Submitted by Trent House, Trent M House Government Relations
Washington State’s 66th Biennium resumed this week in Olympia. Washington’s legislative cycle is two years long, with the sessions lasting 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even. 2020 is therefore a short session expected to end March 12. This body made history in 2019, the biennium’s first year, as the most diverse group of legislators in history including the first Native American woman to serve in the House, several immigrants, a refugee, the youngest members, and the most women since the year 2000.
Following a blue sweep in the November 2018 election, Democrats arrived in Olympia last session eager to pass policies for which they were previously unable to muster sufficient votes. Since 2013, bipartisanship had been a necessity for bill passage, as the partisan makeup of both chambers were within a few votes. That was not the case in 2019 and it will not be this session. In the House, Democrats still lead 57-41. In the Senate, Democrats lead 28-21. A number of moderate legislators who were known to cross the aisle and join with the other party lost in November of 2018, leaving the 66th Biennium with more deeply divided chambers leaning strongly to the left. During this past session Republicans no longer possessed the votes to stop Democratic policy, revenue, budget proposals, or to hear, much less pass, legislation reflecting much of their ideology and agenda. Without the need to band together against the Republicans, Democrats had greater opportunity to disagree with each other and yet were still able to pass a bold populist agenda addressing climate change, education, gun responsibility, sexual assault prevention, orca protection, health care, homelessness, and behavioral health.
New Speaker, New House
History was further made on Monday as Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-27) took the helm as Speaker of the House. While several women have been elected to serve as Senate Majority Leader, beginning with Republican Senator Jeanette Hayner (R-16) in 1981, Jinkins is both the first woman ever elected to be the Speaker of the House in Washington and the first open member of the LGBTQ community to serve in the role. It is anticipated a House ruled by Jinkins will be unlike that of her predecessor Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43) who kept a notoriously firm hand on policy and successfully retained a strong D majority. Changes already include an announcement to committee chairs that the Speaker will now review committee agendas, rather than “approve” them, and that she will aim to provide transparency with members about why a bill may or may not come up for a vote. Jinkins, a 55-year-old lawyer who has worked both for the Office of the Attorney General and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is also the mom of a college student and has pledged to make the House more welcoming of members with children and those from low-income backgrounds. Proposals include limiting all-night floor sessions and allowing members to pay for reimbursable items up front, rather than wait for reimbursements. These policy changes in the House closely resemble the Tacoma Democrat’s legislative priorities: housing and homelessness, childcare affordability, and the cost of healthcare.
Resignations and Retirements
While Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43) did step down from his role as Speaker of the House earlier this year, prompting the election of Jinkins in July, he has remained a member of the legislature. Longtime Oak Harbor Senator Barb Bailey (R-10) retired this fall and has been replaced by Whidbey Island farmer Ron Muzzall (R-10). When Senator Guy Palumbo (D-1) left the legislature for a policy job at Amazon, Rep. Derek Stanford (D-1) assumed his seat across the rotunda, creating an opening for the new Rep. Davina Duerr (D-1), a Bothell City Councilmember. Longtime Rep. Jeff Morris (D-40) resigned shortly before session, making way for Alex Ramel (D-40), a young clean energy organizer. January also brought the announcement that Rep. Kristine Reeves (D-30) would step down to run for Denny Heck’s open seat in the 10th Congressional District. She has been replaced by Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-30), formerly of the Federal Way City Council. Rep. Beth Doglio (D-22) has also hinted she will consider the seat at the end of this legislative session. Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36) announced she will run for Secretary of State in 2020, hoping to unseat Republican Kim Wyman. Representative Sheri Appleton (D-23) and Senator Randi Becker (R-2) have announced they will retire this year, as well as Senator Hans Zeiger (R-25) who will run for a position on the Pierce County Council. And of course, Governor Jay Inslee has returned to Washington after his failed bid to become to Democratic Presidential Nominee with plans to make homelessness and climate change the centerpiece of his session.
