which is to get the representatives, who swore to represent our interests, to say ceasefire,” author Ijeoma Oluo said.

Speakers also highlighted increased discrimination and hate crimes, as tensions between Israel and Palestine intensify. CAIR Washington reported receiving a staggering 2,171 complaints of Islamophobia since Oct. 7, while the Anti-Defamation League of the Pacific Northwest has seen over a 250% increase in antisemitic incidents since last year.

In this landscape, the Coalition says it will continue to promote legislation that protects their safety and freedom of speech and raise awareness about how the deaths of over 29,000 Palestinians in Gaza during the war with Israel have impacted their communities.

“Our communities face real threats and violence as evidenced by rising hate crimes nationally and locally,” the organization said in a media statement.

PNW filmmakers — want $40K to make a docuseries? Pitch to Origins

We’re looking for a local documentarian to tell regional Washington narratives for season three. You pitch the story, we’ll provide the funds.

audience watching discussion after screening at SIFF theater

Photos from the “Crosscut Origins: Refuge After War” screening at SIFF Uptown on February 28, 2023. (Photos by Michael McClinton/Crosscut)

Submissions for the next season of Cascade PBS’ Origins are now open. This is an opportunity for regional filmmakers to apply for funding to go toward a five-part short-form docuseries. The first season, “Refuge After War,” told the story of the parallel paths and shared experiences of Vietnamese and Afghan refugees resettling in our community. The second season, “Lost at SEA,” centers on the personal stories of growing up Black in Seattle. With submissions now open, we’re looking for season three. 
 
Each year, the stories told in Origins reflect the makeup of our region from an insider’s perspective: stories grounded in ancestry, connection, culture, influence and rootedness. Stories that reflect our place, values and people. In that spirit, the key requirement is that the filmmaker needs to be part of the community they are documenting (i.e., Indigenous stories told by Indigenous filmmakers, Latinx stories told by Latinx filmmakers, etc.). 
 
The winning project will be awarded $40,000 toward their production costs. Our Original Productions team will also support the filmmaker through the process. From identifying the project budget and talking through the concept all the way to scripting and editing, we are here to support and advise to ensure the project stays on track. 

This is a call for proposals from filmmakers of all experience levels. Submissions are open from February 14 to April 17, 2024. Whether you’re a budding director early in your career or a seasoned producer with years of experience, we invite all to submit pitches for our panel of judges to consider. We will announce the winner on opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival in May, an exciting way to kick off the project and get the filmmaker some early publicity.  
 
Join us for a screening of this year’s docuseries, Origins: Lost at SEA, on March 5, followed by a discussion with filmmaker Lady Scribe and key participants who shared their stories this season. 

WA lawmakers consider recognizing Lunar New Year holiday

Dancers wearing a traditional Chinese lion costume dance in a park.

The lion dance is performed by Mak Fai Lion and Dragon Dancers in Seattle’s Hing Hay Park on Feb. 4, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Lunar New Year, one of the most important annual celebrations in many Asian cultures, could become recognized by Washington, as lawmakers consider a proposal to mark the holiday.

If passed, Washington would join California, Colorado, New York and New Jersey in recognizing the holiday at the legislative level. While Washington’s proposal would recognize the holiday, it wouldn’t make it an official state holiday.

The bill has passed the state House and is being considered in the Senate. Rep. My-Linh Thai, D-Bellevue, the bill’s main sponsor, emigrated with her family as refugees from Vietnam, which celebrates Tết. 

Bill sponsors say it is meant to honor the cultural traditions and contributions of the state’s Asian American communities, as well as acknowledge the discrimination and violence the communities still face. 

Lunar New Year is celebrated by East and Southeast Asian countries including China, Korea and Vietnam. Families celebrate the holiday by making offerings to honor their ancestors, exchanging red envelopes of money as gifts, lion dancing and other activities. 

