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. 

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WA Supreme Court says state can have a say in local evictions

Washington's Supreme Court Building

Washington’s Supreme Court Building. (Jovelle Tamayo for Cascade PBS)

The Washington Supreme Court ruled last week that Attorney General Bob Ferguson can continue pursuing a lawsuit against the city of Sunnyside.

Cities across the state have implemented a crime-free rental housing program in which landlords, tenants and law enforcement work together to reduce crime and improve the quality of life in rental properties.

In its 2020 lawsuit, the state claims that Sunnyside, in Yakima County, abused the program by forcing tenants out of their homes over unsubstantiated claims of crime or nuisance without a court order. The lawsuit said dozens of residents were forced out of their homes with little or no notice. The majority of the 43 alleged unlawful evictions between 2014 and 2019 involved Latino residents, women or families with children.

The state claimed that through unlawful evictions, the city’s law enforcement officers did not comply with provisions of the U.S. and state constitutions, the federal Fair Housing Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

Yakima County Superior Court granted a summary judgment, agreeing with the city of Sunnyside that the state lacked the authority to pursue legal action for a variety of reasons, including that the city could not be subject to liability under the state’s Rental Landlord Tenant Act and that the attorney general is not authorized to enforce the private rights of a small number of individuals.

The Washington Supreme Court reversed that summary judgment. The court ruled that the state has an “interest in protecting the health, safety, and well-being of its residents, including holding government actors accountable against allegations of discrimination and violations of constitutional rights.” It also ruled that the state’s claims address matters of public concern, including the lawful operation of crime-free rental housing programs, protection of Washingtonians’ civil rights and prevention of police misconduct.

While the Supreme Court reversed the summary judgment, it let stand the Court’s dismissal of the state’s claim that the city of Sunnyside violated the Resident-Landlord Tenant Act. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Yakima court for further proceedings.

SCOTUS backs Starbucks in case over reinstating fired workers

A green Starbucks signs streaks against a blue background in a slow-shutter image.

The Starbucks logo at the Fifth Avenue and Pike Street location as workers hand out flyers to customers with information about stalled union negotiations on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (Lindsey Wasson for Cascade PBS)

A U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday sided with Starbucks in a dispute over the firing of pro-union workers in a ruling that could restrict the National Labor Relations Board’s future authority to intervene when workers accuse companies of illegally suppressing union organizing. 

The case centers around seven baristas in Memphis, Tennessee, who alleged that Starbucks fired them for trying to unionize their store. The NLRB sided with the workers, and because it can take years for an unfair labor practice complaint to go through the legal process, the agency asked a judge for an injunction reinstating the workers, which was granted.

Starbucks had accused the baristas of violating store policies, and contested the legal standard the judge had used to impose the injunction. The Supreme Court agreed the lower court’s legal test was too broad and inconsistent with those of other courts. 

The NLRB did not comment on the decision, but instead pointed to a statement the agency’s General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo made during Supreme Court arguments in April. 

“Without obtaining this temporary relief,” Abruzzo said, “the lawbreaker will fully reap the benefits of having violated workers’ rights — such as by snuffing out a nascent organizing drive — through the passage of time, because a Board remedy in due course will come too late to sufficiently address the harm.”

In February, Starbucks announced a new path forward for contract negotiation, setting a goal of ratification of a contract in 2024, after years of impasse. Union members told Cascade PBS those renewed talks had been productive during initial negotiations. 

“We remain focused on making progress toward our goal of reaching ratified contracts for represented stores this year,” Starbucks wrote in a statement after the decision. “Consistent federal standards are important in ensuring that employees know their rights and consistent labor practices are upheld no matter where in the country they work and live.”

Lynne Fox, president of Workers United, the union representing the Starbucks employees, called the court’s ruling egregious. Fox also argued the company should have dropped the case earlier this year when it committed to a new path in bargaining. 

