by Trent House, AFA Government Affairs
January 9-13, 2023
The Washington State Legislature opened the 105-day session this week under almost normal circumstances, after having operated in a mostly-remote fashion the past two years. This year, masks are encouraged if not required in most offices and access to some offices is restricted by security, preventing lobbyists and the public from casually dropping by. Some aspects of remote sessions are here to stay, including remote hearing testimony.
Legislative Democrats say they feel emboldened by 2022 General Election results. They say these results prove voters agree with their agenda on abortion, taxes, guns, and other big issues. In a recent interview, Speaker Laurie Jinkins said “People have spoken in terms of the majorities they sent back to the legislature…Washingtonians have said they trust Democrats to lead.” Historically, the party of presidential power tends to lose seats in a midterm election, but this was not the case for the Washington State Legislature.
Last session, the tally in the Senate was 28 Democrats plus one Democrat who caucused and voted with Republicans (Senator Tim Sheldon, D-35) / 20 Republicans. Senator Sheldon (D-25) retired this year and a Republican, former Representative Drew MacEwen (R-35) has taken his place. While it appears a Republican picked up that seat, it’s a wash for practical purposes, as Sheldon was quite consistently a vote with Republicans - not Democrats. In this election, the Democrats picked up the Senate seat in the 42nd, flipping from appointed Senator Simon Sefzik (R-42) to former Representative Sharon Shewmake (D-42), producing the new make-up of 29 Democrats / 20 Republicans. So technically, the Democrats picked up one seat. Democrats picked up one seat in the House as well, with Clyde Shavers (D-10) besting incumbent Rep. Greg Gilday (R-10). That brings the House tally to 58 Democrats / 40 Republicans.
Legislative Democrats who control both chambers, in coordination with Democrat Governor Jay Inslee, have a bold agenda for the 2023 session that includes the following issues:
Gun Violence Prevention - In a recent news interview, Senator Jamie Pedersen said “It’s clear what we have done on guns is not troubling the voters,” calling the election results “yet another affirmation of our approach.” This year, Democrats have introduced bills to ban the sale of assault-style semiautomatic rifles, require a permit to purchase a firearm, make gun makers and sellers liable for selling weapons used in crimes, and other measures.
Drug Possession - After the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug-possession law (the Blake Decision) during the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed a quick fix to classify possession as a misdemeanor but refer people to treatment before charging them. That law sunsets in July. Most lawmakers agree that treatment is needed for people with substance abuse issues, but some members hope for stiff criminal penalties, while others will seek to decriminalize drug possession.
Housing and Homelessness - Governor Inslee has proposed the state raise $4 billion to build affordable housing by issuing bonds outside the state’s debt limit, which will require legislative and voter approval. Additionally, there are proposals to allow more units on residential lots, intensify transit-oriented development, eliminate design review boards on residential construction, and cap the amount landlords can raise rent each year.
Workforce Issues - Republicans and Democrats agree there is a workforce crisis, given nearly every sector is experiencing staffing shortages due to baby boom retirements and the covid-era resignations. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig recently said “If you look at law enforcement, we have a workforce issues; if you look at early learning, we have a workforce issue.” Expect more legislation to expand apprenticeships, provide retention bonuses, change licensure requirements etc.
Abortion - In 1991, Washington voters passed Initiative 120, codifying Roe into state law. 32 years later, Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to amend the constitution to further protect access to abortion and contraception in a post-Roe world. Supporters claim an amendment would offer stronger protections because it is easier for the Legislature to repeal a statute than a constitutional amendment. Amending the constitution in Washington requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber and voter approval.
Budget - As lawmakers prepare to write the 2023-25 budgets, they do so with increased revenue and a few uncertainties that will play out during session. First, the state is now collecting the new capital gains tax, which is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year for early learning and childcare. Though, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on January 26 that could possibly strike down the law, creating a large hole in budget expectations. Second, the Department of Ecology will hold the first of four annual auctions for carbon emission allowances on February 28, which officials anticipate will earn the state approximately $480 million this year. Legislators will need to agree on how to spend these early proceeds.
This session will see 21 brand-new legislators and 9 members who have served previously or are moving from the House to the Senate. Committee hearings this week mostly focused on getting this large group of new members up to speed with work sessions on various agencies and topics. We can expect committees to dive into more bills starting next week.
February 17 - Policy committee cutoff - house of origin
February 24 - Fiscal committee cutoff - house of origin
March 8 - Floor cutoff - house of origin
March 29 - Policy committee cutoff - opposite house
April 4 - Fiscal committee cutoff - opposite house
April 12 - Floor cutoff - opposite house
April 23 - Sine Die