by Jack Russillo
Washington State’s 2021 legislative session kicked off on January 11 and it will go for 105 days, until April 25.
Between now and then, State senators and representatives will introduce bills to the legislature, refer them to their applicable committees, and consider the bills multiple times and at various stages before a bill is potentially passed into law. This year’s session is entirely virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes many legislators think that fewer bills will be passed, but important legislation is still in the works.
The Emerald contacted each senator and representative from the state’s 11th, 34th, and 37th legislative districts and asked them what their top priority is during this session and why it’s important to them. To find contact information for any elected official, you can visit the Washington Senate Democrats website and the state’s House of Representatives’ website.
In numerical order of the districts they represent, each of the elected officials’ responses are listed below:
11th Legislative District
(SB 5105) Implementing the recommendations of the Office of Equity Task Force
“The top priority is equity. We’re trying to embed racial equity into our analysis on these things before we actually vote on them. I’ve been working with the other chairs of the different committees about starting to use a racial equity toolkit when they’re considering passing bills out of their committee and using that analysis of the disparate impacts on communities.
“What this bill will do is implement the Office of Equity Task Force’s recommendations, which can be really important down the road. This bill embeds equity into all the decisions that will come down the road… We can still vote for racist bills if we want to, but at least we will know what those potential racial impacts that we’re voting on could be. Right now, we don’t always know, they’re often buried. I think that’s going to be a game-changer if we can get that one passed.”
(HB 1307) Would reduce the maximum sentence for certain low-level drug-related offenses from 18 to 12 months and would also permit defendants to serve their sentences in county jails rather than the penitentiary
“Community members are justifiably concerned that police and prosecutors target Persons of Color disproportionately for enforcement of low-level drug offenses. Non-violent offenders serving relatively light sentences should be able to serve their sentences in county jails, where it is easier for families to visit inmates.”
(HB 1344) Would give offenders who committed crimes when they were under 25 years old — and who are serving long sentences — a chance for an earlier release from incarceration
“Neuroscience shows that young adults’ brains are developing up until their mid-twenties, yet we criminalize them the same as fully matured adults. By providing young offenders with long sentences a second chance, we offer them the opportunity for reform, to build a better future for themselves and begin the long process of de-traumatizing communities.”
(HB 1367) Fiscal biennium appropriations of state and federal funding for a wide variety of COVID-19-related relief via the developmental disabilities and long-term care programs
“As a member of the budget negotiating team, the top priority I have been working on for the 2021 legislative session is passing early action bills for COVID-19 relief. Our state has focused on saving lives by emphasizing public health, but that has come at an economic cost to families and businesses across Washington. The early action bills invest $2.2 billion in federal funds to aid families and businesses, including $365 million for rental assistance and $50 million in grants for child care providers to keep their doors open. These much-needed relief funds will help businesses recover lost revenue, families get caught up on their rent and keep food on the table, and get vaccines to local communities.”
(HB 1368) Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through State actions supported by federal funding
“Too many of our fellow Washingtonians were left out of the previous federal stimulus packages and we can’t let that happen anymore. We have to approach every step in our recovery plan in a way that is equitable and community-focused, and our team is committed to ensuring everyone has access to the services they need to get through this terrible pandemic.”
34th Legislative District
(SB 5214) Concerning economic assistance programs
“One of the things that I’m really trying to prioritize this year is to support basic needs and temporary assistance for families in need. I have a bill this year and I had one every other year, Senate Bill 5214, that basically puts more money back into the TANF program [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families]. What’s interesting is that during the last recession, we got funding for it and we haven’t brought it back to what it was even back then, despite the budget coming back even stronger than it was back then. So, for me, there’s a huge correlation between our lack of funding for social services and the rising inequality and the rise of homelessness and I think that’s one of the ways to tackle it.
“Like many people have said before, the pandemic only exacerbated the inequality that we’d seen in our society beforehand. Income inequality and making sure we have safety nets in place was an issue before the pandemic. It’s only been exacerbated. So, if anything, the need is only greater now than before because there are many people who have been affected by the pandemic that won’t be able to make ends meet and they need services like TANF for them to be able to get there. I know that cases have gone up and I believe that we need to augment that with the resources as well or else we’re going to see further inequalities happening. Because while millionaires and billionaires have profited off this pandemic, the vast majority of unemployment right now is for jobs under $24,000 and that’s also the same people that would qualify for TANF. So if we really want to have an economic recovery that’s equitable, we have to do this stuff. Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic but I think people are starting to get it.”
