Rifle ban, housing bills and more advance in the WA Legislature

At the midpoint of the 2023 legislative session, here are the winners and losers so far.

A picture of the dome of the Capitol building in Olympia, Washington.

The Washington State Capitol in Olympia on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

UPDATE: View our Bill Tracker to stay up to date on the 2023 WA Legislative Session. 

Housing, firearms and drug-possession laws have all kept Washington lawmakers busy during the first half of the 2023 legislative session, with some surprising results so far.

Washington may soon do away with some single-family zoning in cities to push back against the deepening housing-affordability crisis.

The House has passed a ban on the sale of many semiautomatic rifles, in a historic first for advocates of tighter firearms restrictions. 

And the Democratic-controlled Senate advanced controversial proposals to reshape Washington’s drug-possession law and ease restrictions on when law enforcement can engage in vehicle pursuits.

Washington’s 105-day scheduled legislative session is just past its midpoint, with a lot of big proposals in play. These and other big-ticket bills have survived a trio of deadlines that put them on a path toward Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.


2023 Bill Tracker

That third key deadline passed on Wednesday, which required bills to pass off the House or Senate floor so they could start getting committee hearings in the opposite chamber.

Much could still go wrong for the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and some ambitious progressive proposals have already fallen by the wayside. 

Republicans in the minority meanwhile cheered Wednesday’s passage of Senate Bill 5352, a bipartisan bill to ease restrictions around law enforcement vehicle pursuits, and of Senate Bill 5536, which would create a gross misdemeanor penalty for drug possession but also provide options for substance-use treatment.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, cited those two bills, saying “When it comes to public safety, I feel pretty good.”

“Neither of these bills are exactly the form we, the Republican Senate caucus, would like to see,” Braun said Thursday in a news conference. “But we are committed to supporting the legislative process and provide votes to keep them moving, keep them in play.”

Democrats have been under pressure to advance the police-pursuit bill to tweak laws they passed after the killings by police in 2020 of George Floyd, Manuel Ellis and other unarmed people of color. Republicans campaigned extensively on crime last year, and several policing organizations have criticized restrictions on vehicle pursuits.

Former state Rep. Jesse Johnson, a Democrat from Federal Way who wrote the 2021 bill on policing tactics that restricted vehicle pursuits, said he doesn’t support SB 5352.

“The main concern I have is that we're trying to change legislation without solid evidence,” said Johnson, who opted not to run for reelection last year. Law enforcement officials have said the pursuit law has made it difficult to do their jobs.

“Pursuits has been kind of [a] scapegoat for 'Crime is up,'" he added. "I hear that a lot."

For a complete list of bills Crosscut has been watching, visit our bill tracker.


Housing density and affordability

Among the most consequential measures still in play is House Bill 1110, intended to spur construction of duplexes, triplexes and other multifamily housing units in cities as a way to boost both density and housing stock.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, worked on another “missing middle” housing bill last year, which didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote. But on Monday, HB 1110 passed the House 75-21.

“We’re between 140,000-250,000 homes short of what Washington families need right now, and we’ll need to build a million more over the next 20 years,” Bateman said in a statement. “When first-time homebuyers can only afford a home in three of our counties, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t working.

Lawmakers also passed by a wide margin House Bill 1245, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, which is intended to make it easier to split lots within cities.

“It's a simple solution where someone owning a larger lot can split and sell a portion of that lot to allow for the development of another housing unit,” Barkis said in a statement. “Splitting of residential lots will allow for the creation of more homes, smaller homes, less-expensive homes, and intergenerational wealth.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, praised the progress on those and other housing bills intended to ease skyrocketing housing prices across the state.

“This is a good year for housing, after two or three bad sessions,” Wilcox said Thursday during a news conference. “This time I think that both sides had committed to getting bills out that would expand buildable space.”

Even Inslee’s ambitious $4 billion housing-construction bond proposal – which if approved would go before voters this November – remains in play, according to Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma. If passed by the House and Senate, voters would decide whether Washington could raise $4 billion above its official debt limit over the next six years by issuing bonds to increase affordable-housing construction and confront homelessness.

Inslee’s proposal initially got a cool reception at the Legislature. But in a question-and-answer session with reporters last week, Jinkins said the governor’s proposal is "rising as a preferred option.”

“In part because when you start to think about what the options for funding housing in a really big way are, there's a limited number of things,” Jinkins said. There remain a lot of details to work through if it were to move through the Legislature, Jinkins added. And if the bond proposal advances: “The House will put its mark on that proposal.”


Firearms proposals

Lawmakers Wednesday night approved House Bill 1240, which would bar the distribution and sale of AR-style assault rifles. The proposal includes a series of guidelines about what types of rifles would be prohibited, including a list of specific models subject to the ban. HB 1240 wouldn’t ban possession of such weapons by those who currently own them, and some small-caliber semiautomatic rifles may still be sold in the state.

It passed 55-42 largely along party lines, with a handful of Democrats voting against after an hours-long floor debate.

“We do not have to continue to tolerate these weapons of war in our community,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, a sponsor of this year’s bill. “This is not a ban on possession, nor is it a ban on personal protection. This policy acknowledges the data and reduces the risk of harm our communities face with a policy we know will be effective in saving lives.”

Republicans have lambasted the rifle ban and other proposals as poorly written, limiting people’s ability to defend themselves. They have also claimed it could be unconstitutional, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on firearms known as the Bruen decision.

“I am going to thoroughly enjoy seeing this get overturned in court,” said Rep. Joel McIntire, R- Cathlamet, during the floor debate.