The bill will not pass in time for this year’s Lunar New Year, which is Feb. 10. The start date of the Lunar New Year is based each year on the cycles of the moon and its duration varies by culture. 

Rep. Thai introduced similar legislation last year which would have made it a state legal holiday, but due to its price tag and lack of community support it fell through. Washington’s 11 paid state legal holidays include Juneteenth and Native American Heritage Day, and its 19 legislatively recognized days include Korean-American Day (Jan. 13), Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day (March 30), Cesar Chavez Day (March 31), Columbus Day (still an official federal holiday in October, but not an official state holiday) and others. 

Instead of a day off, the legislation advises government agencies and schools to celebrate Lunar New Year by creating programs and resources for their organizations. It passed in the House in January and is being considered in the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, announced on Thursday that she will not seek reelection in Washington’s 5th District after 20 years in the seat.

McMorris Rodgers said in a statement that the time has come for her to find new ways to serve the people of Eastern Washington.

“After much prayer and reflection I’ve decided the time has come to serve them in new ways. I will not be running for re-election to the People's House,” she said in a statement released on Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (U.S. House of Representatives)
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (U.S. House of Representatives)

McMorris Rodgers is one of two Republicans among Washington’s 10 delegates in the House of Representatives. She represents Washington’s 5th Congressional District, which covers 16,053 square miles in the easternmost part of the state, spanning from Canada to Idaho and Oregon.

She was the sole no-vote in Washington’s Congressional delegation to impeach former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. The state’s other two Republican representatives at the time voted to impeach.

McMorris Rodgers was elected to her position in Congress in 2004, most recently serving as Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She formerly was chair of the House Republican Conference from 2012 to 2018.

So far, three Democrats have started to raise money to run for the 5th District seat, according to the Federal Election Commission: Ann Marie Danimus, who has run for the seat before; Carmela Conroy, a former U.S. diplomat; and Bernadine Bank, a physician.

Late last year, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, announced that he would not run for reelection. His seat has attracted several candidates.

In prison, a can of paint or a patch of grass can make a difference to everyone inside. That’s what Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, the prime sponsor of a bill to create a healthier prison environment, says she’s learned. 

House Bill 2169 would create a four-year pilot program at the Washington State Penitentiary East Complex in Walla Walla, aimed at improving the prison environment for inmates and officers alike through planting and painting projects and emphasizing communication between inmates and staff.

Mosbrucker aims to improve the health of prison staff as well as cut the inmate recidivism rate.

In a visit to a correctional facility, Mosbrucker recalled being struck by an inmate’s response when asked what they planned to do upon release.  

“It was so interesting because he said ‘I’m gonna go find grass … I just want to take my shoes off and stand on something that’s not concrete, because I’ve only stood on concrete for 40 years,’” Mosbrucker said. “How hard is it to plant a little square of grass?”

If successful, aspects of the pilot program could be expanded to other Washington prisons. 

Mosbrucker says many aspects of the bill came from her experience visiting Norway prisons in September 2023 on a trip with Amend, a public health and human rights program run out of the University of California San Francisco. Amend implemented a similar pilot project at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center.  

To boost communication and build stronger relationships, contact officers would be selected to act as mentors and coaches for inmates. Officers would also be trained on dynamic security tactics that emphasize building strong relationships to promote safety. 

The program would also implement decompression rooms for officers who face high-stress work environments. Mosbrucker said a primary reason for this legislation was to address the low life expectancy of corrections officers. Nationally, corrections officers live an average of 59 years, 16 years less than non-corrections workers, due to workplace stress. 

“That was my genesis and my drive to go figure out how to get that number higher,” Mosbrucker said. 

Mosbrucker also hopes the program will lower Washington’s recidivism rate, estimated to be around 30.7% in a three-year period

“Over 90% are gonna get out, so when you come from a dark locked cell for four years and then we say ‘Okay, now go out and make sure you be good,’” Mosbrucker said. “I think we can do better.” 

House Bill 2169 has passed out of the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee and has been referred to Appropriations. 