(HB 1152) Supporting measures to create comprehensive public health districts
“I’d say the number one bill for [the Healthcare and Wellness Committee] is going to be the governor’s bill that will change how we do public health delivery. I won’t say that it’s going to pass exactly the way the governor has introduced it, but I think that we’re going to work on that because I’m sure you’re aware that across the state public health people have been pressured by the county commissioners in some places, and we’ve had Chelan County go through three public health directors over there during this pandemic. Spokane fired their main doctor and Yakima has also had some problems. Basically, it’s a bill that will set up a work group to regionalize and have some more State oversight on the healthcare department but still keep things at a local level. We have to find the right balance. That’s a major bill for us this year.”
(HB 1196) Concerning audio-only telemedicine
“For many visits, it’s better if you can see the doctor and they can talk to you in person but they can also do quite a few phone visits. But the difficulty is that the doctors, under current law, don’t get reimbursed the same for phone visits as in-person ones. And so then they’re going to encourage you to come in or to be on the internet, so that’s why we’re trying to get some parity so that. If people are living in Eastern Washington or on Vashon Island or anywhere with no internet, they are not getting the same equity treatments as other people because of the different disparity in payment mechanisms. So, it’s really to try and get everybody access to be not forced to come in to the doctor if it can be done otherwise… I think that, specifically on telemedicine, we have a lot of older people that don’t quite have it figured out yet. I have a sister that’s going to turn 80 this year, she doesn’t have internet nor does she know how to use it. Even in the city of Seattle, people can’t afford internet. So just to be able to have a phone and be able to do phone calls, I think that’s an important thing. It’s an equity issue, geographically and economically.”
(HB 1091) Clean fuel standard and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the carbon intensity of transportation fuel
“The bill is to implement a clean fuel standard to require that producers of gasoline and diesel gradually reduce the pollution output of those fuels over time, specifically the greenhouse gas emissions but also the emissions of other pollutants that harm local air quality. This is a policy that’s already in place in California, Oregon, and British Columbia. We’re the only West Coast jurisdiction that doesn’t have a clean fuel standard and I think it’s long overdue that we transition all of our transportation fuels away from gasoline and diesel and toward lower polluting alternatives, both to fight climate change and to reduce the environmental health disparities … South Seattle is one of the parts of the state that has the greatest environmental health disparities. It has communities that are the closest to highways and interchanges that are most affected by the health effects of diesel fine particulate matter and carbon emissions.
“Transportation is by far the largest contributor to pollution in our state. More than twice as much pollution comes from transportation fuel in Washington as comes from electricity generation, so it’s really the biggest polluter. And so, we really need a policy change to address transportation fuels. But along the way we’re not [only] going to be reducing pollution from gasoline and diesel on roads, we’re also going to be creating the infrastructure that we can use for things like sustainable aviation fuels so that communities like Beacon Hill, White Center, and other communities that are impacted by pollution from airports can be on a trajectory in the long run where we’re not just reducing on-road pollution but also pollution from the airport and the seaport. So this is really laying the building blocks for cleaner air and a cleaner energy economy for years to come. I think it’s a really important piece of legislation.”
37th Legislative District
(SB 5141) The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act and implementing the recommendations of the environmental justice task force
“My top priority this session is the HEAL Act, which would require state agencies to prioritize environmental justice when implementing policies that have an environmental impact. Without that, the other policies we’re working on to address climate change and to mitigate the damage that past policies have wrought on our environment and communities will just continue to inflict unequitable results on frontline communities who are most often from marginalized groups.
“It’s about how we approach all the work that we do. It’s about the accumulation of unintended and intentional lack of centering Black lives, Indigenous lives, and the Communities of Color and immigrants in the work that has led to having a map that shows that there are certain communities across our state that pay a much higher price in health and in opportunity than others in our state, and that it was by design. And so it is by design, at the central part of how our agencies function, that we must embed environmental justice into the statute of Washington State.”
