As 147 lawmakers stream in from near and far, they are expected to focus on Washington’s long-simmering crises: homelessness, housing affordability, the mental health system, education funding and keeping state workers happy, among others.
And here too, the pandemic has left its mark. Students who lost time in classrooms are dealing with learning loss. The virus that caused deaths and long illnesses, job losses, societal upheaval and the Great Resignation has spawned a worker shortage that lawmakers are calling a serious problem.
Mental facilities and substance-abuse treatment centers lack nurses and other staff. Police departments and county sheriffs can’t find officers. The state ferry system has cut its schedule because it has been shorthanded.
"If you look at law enforcement, we have a workforce issue; if you look at health care, we have a workforce issue; if you look at early learning, we have a workforce issue," Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said Thursday in an annual legislative preview sponsored by the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington State Association of Broadcasters. It’s one issue expected to be taken up in both the new budget and in other proposals.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic lawmakers are feeling good after the midterm elections, which some feared would result in diminished majorities for Democrats in the House and Senate. Instead, the party managed to increase its margins in each chamber by one lawmaker. Democrats now control the House 58-40 and the Senate 29-20.
Lawmakers will consider some novel ideas this session. Inslee has introduced a budget that includes a $4 billion bond package to go toward the construction of affordable housing. If approved by legislators, that idea would go before voters in November.
This legislative session also comes amid reports that state lawmakers are using a new concept to shield the disclosure of some of their documents. The fresh tactic arrives just a few years after the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers had violated Washington’s 1972 voter-approved disclosure laws by claiming to be exempt from them.
At the same time, the House and Senate are seeing generational turnover. An influx of brand-new lawmakers – many younger and more diverse than their predecessors – will take up the work of the institution that for generations was overwhelmingly white and often older. Those dynamics were highlighted last year when two relatively new Democratic House lawmakers of color opted not to run for reelection, and spoke of some of the difficulties in trying to change the institution.
Now, new members like Rep. Sharlett Mena, D-Tacoma, are set to enter the stage and make their own mark. Mena, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and a staffer at the state Department of Ecology, has already filed bills that would update Washington’s Voting Rights Act and reduce pollution from plastics.
“We are coming in eyes wide open that this institution was not necessarily built with us in mind,” she said, referencing the incoming lawmakers.
Budget and housing
Inslee last month proposed a new $70 billion two-year state operating budget. That spending document channels dollars to everything from schools and prisons to the foster-care and mental health systems, public lands and more. To fund his proposed increase, the governor uses $6 billion in projected new revenue from existing taxes. The proposal doesn’t include any new tax increases.
As part of his budget proposal, Inslee wants to put a package before voters to spur affordable-housing construction.
If Democratic leaders in the House and Senate advance that referendum, it would go on the November ballot. If voters pass it, Washington state could raise $4 billion above its official debt limit during the next six years by issuing bonds to boost affordable housing construction and address homelessness.
“It is not throwing money over the transom, it is making an investment that actually produces an asset,” Inslee said at the legislative preview, adding later: “This proposal will get something long-term for Washingtonians, which is increasing housing.”
But the governor doesn’t get the last word. Democratic budget writers in the House and Senate will release their own spending plans in the coming months. Republicans, consigned to the minority, will try to get some of their ideas included as well.
The housing debate will be in the mix all the way. Republicans have favored loosening permitting to spur construction in the private sector, and have remained skeptical about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Legislature has already poured into affordable-housing programs in recent years.
“We’ve had enormous investments over the last several [budget] cycles of affordable housing, that’s not necessarily bad,” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia. “But if you do the math, they can’t solve the problem. You can’t build enough houses that way to get after the 250,000- or 300,000-home deficit that we have. “We have to empower the private sector.”
Democratic leaders expressed support for more government-funded housing. Washington is also expected to need over 1 million new housing units across the state in the next two decades for future growth, said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.
“Over 50% are for low-income or for very-low income people,” Jinkins said. “That is building construction that the private sector has never been able to make pencil out, any way at all.”
Democrats have resisted using increased revenues over the years for broad-based tax relief. Republicans are again calling for cutting taxes, amid rising costs for food, gasoline and shelter.
"The cost of food, of gas, of housing, of child care, are frankly unaffordable for many Washingtonians today," Braun said. "And even if they could afford it six months ago just barely, today they probably can't, because of inflation. They probably got a raise in there, they still can't afford it, they're living on credit. This is a real problem."