“Working people have so few tools to protect and defend themselves when their employers break the law,” Fox wrote in a statement

More than 10,000 workers at 437 stores have joined Workers United since unionizing efforts began at Starbucks cafes in December 2021. A Cascade PBS investigation explored early negotiations between Starbucks and the union, and examined the role of the National Labor Relations Board in adjudicating hundreds of related unfair labor-practice complaints.

WA carbon prices lower than expected in second year of auctions

The Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame, in Anacortes, Washington.

The Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame, in Anacortes, Washington. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

Washington has fallen short of its original predictions of how much money its cap-and-invest program would raise in the first half of 2024; the actual total for the first half of the year is about $324.5 million. 

Late last year, state officials predicted that carbon pricing auctions would raise $941 million in the first half of this year. But auction prices have dropped dramatically. 

Carbon-emitting corporations, including oil companies, bid every three months on state allowances for their pollution emissions. 

During 2023, quarterly auction prices ranged from $48.50 for roughly one metric ton of carbon in the first quarter to $63.03 in the third. Those prices were significantly higher than expected, and were blamed for adding 21 to 50 cents per gallon to Washington’s traditionally high gas prices.

In 2024, the first-quarter auction price was $25.76 per allowance, which raised $135.5 million. The second-quarter auction price — publicly announced Wednesday — was $29.92 per allowance, raising roughly $189 million.

Reasons for auction price decreases are unknown, but there has been speculation. One theory is that bidders are unwilling to spend money on a program that could disappear at the end of 2024, when voters decide on a state initiative to repeal the cap-and-invest program. Others believe Washington’s carbon market is stabilizing and that bidders are becoming more savvy about the way they approach the quarterly auctions. 

While larger auction prices have been linked to higher gasoline prices, too many extra factors cloud any precise correlations. Numerous economic, geographic and other factors affect the rise and fall of Washington’s prices at the pump. For decades, Washington’s gasoline prices have been among the highest in the nation. On Wednesday, Washington’s average price for regular gas was $4.38 per gallon, compared to a national average of $3.45, according to AAA.

UW President Ana Mari Cauce announces plans to step down in 2025

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce. (Photo: University of Washington)

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce announced Wednesday that she will step down from her position in June 2025 and return to the faculty after 10 years at the helm.

Cauce has been president of the state’s largest public university since 2015 and a faculty member or administrator there since 1986. Immediately before serving as president, Cauce was the provost of the school. She also has served as the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and headed the departments of American Ethnic Studies and Psychology.

Cauce was the first woman to be named permanently to be UW president, as well as the first Latina and the first openly gay person to serve in the role. 

Cauce, who immigrated as a child from Cuba to Miami with her family, first came to UW as an assistant professor of psychology. She became interim president in 2015 after the departure of Michael K. Young. Cauce was given the top spot permanently later that year.

Cauce will step down at the end of her second five-year contract with the University of Washington. Her departure will come at the same time as Washington State University President Kirk Schulz also plans to step down. Schulz, who has headed WSU since 2016, announced his plans to depart earlier this year.

Judge rules WA tax initiatives need fiscal impact info on ballots

Voters drop off ballots at the White Center Library ballot box

Voters drop off ballots at the White Center Library ballot box on voting day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.  (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

A Thurston County judge ruled Friday that three initiatives on the November ballot must include fiscal impact statements of 10 to 15 words.

State Republicans filed a lawsuit to prevent those impact statements from being attached to measures to repeal the state’s carbon pricing system, to repeal the state’s capital gains tax, and to make participation voluntary in the new state long-term insurance care program. 

Judge Allyson Zipp ruled against the GOP request from Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, and Deanna Martinez, chairwoman of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, after hearing very technical pro and con arguments in court on Friday morning. 

Walsh and Martinez argued that, as they interpreted the requirements of a 2022 state law, the ballot initiatives don’t need fiscal statements because they don’t affect taxes and fees. The Washington attorney general’s and secretary of state’s advocates argued the intent of the law is to lean toward requiring fiscal impact statements. Zipp agreed with the state government’s arguments.

After the ruling, Walsh called Zipp’s ruling “disappointing, but not surprising.” He said no decision has been made yet whether to appeal. 

