Every year our representatives convene in Olympia to debate the future of our state. And every year—admit it—you try to pay attention. You’re confused about committees. You’re confused about first and second readings. And pretty soon, you’ve lost track of that one bill you thought you cared about.
This year’s different. This year, when Washington’s 66th legislative session gets underway, January 14, more than at any time in recent memory, Olympia will be worth watching.
Why? Bills will actually move.
The first thing to know is that on odd-numbered years like this one, our state holds an extra long 105-day legislative session, a chance for elected officials to debate more controversial or complex issues. The state also enacts a biennial budget from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2021.
The second notable aspect of this session is that, thanks to November’s blue wave, Democratic lawmakers will show up with a fortified trifecta—both legislative branches dominated by liberals alongside a Democratic governor. While this same scenario existed last year, the party had just a few seats more than the GOP. This time Democrats will have greater strength in numbers. And that could mean big changes in five key areas: taxes, housing, climate change, special education, and mental health.
Washington is home to the most inequitable tax system in the country, where the poorest residents—households making $24,000 or less in annual income—pay 17.8 percent of their income. Meanwhile the richest—households with $545,900 or more—pay 3 percent, according to a recent study from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Conservatives and the business community say Washington’s lack of state income tax is a draw for employers like Amazon.
Cries to fix the tax disparity have been fruitless in the past. But some Democratic state legislators think this is their year to pass a capital gains tax. That’s a tax on the sale of assets—like stocks or bonds—which would affect wealthier residents, and help balance the scales.
Of course, any discussion of taxes invariably leads to Seattle’s thorniest problem. City council members in June 2018 repealed (after voting to approve) a head tax, which would have raised an estimated $48 million a year for affordable housing and homeless services by taxing Seattle’s largest corporations. After that about-face, mayor Jenny Durkan made it clear she thinks it’s the state’s turn to act on a response to the homelessness crisis. “It is not just a Seattle crisis,” she said after releasing her budget proposal in September. “We need the state, King County, and others in our region to step up.” Now that Seattle officials will have more allies in Olympia, new bills could further ban single-family zoning near transit-heavy areas, or make it easier for developers to build condos.
November didn’t give the Dems a complete victory lap. A statewide initiative to enact a carbon “fee” on companies producing fossil fuels failed in November, with 56.6 percent of voters opposing it. Defeated environmental activists vowed after the election that the fight is far from over.
Their next showdown could be in Olympia. Democrats have tried to advance climate change action for years, with little progress. But with governor Jay Inslee eyeing a 2020 presidential race, and a national spotlight on Washington’s next move to counteract carbon emissions, we’ll see this addressed once again in the capitol.
Besides carbon pricing, state lawmakers are weighing other more popular options. State representative Joe Fitzgibbon thinks that if legislators had spent less time trying to push through a fee on fossil fuels, and more time on other key environmental protections, Washington could have been a lot further in addressing climate change by now. And he thinks this is the year for those changes.
“If there’s a path forward for any kind of carbon pricing…we’ll spend a lot of time on that,” says Fitzgibbon, who is chair of the House Environment Committee. “But it’s not going to come at the expense of other greenhouse gas reduction policies.”
Meanwhile, you may have been under the impression that state legislators finally put the McCleary decision behind them.
In June 2018, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state satisfied its mandate to fully fund basic education. Yet somehow, the ruling ignored funding programs for students with special needs. Schools are instead turning to local levies to help them make up the educational gap for disabled children—a fact state legislators have admitted is a problem.
In 2018, superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal proposed adding another $160 million over the next two years for special education. Lawmakers only approved a fraction of those dollars. Without more financial help, districts will continue to face a budget deficit to provide services for some of the most vulnerable students in the public school system.
Finally, Western State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility, located in Lakewood, failed an inspection and, as a result, lost $53 million a year in federal funding. Now, lawmakers will likely need to foot the bill if they don’t want Western State’s problems—a staffing shortage, for one—to worsen. The state already has a reputation of inadequately addressing the mental health crisis, and the shortage of beds in facilities has contributed to the rising homeless population we see today.
So yes, the state’s Democratic leadership has a lot ahead of them. But now is the party’s best chance to deliver on issues it has claimed to care about for years.