Washington’s 2023 legislative session starts Monday at noon. As in Oregon, Democrats control both chambers and the governor’s mansion. Lawmakers are expected to tackle issues related to housing and homelessness, public safety, and gun safety. They’ll also have to pass a budget. We talk to Tom Banse, the Northwest News Network’s Olympia correspondent, about what’s likely to happen this session.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Washington’s 2023 Legislative Session just got underway. As in Oregon, Democrats control both chambers and the governor’s mansion. Lawmakers are expected to tackle issues including housing and homelessness, gun safety and policing. They also have to pass a budget. Tom Banse is OPBs Olympia correspondent, he joins us now for a preview. Tom, welcome back.
Tom Banse: Hi, glad to be with you.
Miller: So, before we get to the issues themselves, I just want to start with a little bit of a refresher on the most recent election. Nationally, Republicans took control of the House. In Oregon, they cut into Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature, but in Washington, Democrats actually increased their legislative majorities. What happened?
Banse: This was an unexpected result in November, because the thought nationally and across the West, [was] that there might be a “red wave.” But there wasn’t. It was a good year for incumbents. Quite a few new members in the Washington House this year,
as in the case in Oregon as well, I think, and just a small increase in the size of the solid Democratic majority. So going into [the] 2023 session, the [Washington State] House is Democrat, 58 to 40 Republican, and the [Washington State] Senate is 29 Democrats to 20 Republicans. So an increase of one in both of those chambers. Not a two-thirds majority by any case, but solid Democratic majorities.
Miller: Andy Billig, a Democrat from Spokane and the senate majority leader, wrote a recent op-ed in The Seattle Times framing the election as a kind of successful referendum on Democratic leadership. What do Democrats say they want to do, broadly, with what they see as a mandate?
Banse: Yeah, and it is an interesting take, because a lot of political analysts see this more as a sign of the Republican brand in Washington State and perhaps more broadly in the Northwest as well, being damaged. And the Democrats, by default, do okay. But as you said, Billig and some of the other Democratic leaders in the Washington Legislature do take it as a voter endorsement of their approach, which has been to invest heavily in rebuilding the social safety net in our state and continuing to do that this year, the focus is on boosting behavioral health or mental health treatment capacity as well as drug treatment capacity and help people who had a hard time in the pandemic get caught up again.
Miller: Let’s turn to housing and homelessness, which definitely ties into what you were talking about there. It does seem like one of the top concerns, maybe the top concern of voters, lawmakers and Governor Jay Inslee; what has the governor said about it?
Banse: The governor went first. He proposed a state budget and a big policy package in December and our saying here is: “The governor proposes and the legislature disposes.” So we’ll see in the next few months how much of the governor’s proposals are in alignment with his party-mates in the legislature. He came out of the gate with a four billion (that’s four billion with a “B”) bond measure proposal, which was a little bit of a surprise. Basically the governor is saying, “I’d like you, the legislature, to put this in front of the voters next November.” Kind of like a school bond, but on steroids. So this would be able to rapidly scale up the amount of subsidies the state pushes out to private developers to build affordable housing.
There’d probably be grants for more tiny house villages like you’ve seen across Oregon and Washington, already; more supportive housing, which is when you’re building low income or subsidized housing for people leaving chronic homelessness, so there’ll be on-site healthcare or mental health treatment, for example. And the four billion, probably, if the voters do go along with this, which is not a guarantee, would also probably have some dedicated funding to build up the mental health and substance abuse treatment world.
Miller: So that’s what the governor has asked for. What kinds of bills related to housing and homelessness have lawmakers been talking about or have been pre-filing?
Banse: They have been pre-filing. There are other approaches besides just borrowing a lot and then spending [it]. Add a lot of housing capacity or housing availability. There’s permit streamlining. That’s come up in multiple ways. What’s most interesting to me, is actually an idea that you’ve been talking about on Think Out Loud, called [the] “Missing Middle” which is changing zoning on a statewide level so that more housing units per lot would be allowed, especially in single family zoned areas. So the legislature is proposing, on a bipartisan basis, to allow fourplexes on a single city lot. Pretty much having the state override city zoning, and going even up to six units on a single lot near transit.
Miller: That is something that state lawmakers in Salem passed about four years ago, Senate Bill 2001. One of the things that incoming governor Tina Kotek championed to increase [was] density in basically almost all of the cities in Oregon.
Banse: The interesting thing here, Dave, and we’ll keep coming back to this, is it’s so interesting as a political reporter on the West Coast to see ideas cross pollinate from Salem to Olympia, Olympia to Salem, Sacramento to the Northwest states. And this is a good example of that.
Miller: Like in Oregon, passing a budget is the only thing that lawmakers in Olympia have to do. What is the overall fiscal situation right now in Washington?
Banse: Honestly, I’m a little surprised how good it is, given all this talk about “there’s a recession looming.” Which it may be, but for the time being, that bounce back from the pandemic shock has been strong in all the West Coast states. Washington state budget writers are looking at around $4 billion in surplus in the State Treasury. And we’ll have a conversation for the next three months, at least, about whether you mostly spend it, hold some in reserve in case that recession that some economists think is coming. Or perhaps provide broad-based tax relief, which has not happened so far in Washington State, unlike a lot of other states around the country, both blue states and red states.
Miller: Is broad-based tax relief, or tax reductions, on the table in Olympia, with solid Democratic control of both chambers and a Democrat in the governor’s mansion?