In a news release, Aaron Ostrom, executive director of FUSE Washington, said, “Their lawsuit has one inexcusable purpose: to hide the truth about the impacts of these initiatives from voters.”

“Their lawsuit is a deceptive scam to save misleading initiatives that would cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy while shifting the bill onto low and middle income families,” Ostrom wrote.  

Cascade PBS won seven awards in the 2023 Society of Professional Journalists’ Northwest Excellence in Journalism competition, including the award for General Excellence in Writing. The contest is a competitive one, as it honors the work of newsrooms across the organization’s Region 10, which consists of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Cascade PBS competes against the largest news outlets in those states, qualifying as a “large” newsroom in the audio categories and an “extra large” newsroom in the writing categories. 

Cascade PBS’s entry in the General Excellence category included a selection of 10 stories. Reporters who worked on the pieces include Brandon Block, Josh Cohen, Jordan Gass-Pooré, Lizz Giordano, Mai Hoang, Luna Reyna, James Stout and Joseph O’Sullivan. 

Here is a list of the winners from Cascade PBS in the individual categories:

  • Writing – Extra Large: General Excellence 

First Place – Cascade PBS Staff, “Cascade PBS 2023 General Excellence Entry,” Cascade PBS 

  • Writing – Extra Large: Investigative Reporting 

First Place – Farah Eltohamy, Mai Hoang, Genna Martin, “WA mobile home communities organize against ‘economic eviction’,” Cascade PBS. 

Judge’s comments: “Deeply researched and reported, this investigative report exposes weaknesses in oversight and regulation that puts the vulnerable elderly population at risk. Important work.” 

  • Audio – Large: Investigative Reporting 

First Place – Sara Bernard, Farah Eltohamy, Mai Hoang, “After a takeover, mobile home tenants are fighting back,” Cascade PBS. 

Judge’s comments: “An important story that highlights the challenges faced by some of Washington's most vulnerable residents. Terrific storytelling with great reporting. Fantastic job and keep up the good work!” 

  • Writing – Extra Large: Arts & Culture Reporting 

First Place – Margo Vansynghel, “A Seattle artist and the auction frenzy that sparked an FBI tip,” Cascade PBS. 

Judge’s comments: “This was a great way to tie a narrative about a Seattle artist to the larger issues with art plagiarism. It’s well reported and written with a great narrative structure.” 

  • Writing – Extra Large: Series 

Second Place – Joseph O’Sullivan, “Coverage of “‘Legislative Privilege’,” Cascade PBS. 

Judge’s comments: “Tremendous and important series that demonstrates investment in quality watch-dog journalism.” 

  • Audio – Large: Technology & Science Reporting 

Second Place – Sara Bernard, Brandon Block, “The gray areas of surveillance tech in WA police forces,” Cascade PBS. 

Judge’s comments: “Comprehensive and fair look at an issue most of the public is not aware of, without being alarmist. Newsrooms around the country would do well to examine this issue locally.” 

  • Photo & Design – Large: General News Photography 

Second Place – Amanda Snyder, “New mothers can stay with their babies at this Washington prison,”Cascade PBS. 

Judge’s comments: “Babies behind bars, a thought-provoking photo for every parent.”

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown declared an emergency this week to address the city’s opioid crisis. 

“We’re here today because our community is dealing with the devastating effects of fentanyl and other opioids,” Brown said during a news conference Tuesday. Other speakers included representatives from Spokane’s treatment providers and law enforcement agencies. 

The declaration will enable the city to implement several public health and safety initiatives immediately. The initiatives will focus on Second and Division streets, an area where unhoused residents and others have been severely impacted by substance use. 

The city will proceed with establishing a temporary transition center out of the Cannon Street Shelter, which it shut down last year. The center, operated under a contract with the Empire Health Foundation, will focus on providing services to unhoused residents in an encampment zone located between North Browne and North Division streets and from Interstate 90 to Sprague Avenue. The center would be the latest in an ongoing effort to clean up the area and connect unhoused residents to services under the Department of Commerce’s Right-of-Way Encampment Resolution Program. 

