OPINION: Grading the 2019 Washington State Legislative Session

by John Stafford

The 2019 Washington State Legislative Session has been deemed highly successful in liberal circles. Lawmakers made substantial progress on numerous fronts, prompting Jay Inslee to say in the Bellevue Reporter, “This truly has been an epic legislative session of unprecedented scope and dimension of achievements for the people in the state of Washington.” However, there were also notable shortcomings, particularly in the areas of tax reform and climate change.

The Washington State Legislature operates on a biennium basis. In odd numbered years (like 2019), it meets for 105 days and creates three budgets (operating, transportation and capital) in addition to passing individual policy bills (lawmakers introduced 2,641 bills this year). Washington is one of 14 states with a Democratic trifecta — control of the governorship, the House (a 57-41 majority) and the Senate (28-21). Thus, 2019 represented an opportunity for Democrats to demonstrate what they could achieve with control in Olympia.

Here is how I grade lawmakers this session.

OPERATING BUDGET AND TAXATION — Grade C+

The operating two-year budget is $52.4 billion, representing roughly $3,500 per year in spending for each of Washington’s 7.5 million residents. Washington State is a low tax state relative to its personal income (29th in the nation), and it has the most regressive tax system in the country, meaning that people making less money pay a higher percentage of their income on taxes than people who make more money. Thus, tax reform is much-needed in Washington State.

In the 2019 Session, lawmakers increased taxes by $830 million. This was achieved through several means: making the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) more progressive; increasing the business and occupancy tax on large financial institutions and out-of-state banks; and closing tax exemptions.

These changes are incremental steps in the right direction, but they will not provide the necessary structural reform for the state’s tax system. Gov. Inslee proposed a capital gains tax on high-income earners (Washington is one of just eight states without one), but it did not come to fruition. This represents a major missed opportunity of the legislative session.

CLIMATE CHANGE: Grade A-

Governor Inslee adopted a revised strategy to climate change legislation in this year’s session. After multiple failed attempts to pass a statewide carbon tax, Inslee temporarily abandoned the effort and focused instead on passing a number of smaller bills. This approach was largely successful (although a statewide carbon tax remains essential). The following bills all passed:

  • Coal will become illegal for electricity production by 2025.
  • Washington’s electricity grid will be based on 100 percent clean energy by 2045 (it currently operates with 15 percent coal and 11 percent natural gas).
  • Phasing out hydrofluorocarbons (a major greenhouse gas pollutant used in air conditioners).
  • Energy efficiency standards for new buildings and appliances, and energy-efficiency retrofits for existing buildings.
  • Ongoing incentives for solar power.
  • Electric vehicle purchase incentives, and encouragement for utilities to build charging stations.
  • $46 million for firefighting, in part to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

In addition, Governor Inslee announced his opposition to the natural gas plant proposals at Kalama and Tacoma, representing heightened opposition to new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Notably, three important climate change measures did not pass: a bill to establish a clean fuel standard by lowering the carbon intensity of fuels; the Heal Act – to support communities (typically minority) that face disproportionate impacts from climate change; and a zero emission vehicle phase-in mandate.

Overall, this was a strong year for climate change policy in Olympia. A leading climate change advocacy group, 350.org, summarized the session as follows: “In terms of our impact on the state legislature, 2019 was our finest year ever. Now here’s the bad news: … We are not even 25% of the way to ensuring we are reducing our pollution in line with what the IPCC has said is necessary to prevent climate chaos.”

K-12 ECUCATION — Grade B

The McCleary State Supreme Court Decision (2012) required the state to change its approach to educational finance by transferring responsibility for funding from local school districts to the state. This sought to increase spending per pupil and increase the equity in spending between districts (when spending responsibility resides at the local level, districts with higher property values typically raise more money than those without).

This issue of equity became a controversial flashpoint. A bill was passed that allows local districts to significantly raise their local levies. Some argue that this is good because it raises funds for education. Others argue that this is in direct violation to the spirit of McCleary, which sought to reduce inequities. This year’s budget includes an increase of $155 million in spending for special education, which is widely seen to be inadequate. The Seattle Times’ Dahlia Bazzaz and Neal Morton write: “There is one thing all districts agree with: The state’s budget doesn’t allocate enough money for special education, which many districts say they use their local levies to supplement.”

HIGHER EDUCATION — Grade A

One of the most important achievements of the session occurred in Higher Education. The state significantly increased its need-based student financial aid via the Workforce Re-education Act. Now, all students from families earning less than 55 percent of the state’s median income are guaranteed to receive financial assistance to attend any of 69 state colleges, up to and including free college for students from very low-income families. Sarah Goldrick-Rab, college-aid expert from Temple University, states that the approach, “is unique and brilliant … and pretty much the most progressive state higher education funding bill I’ve seen at the state level in years.” The legislature also allocated $300 million in additional funding to support educational programs in high-demand areas, including nursing, computer science, engineering, and health care.

HEALTH CARE — Grade A

The Legislature passed two major health care initiatives. The first calls for the creation of a statewide public option (named “Cascade Care”) for purchasing individual health care insurance. This will complement the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) because in many parts of the state, there is only one option for purchasing health care via the exchange. This is the first state-level “public option” in the country.

Legislators also created a long-term health care benefit. This is an employee pre-paid benefit program (paid for via small paycheck deductions). The benefit will finance the cost of nursing home care, in home care and assisted living for beneficiaries. Other changes in laws related to health care include:

  • Eliminating the personal and philosophical objections for the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine. However, these exemptions remain in place for other vaccines.
  • Raising the age to purchase tobacco and tobacco products from 18 to 21.
  • More funding for tribal health care.