Gov. Inslee weighs in on AI use by Washington government agencies

Gov. Jay Inslee

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a legislative session preview in the Cherberg Building at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order Tuesday to establish guidelines on how state agencies deal with generative artificial intelligence.

WaTech, the agency operating the state’s technology, will lead other agencies in developing guidelines over the next year. “It’s our duty to the public to be thorough and thoughtful in how we adopt these powerful new tools,” Inslee said in a news release.

Inslee’s executive order mirrors the issues discussed in two legislative bills and a House declaration on generative AI, the type of artificial intelligence that is creative, generating pictures or writing articles. 

The Washington House is awaiting a floor vote on a declaration by Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way, that would set up a “Bill of Rights” on AI issues.

Meanwhile, Rep. Travis Couture  R-Allyn, and Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, have introduced parallel bills in the House and Senate calling for the creation of a 42-person study task force to begin meeting this year to come up with recommendations on how the Legislature and state government should address AI issues. The task force’s preliminary recommendations would be due to the governor’s office and to the Legislature by Dec.1, 2025, with a final report by June 1, 2027.

Nguyen’s bill is in the Senate Ways & Means Committee. Couture’s bill was due to be moved out of the house Consumer Protection & Business Committee Wednesday.

In the Inslee news release, Nick Stowe, the state’s chief technology officer, said generative AI could also provide state agencies opportunities for language translation, code generation and contract management. 

The governor’s announcement also noted some pitfalls to using generative AI – including bias in programs and the impact on vulnerable communities, as well as the impact on people’s health, safety and rights – and called for addressing those concerns by the end of 2024.

The news release listed areas of concern into AI use for biometric identification, critical infrastructure, employment, health care, law enforcement and the administration of democratic processes.

King County is in the middle of an election, but registered voters will not be receiving a ballot in the mail. 

To vote for the King Conservation District Board of Supervisors Election, people need to go online to KingCD.org/VOTE, or use their mobile phone to scan the card they received in the mail. 

The King Conservation District has a five-member board that sets water, land and wildlife conservation policy. Voting for board seat No. 1 is open through Feb. 13. All registered voters in King County, except those who live in Enumclaw, Federal Way, Milton, Pacific and Skykomish, are eligible to vote in this election.

Three people are seeking your vote: Brittney Bush Bollay, the board’s current vice chair; Aaron Ellig, a biologist who works for Sound Transit; and Erik Goheen, a farmer who owns and operates a small farm in Redmond.

The conservation district distributes money for projects around the region, plants native trees and shrubs and does fire prevention work, among other responsibilities.

WA Senate passes tax proposal to boost affordable-housing funding

Homes and apartments in the Queen Anne neighborhood seen from the Space Needle

Homes and apartments in the Queen Anne neighborhood seen from the Space Needle in a 2022 photo. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut) 

The Washington State Senate has approved a bill – for the second year in a row – to give local governments a new taxing authority to support their affordable housing and homeless service efforts. 

Senate Bill 5334 also passed the Senate in 2023, but the session ended before the House and Senate could work out compromise language.

The proposal would allow counties and cities to adopt an excise tax on the sale of lodging or short-term rentals. The revenue generated could be used to pay for various programs, including homeless assistance, temporary shelters and affordable housing. Local governments, however, could exempt seniors or people on a fixed income who operate a short-term rental. 

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, passed the Senate primarily along party lines. However, Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, voted in favor with Democratic senators, while Sen. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, voted against the bill with Republican senators. The bill now moves to the state House for consideration. 

Increasing affordable housing continues to be a top priority for lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee, with various proposals this session from legislators on both sides of the aisle. In a recent Elway poll, Democratic voters in Washington strongly supported spending more on housing, while most Republicans were against the idea.

Short-term rentals have been seen as detrimental to local housing supplies, and various proposals at all levels of government, such as one by the Seattle City Council, have been passed to limit such listings.