The city will also target “high utilizers” who cycle from the street to the emergency room to jail. The city is partnering with Consistent Care, a Spokane organization, to provide case management services for those individuals. The city is also working with Spokane Treatment and Recovery Services to increase the use of its CAR50 program, which provides transport for individuals under the influence of a substance to an appropriate medical or treatment facility. 

Under the emergency declaration, the Spokane Fire Department can now provide medical intervention for withdrawal management. The city is also working with local, state and federal agencies to address the drug market that has festered in the Division corridor. 

As part of the emergency response, the city will request additional fentanyl test strips and Narcan from the state and pursue opioid abatement strategies approved under the state’s settlement with opioid manufacturers.

Washington state opens bids for building new hybrid ferries

The Walla Walla ferry and the Kistap fast ferry pass by each other in Elliott Bay

The Walla Walla ferry and the Kitsap fast ferry pass each other in Elliott Bay, Feb. 13, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Washington State Ferries is inviting companies to express interest in building five new hybrid diesel/electric ferries. 

The bid process, announced Monday, is the latest step toward getting two new ferries running in Puget Sound by 2028, two more by 2029 and a fifth by 2030, said Steve Nevey, the Washington Department of Transportation’s assistant secretary for the ferry system.

Some politicians, including the Republican candidates for governor, have called for replacing the first two hybrid ferries with diesel-only vessels, predicting that diesel ferries can be finished quicker. But state officials say at this point, hybrid ferries can be built faster

“This hybrid electric design is the quickest path,” Nevey said.

Sources for the diesel engines and for some electrical systems that were used for the previous round of new ferries in 2014-2018 have gone out of business, so switching back to diesel ferries would require finding new manufacturers and doing new design work. “We’d have to start all over again,” said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, the Washington House’s   transportation leader.

“Ship design is a lengthy and complex process,” Nevey added. 

The invitation for bids will gauge potential interest in building the hybrid ferries. The state expects at least 10 bidders nationwide to study whether they want to bid on Washington contracts. The WSF aims to have one or two shipbuilding companies contracted in 2025 to build the five hybrid ferries.

The ferry system is struggling to keep 10 routes that criss-cross Puget Sound fully functional. The system requires 19 vessels during its peak usage period and 17 during the off-season. With some ferries being maintained or under repair, the fleet usually has 16 to 18 vessels in service at a time. WSF aims to expand that to 21 to 26 vessels by 2040, 22 of which would be hybrid diesel/electric, to reduce the fleet’s carbon footprint by 76%.

After contracts are awarded in 2025, the ferry system expects the design work to take one year and construction to take two years.

The ferry system is seeking to replace its second-largest vessel — capacity 144 vehicles — with a model capable of handling 164 standard cars. The hybrid vessel — capable of a top speed of 17 knots — would be faster, lighter and more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, he added.

Can a tax not be a tax? WA ballot measure backers ask in court

An oil refinery, and its reflection in a puddle.

The U.S. Oil & Refining Co. in Tacoma has been in operation since 1957. A ballot measure in November would repeal the state’s cap-and-invest program, in place since 2023. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

After two years of contending that the Washington cap-and-invest program is a tax, Republican  leaders are arguing in court that it and two other taxes being challenged on the ballot this fall are not taxes.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, and Deanna Martinez, chair of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, have filed a lawsuit arguing that the Attorney General’s office does not need to write fiscal impact statements for the voter pamphlet for three initiatives that would strike down or change recent state laws on long-term care insurance, a capital gains tax and the cap-and-invest program, arguing that these are not technically taxes and fees.

A hearing on the case in Thurston County Superior Court is scheduled for June 7.

A 2022 state law requires the Washington Attorney General’s Office to write a statement of up to 15 words on the state’s voters’ pamphlet about the fiscal impacts of an initiative that affects a tax or fee.

Walsh, also chairman of the state Republican Party, filed the three initiatives that qualified for November’s ballot. Democrats opposed all three initiatives.

