WA lawmakers approve union bargaining rules for legislative staff

People sitting in a balcony observe a gallery below where others sit at desks.

People watch House floor proceedings from the gallery on Jan. 8, the first day of the 2024 legislative session, at the Washington state Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson) 

Lawmakers came to a late-session agreement on Senate Bill 6194 to outline collective bargaining rights for legislative staffers just before adjourning Thursday.

In 2022, the Legislature lifted the state’s prohibition on the unionization of legislative staffers, allowing them to begin organizing in May 2024. Before May, legislators intended to pass a second bill to outline what unions could negotiate over and the composition of bargaining units.

The initial bill to clarify those issues drew criticism from current and former legislative staffers over limiting the power of any future union by prohibiting bargaining over the hiring or firing of employees, as well as over hours worked. 

Amendments in the House and Senate addressed some of those concerns, allowing bargaining over at-will status — except for when there’s a change due to an election, appointment or resignation of a legislator. The final bill also permitted future unions to negotiate overtime when the legislature is not in session, in the run-up or immediately after a term. 

WA bill to offer unemployment pay to striking workers falls short

A person marches with a snare drum and picket sign, leading a handful of workers on strike.

A group of Homegrown workers walk the picket line outside the Westfield Southcenter mall in late January. (Lizz Giordano/Cascade PBS)

A bill to extend unemployment benefits to striking workers failed to pass the Washington Legislature before a key deadline last week. The House approved House Bill 1893 in mid-February, but the legislation hit a roadblock in the Senate and never made it to the floor for a vote.   

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee, told the Washington State Standard the bill had come really close to passing. 

“It was a big, new idea and it was a short session,” Keiser said. “I think there was a caution and a reluctance. A lot of people were just not comfortable taking on a big, new idea in a short session.”

Supporters of the bill said it would help level the playing field between workers and employers who refuse to negotiate fairly with their workforce. Opponents said the legislation could increase business costs or prolong work stoppages.

The state’s Employment Security Department projected the bill would increase unemployment benefit payouts, on the high end, by less than 1%.

WA lawmakers pass bill to curb seizures of child support payments

family in living room

Amy Roark, center, and two of her children, GracieLynn Rich (left) and Kayden Wake (right), at her home in Vancouver, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. For several years, while Roark was on TANF, the state intercepted thousands in child support payments meant for her children. Now she’s off TANF but still struggling after the loss of that money. (Kristina Barker for Cascade PBS)

A bill to curtail the state’s practice of intercepting child support payments from families who receive cash benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is slated to become law after receiving final approval from Washington’s state Legislature on Tuesday.

Washington took $41 million intended for the parents of impoverished children in 2022, under a long-standing but little-known practice authorized by federal law. Cascade PBS recently found broad bipartisan opposition to the policy, which some officials described as a tax on poor families. 

“Families receiving child support and state benefits such as TANF need every dollar to meet their basic needs,” bill sponsor Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, wrote in an email to Cascade PBS.

Under current policy, parents on welfare can receive just $50 per month of the payments meant to support their children, or up to $100 if they have multiple children. The new policy will “pass through” the entirety of those monthly payments to families, although the state can still seize back-owed debt.

HB 1652 will not take effect until 2026, due to an amendment introduced by a Senate committee at the request of the Department of Social and Health Services, which manages both child support and TANF. A DSHS spokesperson wrote in an email to lawmakers that the agency needed extra time to perform IT upgrades.

The bill unanimously cleared the Senate last week and now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk after the House accepted the Senate’s amended timeframe. Taylor initially pushed back on that delay request, but told Cascade PBS on Friday that she would urge her House colleagues to vote yes.

“While my wish would be to start giving families relief as soon as possible, I will be accepting the Senate’s amendment to ensure that this bill makes it to the Governor for signature this session,” Taylor wrote.

Washington currently splits the proceeds from child support collections with the federal government. A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates that stopping much of those collections will cost the state about $15 million per year.

Updated with concurrence approval in the House at 3:20 p.m. on March 5, 2024.

WA bill would make it harder to shut down public libraries

A library shelf's tag for LGBTQ+ books is prominently displayed.

A library tag shows where the books about LGBTQ+ topics are shelved at the Olympia Timberland Library on February 26, 2024. (Scarlet Hansen/Crosscut) 

State lawmakers are considering making it harder to shut down public libraries, after at least one attempt last year to close a rural library district in Eastern Washington. Senate Bill 5824 aims to address growing censorship and book bannings by requiring a larger percentage of voters to call for the dissolution of a library district and ensuring that all voters served by the library can weigh in.

In 2023, a group in Columbia County tried to close a rural library district after it refused to remove LGBTQ+ books.

A library district, which generally provides library services to areas outside incorporated towns and cities, can currently be shut down if a petition to put this proposal on a ballot is signed by at least 10% of voters outside of unincorporated cities and towns, and if the majority of voters pass the measure. In Columbia County’s case, the library district also provided service to the people within the city limits of Dayton, where the library was located. 

Elise Severe, the Chair of Neighbors United for Progress, which challenged the petition to dissolve the Columbia County Rural Library District, told a Senate State Government and Elections public hearing earlier this year that two-thirds of the Columbia County library taxpayers wouldn’t have been able to vote on the matter because they lived in incorporated cities and thus were excluded. Severe said her organization went to court and convinced a judge to block the ballot measure.