(HB 1156) Increasing representation and voter participation in local elections
“It has two specific components that I’m really excited about. Since we passed the Washington voting rights [act] we’ve been looking for tools to create more equity on down-ticket races and ranked-choice voting is an amazing option that increases engagement [and] voter choice, and it’s shown over and over again to bring out more voters, which means more Black, Indigenous, and folks of color voting in our democracy… In Washington State, we have some really amazing numbers when it comes to voter turnout when compared to other states. Yet with 7.6 million people in Washington State in April of 2020, this last November only four million people voted in our state gubernatorial election, which gives you an idea of how folks show up for state-specific elections. So knowing that this was in a presidential year and it was the largest turnout we’ve ever seen in a presidential year nationally, that gives you an idea. There’s three million potential voters whose voices aren’t heard right now and changing these tools has shown to help candidates get elected [and] help our democracy look like us, and that always engages more voters. So, I’m really excited about what this means for Washington to get it over the finish line this cycle.
“Some of the communities that we know are going to be some of the first to have consideration are actually in Central and Eastern Washington, which is really exciting because having more voters in those parts of the state means more voter voice on statewide issues, which is really needed for equity in our state. And so knowing that there are already organizations ready to help them steward and having dollars that we could dedicate, my hope is that counties that have been wanting to make this change can immediately start that work and really form systems with the local control and voice they have to serve their neighbors. You can look up the Voting Justice Coalition’s website and see which organizations are involved. They’ve had such a sophisticated way of organizing around a whole set of issues that intersect that’s really about folks of color, poor folks, and folks in isolated and rural areas being seen being hurt and being recognized in our democracy. So, I’m really proud of what they’re doing on the ground and that some of those partners approached me about putting this in the legislative process. It takes both the inside and the outside to get things down, so we’re lucky we have both.”
(HB 1259) Expanding public contracting opportunities for women and minority business enterprises by increasing the regulatory oversight and accountability of the office of minority and women’s business enterprises
“I would definitely say that a priority for me is 1259, which deals with arresting some investigatory and oversight authority within the Attorney General’s office and placing it within the Office Women and Minority Business Enterprises to investigate situations of fraud and deception and making sure that only legitimately certified women and minority business enterprises are able to access public contracts.
“We know, for example, that the number of certified women and minority business enterprises has, especially since the passage of Initiative 200 in 1998, gone down and the amount of public contracts that we make available to women and minority business enterprises for a while was really going down, but I think we’re finally starting to see an uptick. But, having said that, we are far, far away from having something equitable. Some of the data I’ve shared with the committee is that we have seen an increase, just in the last decade, in the public contracting dollars that is about 120%, whereas the amount of public contracting dollars that goes to women and minority business enterprises has only increased .58%. And what’s worse is that the number of Black and Indigenous certified firms has grown over the last decade, but the percentage of the dollars that are spent on them has gone down.
“So, among minority contractors, for example, in no case does any ethnic group have more than one percent. For example, for African Americans, according to the 2019 figures, they are receiving just .15% of all public contracting dollars. And that’s a reduction from a decade ago when they were at least receiving .22%. White women were actually able to break the perceived one percent barrier, as of 2019, have been able to secure 1.16% of all public contracting dollars. That is ridiculous, when we had a $5.1 billion spending for all public contracts. So that’s why I see this as an important equity issue that really hits us in our pocket books. Public contracts are a wonderful way to create jobs, but if we don’t start creating more jobs in Communities of Color, then people in those communities will continue to suffer disproportionately from unemployment.
“This can make a huge amount of difference. What’s so sad is that I’ve been offering this bill for maybe ten years, but I do think that this is the year to get it through… I think people are looking at it this year with a different lens. I think that the legislature as a whole, like the rest of America, was taken by surprise by the breadth and depth of discontent in society as a whole about institutional and structural racism. And I think that this last year was not only a wake up call, but I do see that my colleagues are taking the need more seriously to really delve deeply into what’s causing this inequality and realizing that it’s just about being a good person and see all people the same. It’s about doing the critical analysis and adding up all the categories of ethnic groups and adding caucasian women to that and, taken as a whole, they only amount to 3.44% of all dollars spent. I mean, that’s a pittance… In 1998, before Initiative 200 went into effect, the state spent $227 million on certified women and minority business enterprises. In 2019, the state spent $177 million on certified women and minority businesses. So, since 1998, we haven’t even caught up to back then.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Photos of legislators courtesy Washington State Legislature (public domain).
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