MENTAL and BEHAVIORAL HEALTH — GRADE A-

Yet another area where the state is dramatically changing its approach to service delivery is mental health. For years, the state has utilized a model that emphasizes large, centralized institutions for inpatient care. Inslee is now changing the state’s mental health model, moving to a decentralized approach that relies on a regional network of facilities. In the Seattle Times, State Senator Manka Dhingra highlights an important objective of the new approach: “My hope, really, is that in the next couple years, you’re going to see demand for long-term impatient state beds go down because we’re able to help people earlier on.” In addition, funds were allocated to the University of Washington to help open a new behavioral health teaching facility.

HOMELESSNESS AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING: GRADE A-

There were important improvements to housing policy, a number of which were initiated by GOP legislators:

  • More money for the State Housing Trust Fund.
  • A 25 percent increase in funding for the Housing and Essential Needs program, which assists people with disabilities in providing for their basic living expenses.
  • A measure to increase density in transit areas (which will assist with affordable housing, and also carbon emission reductions).
  • Measures to change the tenant-landlord relationship regarding eviction notices. Landlords will now be required to provide fourteen days-notice (up from the current three days-notice) for an eviction.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION — Grade A

In 1998, voters passed Initiative 200, which eliminated the use of race as a factor in public hiring, college admissions, etc. There were a number of deleterious outcomes, including declining African-American student admissions at the University of Washington. In this session, lawmakers passed Initiative 1000, which reverses I-200 and allows state agencies to consider factors like race in hiring and to engage in targeted outreach and recruitment efforts.

ELECTIONS and ELECTION FINANCE — Grade A-

The state will move to a system of prepaid postage for ballots in upcoming elections. The intent is to eliminate one possible barrier to voting, thereby increasing turnout. In addition, the state’s presidential primary election will be moved from May to March, increasing the national relevance of the primary. Finally, a measure was passed that requires Political Action Committees (PACs) to be more transparent when identifying their donors.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND GUN CONTROL — Grade B

The Legislature made several changes in criminal justice and gun control:

  • Increased funding to eliminate the state’s rape kit backlog by 2021.
  • The state’s “three strikes” law, which requires mandatory life sentences after three serious criminal convictions, has been modified to eliminate second-degree robbery as a qualifying offense.
  • The clearance of convictions for people with misdemeanor marijuana-possession convictions.
  • A measure to prohibit the detention of youth for “status” crimes (e.g., excessive truancy).
  • Some progress on gun control – with 10 new bills passed as well as additional funding to help implement last year’s measures. However, there continues to be no ban on assault weapons or high capacity magazines.
  • Unfortunately, the legislature did not pass legislation to ban on the death penalty.

SOCIAL SERVICES: B

Washington State has been embroiled in lawsuits regarding irresponsible policies with respect to foster care due to lack of funding. These include high rotation rates for youth amongst foster care families, high out-of-state placements, the use of hotel rooms and state offices for housing foster children, etc. In this session, lawmakers allocated more funding (albeit not enough) to the foster care system.

LABOR: A-

There were several bills passed to improve protections for workers:

  • The Keep Washington Working Act, which supports immigrants in this era of aggressive federal anti-immigrant policy.
  • A bill that requires 14 days-notice of work schedules to employees.
  • A bill to lower the interest rate on consumer debts to collection agencies and to shield a higher share of worker income from garnishment.
  • A measure to move the state to permanent Daylight Savings Time (this must be approved by the U.S. Congress).

TRANSPARENCY: D

This session continued a recent trend of a troubling lack of transparency and opportunity for public involvement in the legislative process. The operating budget was released on the second-to-last day of the session, severely limiting the opportunity for debate. Republican Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber stated in the Bellevue Reporter, “This budget was developed in the dark of the night on the 104th day without transparency.” In addition, the Legislature utilized a number of “Title-Only” bills, which enables a bill to be introduced toward the end of the session using legislative gimmickry.

OVERALL SESSION GRADE: A-

Several important themes emerged from the Legislative Session.

First, there was a number of important bills passed in this session. Many of these were not merely about incremental progress. Instead, lawmakers changed the fundamental approach to governance and policy in Washington State in a number of areas: climate change, K-12 education finance, college financial aid, affirmative action, health care, mental health and gun control.

Second, the session demonstrates the potential power of unified, Democratic Party leadership. Some predicted that the Session would be unsuccessful, as the Democratic trifecta would lead to undisciplined policy. Instead, the legislature arguably accomplished more in this session than in the last five sessions combined.

Third, the lesson provides a partial window into the nation’s policy future. Eventually, the nation will meaningfully confront the massive challenge of climate change; it will move toward greater coverage levels in health care; it will make college more affordable for those in need; and it will deal with its over-incarceration and gun control problems. This session provided a vision for later progress at the national level.

In light of all of this, one might decide that the 2019 Legislative Session deserves the grade of “A”. However, there were several significant shortcomings. As noted previously, passage of a capital gains tax would have ameliorated financial pressure in several key areas (e.g., foster care) and also made the state’s deplorable tax system more progressive. In addition, the failure to pass the Clean Fuel Standard, the Heal Act and the Zero-emission Vehicle Standard represent significant failures in the climate change arena.

Overall, I evaluate the session as an “A-.” It generated a range of impactful progressive legislation. However, significant work still needs to be done, especially in the areas of tax reform and climate change.


John Stafford is a history teacher for Mercer Island High School. He is active with the Democratic Party in South Seattle. He writes periodic articles on politics and policy for the South Seattle Emerald.

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