State Rep. Leonard Christian, R-Spokane Valley, made a similar point. “I think we had a tea party a few hundred years ago about taxation without representation and I think we’re in the same situation here,” Christian said in support of the bill at a House State Government and Tribal Relations executive session on Feb. 21.

The bill would increase the percentage of voter signatures needed to file a petition to dissolve a library district from 10% of voters outside of incorporated towns and cities to 25% of all eligible voters served by the library district. Proponents say this will ensure that those who use libraries can have a voice when it comes to dissolution.

The bill would also make it harder to shut down city, county and town libraries by changing the number of signatures required to file a petition to dissolve a library from 100 taxpayers to 25% of qualified voters.

“We don’t want to be a leader in closing down libraries and banning books,” said prime sponsor Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia. 

The bill overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the Legislature, but heads back to the Senate for another vote because of an amendment made in the House. If the amendment is approved, the bill would head to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk to be signed into law.

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.

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. 

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. 

Swifties hope their cruel summer leads to WA concert ticket laws

Taylor Swift smiles with her signature red lipstick

Taylor Swift arrives at the October 11 world premiere in Los Angeles of the concert film “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.” Washington’s House Consumer Protection & Business Committee passed the TSWIFT Consumer Protection Act on Friday morning. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

A Taylor Swift-inspired deceptive ticket sale bill passed out of the House Consumer Protection & Business Committee Friday morning.

House Bill 1648, or the “TSWIFT Consumer Protection Act,” follows the Ticketmaster meltdown fans experienced when trying to buy presale tickets to pop star Taylor Swift’s Seattle concerts on the Eras Tour.

The House Appropriations Committee will now consider the proposal to reduce ticket sale fees for concerts, sporting events, theatrical performances and more, following the fervor and failure of last summer’s concert season. The bill was previously introduced in the 2023 session but did not pass.

The proposed bill states: “Concert fans were frustrated at the ‘nightmare dressed like a daydream’ when trying to get access to their favorite artist’s live events. When fans felt the ticket sales industry created ‘bad blood’ with consumers, they refused to be told ‘you need to calm down.’ The legislature believes ticket sellers should be ‘fearless’ in providing integrity, fairness, and transparency with consumers, and therefore, the legislature refuses to ‘shake it off.’” 

Sponsored by Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way, the bill aims to tackle hidden fees and dynamic pricing, in which prices fluctuate based on demand; clearly establish a refund policy if an event is cancelled; ban non-transferrable or speculative ticket sales; propose limits on ticket resellers, and ban using bots or software to buy tickets. 

Ticket sellers would also be required to obtain a state license, with an exception for  individuals selling tickets purchased for personal use. The bill would not apply to schools and universities, nonprofit cultural institutions or movie theater tickets. 

“I committed to my constituents in the community that I would not ‘shake it off’ and that we would continue to do this work until we were able to resolve ticket sales in Washington,” said Rep. Reeves when reintroducing the bill at a House Consumer, Protection & Business hearing on Jan. 16. 

A coalition of musicians and music groups, including SAG-AFTRA, Songwriters of North America and Washington-based artist Mount Eerie, have spoken out in opposition to the bill, claiming the current proposal does not effectively ban speculative ticketing and that it would deny artists the right to protect fans by ensuring tickets are not sold higher than the intended price.

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.”

WA lawmakers argue for more transparency in utility bills

gas pump in car

Republican lawmakers say the new cap and trade system is leading to higher prices at the pump, like this one in Englewood, Colo., shown in a July 2023 photo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Washington lawmakers are considering a proposal to require gas and electric utilities to tell customers if they are passing along pollution auction costs to their consumers. 

The Washington Senate Energy & Environment Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on Senate Bill 5826, in response to a debate about whether utility customers should see cap-and-invest program expenses on their invoices. 

Sen. Drew MacEwen, R-Shelton, proposed the bill after the state Attorney General’s Office told the Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission that more discussion was needed before mandating that cap-and-invest costs be listed on consumer utility bills. Critics of the state’s new carbon pricing system have accused the Attorney General’s Office of deliberately hiding those costs.

In a July 3, 2023, letter to the utilities commission, the Attorney General’s Office argued “If all program-specific charges were included as line items, customer bills would quickly become incomprehensible.” The office called for a more public discussion before including the information on bills.

“What’s the fear in being transparent?” MacEwen said after Wednesday’s hearing. Attorney General Bob Ferguson enforces transparency “when it is convenient and not when it criticizes the administration.”

Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office, responded with an emailed statement: “This was a public comment calling for more discussion. We are not aware of any allegation of unlawful conduct by any party. If Sen. McEwen would like to tell us who he thinks broke the law, we can look into it. He has not done so.” 

The state’s cap-and-invest program — in which oil companies and other polluting businesses and utilities bid on state allowances for their carbon emissions — has been connected by some to increased gas prices at the pump, because they believe oil companies are passing their auction costs along. 

“People need to know what the charges are,” Todd Myers, environment policy director for the think tank Washington Policy Center, told the Senate committee on Wednesday.

Puget Sound Energy, the Association of Washington Business, the Northwest Gas Association and Pullman-based Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories echoed that point of view.

Committee chairman Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, and Sen. Yasmine Trudeau, D-Tacoma, said utility costs and prices are difficult to separate into components and pin down because of the economic complexities of the power and fuel industries.