For many years of the previous decade, the task of fully paying the cost of running the state’s K-12 schools dominated legislative sessions and budget talks in Olympia. That came after a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling – the McCleary decision – found the Washington Legislature in violation of the state constitution for underfunding schools.
After a few years of focusing on other topics, legislative leaders and the governor are again raising concerns about education funding.
The reemergence of the issue comes amid a handful of funding issues that have lingered – such as providing for special education.
But the pandemic kicked the issue into overdrive, as Inslee ordered schools to be closed to in-person learning as part of the state’s response to the virus. The isolation of remote learning has also hurt students’ mental health, officials have said.
A district-by-district analysis by researchers found the average pupil in the United States lost over half a school year in math and nearly a quarter of a school year in reading, according to a report by The Associated Press. That included students in a host of school districts across Washington state, according to the report.
This year, Inslee’s proposed budget contains roughly $2 billion in new K-12 spending. That includes nearly $1 billion for increases in school worker salaries, intended to keep salaries competitive and to recruit and retain staff, according to the proposal. Another $314 million in the proposal would boost the numbers of K-12 school nurses, psychologists, social workers and counselors.
The two Senate leaders – both of whom worked years ago on the Legislature’s McCleary school-funding fix – raised the need for a focus on education. Senate Majority Leader Billig said a big focus will be early learning programs and special education and an increase in nurses, counselors and other staff.
Many conservatives opposed the closure of schools during the pandemic, and Braun on Thursday called for lawmakers to focus on helping students make up lost ground.
“There’s both an immediate problem with learning loss, and there’s a long-term structural funding problem that we’re falling behind on yet again,” said the Senate minority leader.
Illegal drugs and treatment
Perhaps the most difficult task for lawmakers this year is coming to an agreement on how society and the legal system treats possession of illegal drugs.
The question comes in the wake of a February 2021 state Supreme Court order known as the Blake decision. That ruling struck down Washington’s felony drug possession statute, invalidating decades’ worth of criminal convictions and accompanying legal financial obligations like restitution.
In the wake of the Blake decision, legislators and Inslee approved a law that year making unlawful possession of a drug a misdemeanor crime upon a third violation. As part of that, officers are supposed to give voluntary treatment options for the first two violations.
With conservative Republicans in the minority seeking a return to harsher punishment and progressive Democrats seeking a broader decriminalization of drugs, the 2021 law was a stopgap measure. And it sunsets in July 2023, pushing lawmakers to act this legislative session.
At the heart of this year’s debate is how to give substance-abuse treatment to people who won’t voluntarily accept it, without employing the penalties of a legal criminal system. That same system in prior years has also made life harder for people living on the economic edge, as a felony conviction can make it harder to get jobs and housing, among other things.
A push remains to decriminalize drugs, as Oregon voters did for possession of small amounts in 2020, but even wide Democratic majorities may not have the votes needed to pass such a law.
“I’m just telling you, I don’t believe there’s votes on that,” Braun, the Republican Senate leader, said Friday after the legislative preview. “And that’s not what the public wants.”
“They don’t want a war on drugs, but they also don’t want a free-for-all,” he added.
Lawmakers in both parties want to find ways to get individuals the drug treatment they need. But here too, the lack of trained workers is slowing things down, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
"We knew if we threw $200 million at the problem, it wouldn't get solved, because there's not a workforce," Rolfes said, adding later: "The workforce is the bottleneck in the opioid treatment, the drug treatment world."
This year, lawmakers will be looking at ideas like tuition assistance or student loan forgiveness for treatment staff, said Rolfes.
The divide on public safety is more pronounced. Many Republicans – along with some law enforcement groups – have criticized some of the changes to policing made after the deaths in 2020 of citizens at the hands of law enforcement. That movement gained mass appeal after the death of George Floyd that year in Minneapolis, Manuel Ellis in Tacoma, and others.
Conservative lawmakers are still pushing to lift some restrictions that were put in place in 2021 concerning law enforcement vehicle pursuits.
Democratic lawmakers meanwhile have laid out an ambitious new package of firearms regulations, which they’re seeking in an effort to reduce gun violence.
That includes legislation to create a permit-to-purchase system for firearms and to ban the purchase of most semiautomatic rifles.
In an interview Thursday, Inslee called the prohibition on rifles “the most visible of the gun safety proposals.”
“But the proposal to require safety training and a license to make sure you have some modest degree of safety training, I actually believe … is the most important of the bills we’re going to consider,” he said.
Listen to reporter Joseph O'Sullivan discuss Democratic priorities for this year's legislative session on the Crosscut Reports podcast: