Eight big things the Washington State Legislature passed in 2021

A new capital-gains tax, a slate of police accountability bills and new limits on carrying guns at protests are just a few of the things that state lawmakers approved.

Fred Thomas speaks about legislation he worked to pass, surrounded by family members of other people killed by police

Fred Thomas speaks on Sunday, April 25, 2021 about legislation he and other families of people killed by police worked to pass this year. Police shot and killed Thomas' son, Leonard Thomas, at his home in Fife in 2013. Leonard Thomas was unarmed at the time and died in front of his young son. Other family members of people killed by police joined Thomas at this press conference in Olympia. (Melissa Santos/Crosscut)

Washington’s Legislature adjourned Sunday after passing a new, two-year $59 billion budget that invests in child care and the state’s public health system.

Over the course of state lawmakers’ 105-day session, though, that wasn’t the only thing they accomplished. 

They also approved new police accountability bills, made major changes to the state’s tax code and responded to a recent court ruling that legalized drug possession.

Other newly approved measures aim to curb greenhouse gas emissions and fight the effects of climate change.

Here’s a look at some of the most significant policies Washington’s Legislature advanced this year. You can also check our bill tracker about the status of other individual bills we’ve been covering.

Capital gains tax

A capital gains tax is something legislators in Olympia have been talking about for the past decade. 

But it took until 2021 for lawmakers to actually pass the policy, which affects profits from selling assets such as stocks and bonds.

Senate Bill 5096 will enact a 7% tax on capital gains that exceed $250,000 per year. Profits from selling real estate and cashing out retirement accounts are exempt.

The capital gains tax will raise about $415 million per year to go toward early learning and other education programs. The remainder will go toward school construction. 

Democratic lawmakers, who are in the majority in both chambers of Washington’s Legislature, said the policy is important to ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share. Right now, Democrats say the state’s tax code is highly regressive, meaning that poorer Washingtonians pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than the wealthy because the state depends so heavily on sales and property taxes, which have less relationship with income or wealth. Supporters of the capital gains tax say it will help correct that imbalance.

Opponents argue that taxing capital gains amounts to an unconstitutional tax on income. The tax will undoubtedly be challenged in court, which could delay its implementation. 

Working Families Tax Exemption

This tax credit is another policy that Democratic lawmakers hope will make the state’s tax code fairer. 

The Working Families Tax Exemption will provide about 420,000 low-income families in Washington state with a larger tax refund by giving back some of what they pay in sales taxes.

Individuals with no children will be able to receive up to $300 annually from the program, while families with three or more children will be able to receive up to $1,200 per year, depending on their income level. 

More details about who qualifies can be found in the staff analysis of the bill, House Bill 1297.

Police accountability bills 

Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the killing of Manuel Ellis by Tacoma police, Washington state lawmakers approved several changes to police practices. Many of the bills now headed to the governor’s desk were championed by family members of people who died at the hands of police officers.

Under House Bill 1267, a new Office of Independent Investigations will investigate all police uses of deadly force in Washington state. The agency, which will be created within the governor’s office, will begin investigating all fatal incidents starting in July 2022. It can also investigate older killings, if new evidence comes to light.

Another major police accountability bill will overhaul the process for decertifying officers. Right now, yanking an officer’s certification — the license that allows a cop to continue working as a police officer — is difficult and rarely happens. That means an officer who is fired for misconduct or excessive force in one jurisdiction can move to another place and keep working.

Senate Bill 5051 will broaden the list of offenses that can cause officers to lose their certification, so they can’t bounce between departments as easily. It also will overhaul the state agency that licenses officers, the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, by increasing the number of civilian members of the commission from two to five. The far-reaching bill would also require better retention of officers’ disciplinary records, which many departments routinely purge or wipe clean.

A third sweeping police reform bill, House Bill 1054, will regulate police tactics. The measure bars police from using chokeholds or neck restraints, while curtailing police use of military equipment. It also bans no-knock warrants, like the kind police used when entering the home of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, last year. Taylor was shot and killed by police during that encounter. HB 1054 also limits police agencies in how they can use tear gas on the public.

The fourth major bill sought by families of people killed by police was House Bill 1310, which sets new standards for police use of force. The bill would require officers to take reasonable care when using physical force, including by retreating and using de-escalation tactics, as well as using less lethal options when possible.

Other police reform measures passed this year include Senate Bill 5066, which requires officers to intervene when they see other officers using excessive force or engaging in misconduct, and Senate Bill 5259, which requires the collection of data on police uses of deadly force.  

"This is a great step forward on a long bus ride to police accountability," said Fred Thomas, whose son, Leonard Thomas, was shot and killed by a Pierce County SWAT team in 2013. Thomas and other family members of people killed by police are part of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, which worked to pass several of the police-related measures.

Police groups have been split on the bills. The Washington Fraternal Order of Police supported some of the measures, such as the new use-of-force standards, HB 1310, and the tactics bill, HB 1054.

But law enforcement groups expressed widespread concern about the decertification bill, with some saying it would place too much power in the hands of the Criminal Justice Training Commission, rather than local departments. 

Cap and trade, cleaner fuels

The final days of the 2021 legislative session brought the passage of two major bills designed to curb greenhouse gases and fight climate change.

Senate Bill 5126 establishes a cap-and-trade program that will set a statewide cap on greenhouse gas emissions — a cap that will lower over time. California and states in the Northeast have similar programs.

Meanwhile, House Bill 1091 will require cleaner fuels for cars and trucks, as part of an effort to reduce carbon emissions from transportation. California, Oregon and British Columbia have similar low-carbon fuel standards in place. 

Both measures were agreed to as part of a deal that also requires raising the gas tax to pay for transportation projects in the future. Although the details of a transportation package still need to be worked out, the cap-and-trade bill and the clean fuel standard measures will go into effect only if lawmakers approve a gas-tax hike of at least 5 cents. Inslee and other lawmakers have said they hope to continue working on a transportation package while the Legislature is not in session and reach an agreement within the next year. 

Changing penalties for drug possession

When the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision came down Feb. 25, it struck down Washington’s law criminalizing drug possession. Quickly, a bipartisan consensus emerged that the Legislature needed to respond somehow.

Lawmakers disagreed for weeks, however, over whether to reimpose criminal penalties for possessing drugs and, if they did, what those penalties should be. Under the law that was struck down by the court, drug possession was considered a felony.

In a compromise agreement reached in the final days of the session, with Senate Bill 5476, Democrats agreed to impose misdemeanor penalties for drug possession. The idea is that those penalties will remain in effect for only two years, as an advisory group convenes to review the way the legal system handles drug offenses and comes up with a plan for addressing substance abuse problems across the state.

The bill establishes that the first two times someone is arrested for possession of a controlled substance, that person should be diverted to a treatment program instead of being booked into jail. Later on, diversion is encouraged, but not mandated. 

Should someone face the misdemeanor charge and not have it diverted, the maximum penalty is 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

To support the diversion programs the bill prescribes, it also directs $88.5 million toward substance use treatment over the next two years. On top of that, it directs the state’s court to hire commissioners to help resentence people who were convicted under the old law that the state Supreme Court struck down.

Two people carry guns as they walk during a protest, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., against the counting of electoral votes in Washington, DC, affirming President-elect Joe Biden's victory. Several hundred people supporting President Donald Trump rallied at the Capitol Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Banning open carrying of guns at protests

A bill headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk will ban the open carrying of firearms at public demonstrations. Senate Bill 5038 also bans open carrying of guns on the grounds of the state Capitol in Olympia.

The bill’s approval comes after the events of Jan. 6, when rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and armed protesters breached the gates of the Washington state Governor’s Mansion in Olympia.

Supporters of the measure said the goal is to help prevent political disagreements from escalating into violence, and to prevent armed individuals from intimidating people exercising their First Amendment rights. 

“Guns and polarized politics is a bad combination,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, in February.

Opponents, however, argued the measure would infringe upon people’s Second Amendment rights to bear arms.

The bill, which Inslee is expected to sign, won’t affect the ability of people to carry concealed weapons with the proper permits. That means state lawmakers will still be allowed to carry concealed weapons on the House and Senate floors, a privilege several legislators routinely exercise.

Wildfire prevention 

For the past few years, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has urged Washington’s Legislature to put more resources toward wildfire prevention and response. She has sought money for forest management practices that could make the state less likely to burn, as well as money for additional firefighters and equipment that could help extinguish blazes when they’re small, before they devastate thousands of acres.

This year, Franz finally found success with House Bill 1168, which will devote $125 million over the next two years toward fire response and prevention. 

The bill will let the state Department of Natural Resources hire 100 additional firefighters outside of fire seasons. They will also help perform forest health treatments, such as thinning small trees and clearing brush. Those types of treatments help prevent fires from spreading and can stop them from burning as intensely.

The money tied to HB 1168 will also allow the state to buy two new fixed-wing planes to help fight fires, as well as upgrade older, Vietnam-era firefighting aircraft so they can operate at night, Franz said.

“The more resources you have at the time the fire hits, the more you are able to get on them quickly and put them out,” Franz said in an interview Sunday.

While the state has tried to call on other states — and even countries such as Australia — to provide extra firefighting resources in recent years, those states and countries too often have been tied up fighting wildfires of their own, Franz said.

Money tied to HB 1168 will also go toward helping homeowners make their property more resilient to fire, helping prevent some of the destruction seen in recent years. In 2020, nearly the entire Eastern Washington town of Malden was destroyed by wildfire. That’s the type of tragedy Franz said she hopes the new legislation will help prevent in the future.

A new statue of Billy Frank, Jr.

Since 1953, a statue of missionary Marcus Whitman has represented Washington state in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. 

Going forward, however, that statue will be replaced with one of Billy Frank Jr. of the Nisqually Tribe. During the 1960s and 1970s, Frank organized “fish ins,” in which citizens of Washington’s tribes exercised their rights to fish in their usual and accustomed places. These fish-in demonstrations often led to Frank and other tribal members being arrested, and paved the way for a court ruling that forced Washington state to honor its treaties with federally recognized tribes.

That 1974 decision, by Judge George Boldt, upheld tribal members’ rights to fish as they had for generations, long before white settlers arrived in Washington state. 

Frank, who died in 2014, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2015.

The Legislature’s vote on House Bill 1372 starts the process for removing the Whitman statue from the U.S. Capitol and erecting one of Frank in its place. The Whitman statue will then be returned to Washington state. 

During a March 8 floor debate, state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, the bill’s sponsor, said the statue of Whitman should be brought home and honored as one might honor an elder or revered ancestor.

At the same time, Lekanoff, who is Tlingit and Aleut, said it was important to also honor others who have made significant historical contributions.

“This new rising up of a new statue in the National Statuary Hall of Billy Frank Jr. is an opportunity that reflects the new history,” said Lekanoff, D-Bow.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.