One member who notably has not resigned is embattled Rep. Matt Shea (R-4). Shea made international news this year for his manifesto for a Christian Holy war, participation in chats proposing graphic violence against
liberal demonstrators, and for his role in an armed 2016 standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge. After the release of an investigation accusing Shea of domestic terrorism, House Minority Leader Rep. JT Wilcox (R-2) joined Democrats in calling for the Spokane Valley representative’s resignation. Shea, an attorney, is emboldened and has refused to resign, claiming he has been denied due process. The investigation has been turned over to the FBI. Shea is now excluded from his caucus, his desk has been moved to the back of the chamber, and his office to an isolated area in the basement of the legislative building. The chamber can expel a member from the body, but such action will require the support of a few Republicans to achieve the necessary two-thirds constitutional majority.
Death Threats and Gun Bills
The Washington State Patrol has launched an investigation into death threats posted on Facebook Friday by right-wing gun rights activists against House Republic Leader JT Wilcox (R-2). The post was part of promotions for Friday’s Three Percenters rally on the capitol steps, attended by five hundred carrying activists and keynoted by a fortified Rep. Matt Shea (R-4). The Three Percenters is a far-right para-military militia group that advocates gun ownership rights and opposition to government. Next week the legislative campus will again be a hotbed of activists on both sides of the issue. The House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee and the Senate Law & Justice Committees will hear a large number of firearms bills including those addressing background checks on ammunition and magazine purchases, the prohibition of magazines that carry more than ten rounds, training requirements for concealed pistol license holders, a ban on assault weapons, use of a stolen firearm, allowing local governments to enact stricter gun laws, the establishment of a statewide office of firearm violence prevention, and restricting possession of a firearm while on bond awaiting trial, sentencing, or appeal.
The November passage of Initiative 976, the $30 car tab measure looms large. Though 53% of voters approved the measure, nine plaintiffs including the City of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle, the Association of WA Cities, and the Washington State Transit Association filed suit, arguing I-976 violated the single-subject rule and several other constitutional provisions. In late November, the initiative was blocked from taking effect pending conclusion of the case. Democratic lawmakers have announced they will write a transportation budget this session that conforms to the reality of cutting $454 million between 2019-2021. In his proposal, Governor Inslee has suggested pausing road, rail, and transit projects across the state, shifting money between transportation accounts, and selling $120 million in bonds backed by gas-tax revenue. The transportation committees in both chambers will grapple with this question for the rest of session.
The Washington State Supreme Court dealt a blow to Governor Inslee’s climate goals Thursday when it sided with the Association of WA Business, ruling that while the 2015 Legislature had granted the Department of Ecology the authority to regulate direct greenhouse gas emissions, it had not extended that authority to indirect emissions. Indirect emissions include vehicle exhaust and the use of natural gas in homes and business, accounting for half of all greenhouse gas emissions in WA. Inslee has suggested the ruling should “reenergize” proposals for a low carbon fuel standard bill. The Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee did hear a proposed House Substitute 5412 (Saldaña) on Thursday. The companion, HB 1110 (Fitzgibbon) travelled through the process last year but died on third reading in the Senate during the last week of session.
Supreme Court Retirements
Governor Inslee will have a second opportunity to appoint a member of the Washington State Supreme Court in only a few months, with the announcement Thursday that 72-year-old Justice Charles Wiggins will retire at the end of March. The Governor will appoint a new justice who will then run in the November election. The Supreme Court’s newest member, Raquel Montoya-Lewis was sworn in last month to replace former Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst who retired to focus on her health.
The very process and culture of lobbying in Olympia was turned on its head this week as the Legislature hastily rolled out new policies in response to the recent ruling that all written information is indeed subject to disclosure. In an environment that has since its inception relied on delivering information on notes and whitepapers, legislative offices have this week gone paperless, requiring lobbyists and constituents to email in advance any documents that otherwise might have been brought to an appointment. Gone are the days of leave-behinds, as each of these pieces of paper would have to be scanned into the public record. This applies both to lobbyists and participants in lobby days. There is no current staffing plan to accommodate the usual volume. Sending notes to members to summon them for a chat from the floor or in committee has likewise been curtailed. Both chambers banned sending notes in this week, with the House later agreeing to accept notes so long as no topics or details of any kind are written down – just the name of the person wishing to pull the member. Legislators are also no longer accepting text messages about Olympia business on personal cell phones, as those too could be requested for disclosure.