The rifle ban is one of three consequential firearms proposals still in play.

On Tuesday night, House lawmakers approved House Bill 1143. That bill was originally intended to create a permitting process for buying a firearm, which included being fingerprinted by law enforcement. Lawmakers revised that bill, narrowing it down to focus mainly on one of its other provisions: that when they go to purchase a gun, buyers must produce a certificate from a certified firearm-safety training class. That modified version passed 55-42.

And last week, Senate lawmakers approved Senate Bill 5078. It would mandate that the firearm industry take precautions to ensure they aren’t selling to firearms traffickers or straw buyers – people who purchase guns for others. Among other things, the bill would allow lawsuits to be brought against the gun industry by individuals who have suffered harm.


Other bills making progress

Interstate sale of cannabis: Senate Bill 5069 would allow Washington to enter marijuana import/export compacts with other states immediately after Congress gives the green light. The bill passed out of the Senate on March 1 and is now being considered by the House Regulated Substances & Gaming Committee. If the federal change happens before the Legislature acts, Washington could have to wait months until the Legislature meets again to vote to allow interstate compacts.

Access to higher education: The Legislature is considering four bills this session to expand access to education programs that could enable nearly every student to earn college credit while in high school. House Bill 1146, which would require students and their families to be informed of dual-credit programs and any available financial assistance, passed the House on Feb. 13. Senate Bill 5048, which would eliminate College in the High School fees, passed the Senate on March 8. House bills 1316 and 1003 both aim to expand access more broadly by eliminating barriers such as add-on course fees and lack of financial coverage for summer classes. HB 1316 passed the House on March 4. HB 1003 did not make it out of a House committee and is likely dead.

Over-the-counter sexual-assault kits: House Bill 1564 would ban the sale of over-the-counter sexual-assault kits in Washington. HB 1564 passed unanimously out of the House on Feb. 27 and is currently in committee in the Senate. If enacted into law, it would put Washington among the first states in the country to ban the sale of a product advocates say misleads survivors of sexual assault about their options.

Name-change privacy: Senate Bill 5028 would expand the current name-change process to allow Washingtonians to apply through any district court in the state – as opposed to only the one in which they reside – and also would allow certain petitions to be filed in any superior court in the state. The proposal is designed to make it safer and more accessible to change one’s name, an issue that primarily affects refugees, people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming and those escaping domestic violence. SB 5028 passed out of the Senate on Feb. 1 and is now being considered in the House Committee on Civil Rights & Judiciary.

Abortion and reproductive health care: A Shield Law, House Bill 1469, would protect people who seek, provide, or facilitate abortion in Washington from out-of-state investigations and prosecutions, and would apply to gender-affirming care providers as well as abortion clinics. HB 1469 passed out of the House on Feb. 28. A second proposal, House Bill 1340, would prevent medical licensing boards from retaliating against clinicians for providing reproductive health services and gender-affirming care, and also passed out of the House on Feb. 28.

– Free school lunch program: A bill to expand Washington’s free lunch program, House Bill 1238, passed the House on March 2. The proposal originally called for free lunch for all school children, but has ,now been scaled back to a phased expansion of the program over the next few years, so that by the 2024-25 school year, K-5 elementary schools could offer universal free breakfasts and lunches if up to 30% of students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

– State dinosaur: For the fifth year in a row, Suciasaurus rex is being considered for the honor of becoming Washington’s state dinosaur, because one of its bones is the only dinosaur fragment found in Washington – so far. House Bill 1020 passed out of the House on Feb. 20 and is now being considered in the Senate Committee on State Government & Elections.

– Working conditions for exotic dancers: Senate Bill 5614 would upgrade safety measures and guard against unfair terminations of dancer contracts, as well as allow liquor to be sold at strip clubs. The bill proposal would help even out the economic relationship between dancers and businesses, because if strip clubs can sell alcohol, they will be more likely to make a profit without depending on fees that dancers pay for the privilege to work there. The bill passed the Senate on March 1 and is now being considered in the House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standards.

– Pink tax: Six Kirkland high school students are pushing Senate Bill 5171, a proposal to end gender-based pricing in Washington. The bill would prohibit retailers from charging different prices for two products marketed to different genders that are the same or “substantially similar.” It passed out of the Senate on March 7 and has been referred to the House Consumer Protection & Business Committee.

– Felony charges for harassing election workers: House Bill 1241 makes it a Class C felony to harass an election worker, and also allows those workers to register for the state’s address confidentiality program. That program is currently available for victims of sexual assault, trafficking, domestic violence or stalking. 


Off the table for 2023

– DUI restrictions: A proposal to lower the blood alcohol content (BAC) for a DUI charge, Senate Bill 5002, from 0.08% to 0.05%, did not make it out of the Senate. Nor did another traffic safety proposal, Senate Bill 5514, which would have outlawed right turns on a red light. 

– School start time: A bill to lower the compulsory school age from 8 – the age of a typical second or third grader – to 6 did not make it out of the Senate. Senate Bill 5020 would have required children as young as 6 to enroll in a public or private school or be homeschooled.

– Cap on annual rent increases: House Bill 1389, which would have capped increases in rent by a landlord in a given year, did not advance.

– Executive emergency powers reform: Republicans have wanted to limit Inslee's emergency powers after the governor imposed some of the strictest public-health measures of any state during the COVID-19 pandemic. But House Bill 1535, which would have given the Legislature more say in ending emergency proclamations, didn’t even get a committee hearing.

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