The Washington Legislature on Tuesday will convene a special session intended to reach a compromise on how the state should treat drug possession and substance use.
Called by Gov. Jay Inslee, the 30-day session comes after legislators failed to approve a proposed compromise for a new drug possession law to replace a temporary statute that is set to expire July 1. While they have 30 days to finish, they may adjourn sooner.
The work comes in response to a 2021 ruling by the Washington Supreme Court – known as the Blake decision – which struck down the state’s felony drug possession statute and invalidated a generation of criminal convictions and related penalties. Since then, legislators have tried to navigate a political landscape fractured over whether and how drug possession should be penalized, and how to boost treatment services for substance use.
That effort collapsed late last month at the end of the regularly scheduled legislative session, when the Democratic-controlled House failed to approve a proposed compromise, Senate Bill 5536.
As part of their attempts to get at a solution, lawmakers and Inslee have already budgeted more than $600 million in new statewide funding for treatment facilities and other behavioral health services, according to the governor’s office.
Lawmakers could wrap up the 30-day special session early if they reach a deal quickly, according to a statement earlier this month by the governor’s office.
“My office and I have been meeting with legislators from all four caucuses and I am very optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chambers,” said Inslee in prepared remarks. “Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that.”
Washington experienced 1,733 overdose deaths in 2020, according to federal government data. That’s an increase of almost 60% from the 1,094 such fatalities statewide in 2015.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government is suing the state of Washington over lawmakers’ claims that they have a right to a so-called “legislative privilege” that allows them to withhold public records.
The lawsuit argues the state and various lawmakers have violated the 1972 voter-approved Public Records Act by redacting and withholding records under a legislative privilege that does not exist in state law or the Washington Constitution.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit advocate for government transparency, advocates for public records, open meetings and informed citizens. The organization is made up of journalists, attorneys and other advocates of government transparency, including some elected officials.
The lawsuit mentions lawmakers by name, including House Speaker Laurie Jenkins, D-Tacoma. It offers examples of instances when lawmakers mentioned legislative privilege when they redacted or withheld records, and notes that the Public Records Act does not contain a legislative privilege exemption. The lawsuit notes that language isn’t contained in other Washington statutes, nor has it been included in any affirmative court rulings.
In 2019, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that legislative emails, texts, memos and other communications are disclosable as part of the Public Records Act. This year’s legislative session began in January with revelations that lawmakers have been quietly blacking out documents and continuing to claim legislative privilege.
Washington state House Republicans have selected Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, to become their minority leader.
First elected in 2014 from the 31st Legislative District, Stokesbary is the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, which deals with spending and budget matters. He takes over from Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a Republican from Yelm who announced on Sunday he would step down from leadership.
“As a lifelong Washingtonian, I know the incredible potential of our state, but too many of our challenges have been exacerbated by single-party control," said Stokesbary in prepared remarks. "I'm proud that House Republicans are fighting for real solutions to the critical issues affecting our state, including public safety, student performance and tax relief.
In addition, Rep. Mike Steele, R-Chelan, was selected deputy Republican leader. First elected in 2016, he takes over the position from longtime Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. Steele is currently the ranking Republican on the House Capital Budget Committee.
Democrats currently control the House 58-40.