Banse: For the most part it is not. And we’ve asked questions about that at the legislative previews we’ve had here in Olympia over the past week. The Republicans, definitely, would like it to be on the agenda, either a property tax cut on the statewide part of the property tax. Or a sales tax cut, which you wouldn’t have in Oregon. But in Washington, you could cut the sales tax by 1% and that would cost you more than a billion dollars, but people would notice that. But the Democrats in charge here are basically flatly ruling out broad based tax relief because their feeling is: a whole bunch of people who don’t really need it would get it, being broad based. And they would very much like to do either targeted tax relief for the bottom 20% of the population or invest it in services that would benefit the needy.
Miller: Another big issue has to do with drug laws. This is tied to a state supreme court decision that came down about two years ago. What did the justices there say?
Banse: The justices threw out the Washington State “simple possession” felony drug law. So hundreds of convictions for possession of small amounts of, in this case probably cocaine and heroin, mostly, were thrown out on a somewhat technical issue having to do with the standard of proof that the person charged knew they were in possession. The legislature very quickly made a short term fix on that, so that we didn’t all of a sudden decriminalize hard drugs, but they need to revisit that this year. And otherwise we would go to flat out decriminalization by [the] end of June.
Miller: Are any abortion-related bills likely to go anywhere this session following the end of Roe v. Wade?
Banse: There are two takes here. On the top level, Washington State is [a] pro-abortion rights state by voter initiatives going back at least to the early nineties, if not farther back. So there’s no threat to abortion rights in the state, but the Democrats in charge here don’t want to let go of this issue and are taking two tacks: Some Democrats and the governor would like to codify abortion rights in the state constitution, not just in a state law (which a future legislature perhaps could change). That would take a two thirds vote of the legislature and then approval by the voters at the next election. Democrats don’t have two thirds majorities in the legislature. Republicans don’t look like they would go along with that, saying that’s basically unnecessary since the voters have already weighed in on this. So I don’t see that happening, but there’ll be a lot of talk about it.
The second more narrow question, which may get through, is to protect people coming from states that have now banned abortion, like Idaho, to Washington. The idea is to protect such people from being pursued by law enforcement from their home state. There’d be some tweaking about medical privacy rules, so that someone from Boise, say, couldn’t sue in Spokane for all the clients of Planned Parenthood who came from Idaho. Something like that. I can see that passing.
Miller: What are lawmakers [and] legislative leaders talking about in terms of potential changes to gun laws in Washington?
Banse: A lot of this will sound familiar to Oregonians, but we have two main thrusts coming down the pike here in 2023. One is from the governor, the state attorney general, and allied lawmakers to take another run (previous runs being unsuccessful) at banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles, also known as assault weapons. This has majority support, according to opinion polls in the populace, but there are some conservative Democrats [that] line up with Republicans who are absolutely opposed to this assault rifle ban. That might come this year, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The other idea is something called “shorthand permit to purchase.” This would require prospective gun buyers to show that they’ve passed a basic gun safety course and gone through a 10 day waiting period before they could pick up a new gun. Both of these ideas, if they were to pass, would be immediately challenged by the Second Amendment crowd as unconstitutional under the state constitution of Washington, which has fairly strong gun rights protections.
Miller: Once again, more echoes of the back and forth between what’s happening in Oregon and Washington. What about public safety or policing bills? What’s on the horizon?
Banse: That is going to be a hot topic because in Washington,
like in most states (especially in the big cities) there’s been more murders and assaults since the beginning of the pandemic. I’m seeing a couple things come down the line here and they’re kind of opposed to each other. One is to, from one side, to roll back some of the policing reforms that happened in the wake of George Floyd’s killing back in Minnesota and the racial justice protests of 2020. The thought now is, particularly on the issue of police chases, that maybe the legislature crackdown [went] too far. A lot of police agencies say that criminals know they can get away with it if they hop in a car and start running, and unless there was a violent crime committed, the police can’t chase. So that will be in focus quite a bit.
On the flip side of that, there have been fewer deadly car crashes, innocent people killed, because there have been fewer high speed police chases in the last couple of years. So I don’t know what’s going to happen on that one, but certainly a lot of heat and light will come on that.
There’s an idea that came up in Oregon last year, I believe, to change the grounds that police can pull over somebody, and take out the low level things like broken taillight or expired license tabs. The thought being that if you could reduce the number of interactions on low level offenses you wouldn’t have the unfortunate escalation every now and then where someone gets shot. This didn’t pass in Oregon last year. I kind of think this is not the right climate for going easier on folks on the road this year in Washington State either. But it’s hard to say.
Miller: Just briefly, we’ve covered some of the bigger and more serious issues lawmakers are going to take up. But every session, they also take up more idiosyncratic or personal notions. What’s caught your attention so far?
Banse: Oh, this is one of my favorites. This is what I sometimes call “the talkers” that everyone can have an opinion about and talk radio can have fun with. The one most likely to engage with is something called “universal voting” or “universal civic duty voting.” And the idea is that, like everyone has to respond to a jury summons, you would have to vote if the mail-in ballot comes to you. So every adult who is qualified to vote would be required to register under this proposal to vote. And then when the ballot comes in the mail, you’re required to return it unless you affirmatively sent in a form saying you do not wish to vote. And you don’t have to give an excuse, but you would have to say, “I know it’s my civic duty [but] I’m choosing not to take part.”
I had not heard of this before, and I did a quick bunch of googling this weekend to find out where it comes from. And it’s a lot of… kind of left-leaning East Coast think tanks have picked up on this and suggested this would increase the equity, increase the base of voters who put our elected leaders in office. And I’ve also discovered that Australia already actually has this, and if you miss your obligation to vote for two elections they send you a fine of $15 Australian. Which I’m not sure how much that is, but probably more symbolic than anything.
Miller: Tom, thank you. We will talk again. Tom Banse is the Olympia correspondent. He joined us to talk about the start of the long 2023 Washington legislative session.
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