Legislative sessions are a grind. And confusing. Readings, hearings, committees, votes, amendments—it’s hard not to check out while bills pinball through the chambers of the Washington state Capitol, with no guarantee of ever reaching the governor’s desk. Even the word “legislative” is tedious.
But 2021’s (mostly virtual) gathering gave us plenty of reason to circle back. With a Democratic majority in both houses, and a progressive governor to boot, the state passed sweeping new laws to combat climate change, economic inequality, and police misconduct.
Some of the state’s new policies are indeed “historic,” as Democrats have noted. But others? Not so much. That’s not to say they’re all boring. Digging through 2021’s 300-plus laws, it’s easy to miss these wonky nuggets, or even some of the state’s most consequential new policies, in all that Courier New. So here’s a sampling of both—in terms that aren’t as impenetrable as those official documents.
The Historic Stuff
It doesn’t take a numbers whiz to know our tax system is regressive. The absence of a state income tax disproportionately burdens Washington residents with lower incomes. Local lawmakers have tried to mitigate wealth inequality for years by levying investments instead of salaries, a more politically fraught financial realm. But it took until now for them to finally make the state’s revenue department a little fairer. Starting on January 1, 2022, Washingtonians will pay a 7 percent tax on the sale of stocks, bonds, and other assets that net them more than $250,000 in a single year. Only an estimated 7,000 locals will have to cough up this cash—your average GameStop trader doesn’t come close to raking in a quarter-mil—but the collective contribution of those 7,000 adds up to more than $400 million annually for the state, much of which is earmarked for education. Our gain, in other words.
If the last year-plus has reinforced anything, it’s that crises don’t affect us equally. So it would behoove elected leaders to privilege equity when reckoning with our next catastrophe—or better yet, an ongoing one. Luckily Washington is doing just that. The state has known for decades that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color often face worse chemical and sound pollution than others. Now more than a handful of state agencies, such as Agriculture and Transportation, will be required to confront those health disparities (and other adverse effects of climate change) by embedding environmental justice into their plans for the state. By July 1, 2023, they must strive to direct “40 percent of grants and expenditures that create environmental benefits to vulnerable populations and overburdened communities.” An environmental justice council will weigh in on any proposals. There’s some wiggle in there, but it’s a (belated) start.
File this one under “about time.” In 2008, Washington lawmakers passed a tax credit for low-income workers. Great, right? One problem: Post-recession, the state never actually funded it. This year, lawmakers finally righted that fiscal wrong, almost unanimously agreeing to subsidize a program similar to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Low-income families will receive rebates of anywhere from $300 t0 $1,200, depending on their earnings and number of children (it’s harder to qualify as a single person). These refunds are similar in scope to the stimulus checks many workers received after the outbreak of Covid-19—they won’t remedy the wealth gap, but they can still help hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians pay for food and housing, beginning in 2023.
With America’s “greenest governor” at the helm, Washington fancies itself a leader on combating climate change. Now it’s legislating like it. After years of pushback in Olympia, a landmark clean energy bill (think turbines and paneled roofs) became law in 2019. And this year, the state emulated Cascadian peers by adopting a low-carbon fuel standard and a cap-and-trade program. The latter policy, part of the Jay Inslee–backed Climate Commitment Act, forces major polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or buy “allowances” to go over their caps. Some question if this incentive is enticing enough to meaningfully cut CO2—California’s similar foray into carbon pricing has been fraught. Still, applying even a modicum of economic pressure on gas companies and other corporations to go greener is long overdue in this state.
Almost a year after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Washington passed a series of new laws that, if enforced, will hold police more accountable for their uses of force. Officers can no longer employ chokeholds or neck restraints—or look the other way. And a new Office of Independent Investigations will examine any deadly force cases that occur after July 1, 2022. It can revisit past incidents if new evidence emerges too, an important provision given the continued questions surrounding the death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma last year. There’s no question about this: Politicians heard the voices of those marching in the street last year for police accountability.
Peculiar But Practical
Apparently, even in the year 2021, you can sell a home (“improved residential real property,” technically) without disclosing whether said abode has internet access. In a region with coders moving in by the minute, and a housing market that’s much too hot for dotting i’s and crossing t’s, it’s quite the omission. This law extends a measure of relief to the should-have-asked-about-that set: Along with responses to queries about water and sewage and all the usual fun house stuff, seller disclosure statements must now also answer yes, no, or “don’t know” to “Does the property currently have internet service?” The law applies to transactions on or after January 1, 2022, so there’s still time to make a few more unintentional luddites out of us.
At first, this little law seems a bit draconian. Workers under 21 years old (but over 18) can now assist in supervised wine production, yet they still can’t “taste, consume, sell, or serve wine or liquor.” No stealing sips when the drinking-age boss isn’t looking, basically. But the bill has good intentions behind it. A 20-year-old graduate reached out because they couldn’t find full-time winemaking work, even with a relevant degree and internship under their belt and a labor shortage in the industry. This new law helps bridge that workforce gap, allowing for wineries to train more laborers before they’re of-age. Something to toast to, in time.
After takeout’s pandemic takeover, it’s not surprising that lawmakers debated the finer points of carry-out this year. One topic of discussion? Its environmental footprint. Shocker: Those single-use packages and utensils aren’t very eco-friendly. So lawmakers voted to remove some of the green guilt that comes with ordering out. Beginning January 1, 2022, customers will have to request extras like utensils, straws, and lids. And by June of 2024, polystyrene products—clam shell–style containers, plates, foam coolers that are Technically Not Styrofoam—will be banned everywhere. Though single-use plastics crackdowns are nothing new in our fight to save the planet, it’s always a bit dizzying to think of something like an insentient foam cooler as a threat to us. Still, will anyone mourn its loss? Didn’t think so.
This one comes with a caveat. Yes, bars and restaurants received a boost earlier this spring when they got the go-ahead to continue selling carry-out cocktails. A new law extends this pandemic perk until July 1, 2023. But some onerous restrictions still apply. Customers must order meals with their premixed drinks, and open-container laws remain prohibitive; picking up a manhattan to go isn’t a license to pop its lid right away. Why wait to binge at home when shots, both of the boozy and mRNA variety, are so readily available? Perhaps the state should consider common consumption areas if it wants us to commit to cocktail kits and packaged froseccos. Until then, we’ll just have to keep sneaking sips at parks and beaches—or, more likely, reclaim our long-lost seats at bars.