“Our friends outsmarted themselves,” said Walsh in a Monday press release. “They were very specific when they passed the [2022] warning-label law. But they were so specific that the law doesn’t apply to any of the initiatives that go before voters this year. The case is so clear-cut I am surprised we have to take this to court.”

In the same press release, Martinez said: “People trust the voters’ pamphlet as an objective source of information. They aren’t expecting a partisan political attack that masquerades as a neutral financial statement.” 

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office submitted a response to the lawsuit arguing that all three initiatives address taxes and fees.

“This lawsuit is a meritless attempt to deny voters information. … All three [initiatives] repeal or modify taxes or fees, and all three have significant fiscal impacts. Under state law, the public has a right to have those fiscal impacts described on the ballot. This Court should reject Plaintiffs’ cynical attempt to keep voters in the dark,” the attorney general’s filing argued.

Initiative 2117 would repeal the state’s cap-and-invest program, which began operating in January 2023. Critics blame the program for rising gas prices. Supporters argue that it provides a huge amount of money for green-energy programs that decrease dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate environmental damage.

Initiative 2109 would repeal Washington’s capital gains tax, which pumps money into the state’s schools. The Republican filers argue that since the Legislature passed an initiative to the body this spring to ban a state income tax, the capital gains tax has no fiscal impact, therefore no fiscal impact statement from the attorney general is required. Before Walsh’s lawsuit, Republicans have always argued that a capital gains tax is an income tax not allowed by state law. But the Washington Supreme Court rejected that argument, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the challenge.

The third initiative, I-2124, would switch the new state requirement for all W-2 employees to contribute to a new long-term insurance care program from mandatory to voluntary participation. The plaintiffs’ argument is that these insurance payments are premiums and not payroll taxes.

Ferguson’s filing argued that the cap-and-invest surcharges are fees, and therefore covered by the warning-label law. On the initiative to change the long-term care insurance, the attorney general’s office said that the 2019 law that established the basic program said the employees’ payments are taxes or fees. 

The attorney general also argued that the GOP lawsuit is misreading the texts of the income tax initiative passed this spring and of the state’s capital gains tax law.

“Because the capital gains tax has not been repealed, and because I-2109 would repeal it and would cut billions of dollars in education funding, that measure must have a public investment impact disclosure statement,” the attorney general’s court filing said.

Cascade PBS wins two regional Emmys for Mossback, Human Elements

Cascade PBS team poses with Emmy statues after win

Cascade PBS' David Lee, Alegra Figeroid, Michael McClinton, Sarah Hoffman, Resti Bagcal and Tifa Tomb celebrate two Emmy wins. (Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences)

The 2023 Northwest Regional Emmy Awards were held on Saturday, and the Cascade PBS Original Productions team came away with some hardware. Cascade PBS won two awards from the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences after being nominated for a total of seven. 

The episode “The Range Rider" from season 3 of Human Elements won in its category, Environment/Science – Short Form Content. It was the first Emmy for the series and for senior producer Sarah Hoffman, director of Human Elements. 

“I am so thankful the hard work of this series was recognized. Human Elements has given us a rare opportunity to share intimate stories that authentically represent our community,” Hoffman said. “On our small team we’ve created a space where we can be creative and where each of us brings unique perspectives to continually elevate the series.”  

Mossback’s Northwest won in the category of Historical/Cultural – Short Form Content, making this the second Emmy award for the series. The winning episode chronicles a historic event when German saboteurs blew up a ship in Elliott Bay.  

“Being able to tell this story about such an important event in Seattle just before World War I with this amazing team has been the real win. The Emmy is icing on the cake,” says director and senior producer Michael McClinton. 

The other nominations for Cascade PBS included episodes of Nick on the Rocks, Black Arts Legacies, Mossback’s Northwest, as well as craft nominations for Sarah Hoffman and Bryce Yukio Adolphson for Photographer and David Quantic for Editor. 

Catch up on all our original video series online and on the Cascade PBS app.