Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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In Our View: New laws help make Washington more livable

The Columbian

Along with the hope for a better year than the last one, 2021 has arrived with several new laws in Washington. New standards took effect Jan. 1 governing how much we pay for prescription drugs and how we care for children and even how some of us drive big rigs.

As happens with every turn of the calendar, it can be difficult to keep straight the regulations that reach into our daily lives. The Revised Code of Washington, after all, has hundreds of chapters, addressing minutiae such as the “Hardwoods Commission” and “Ladybugs and other beneficial insects.”

Most prominent among this year’s changes is an increase to the state’s minimum wage, which goes to $13.69 an hour — a boost of 19 cents. For the first time since voters approved minimum wage standards in 2016, this year’s rate was determined by inflation; and with a pandemic wreaking havoc on the economy, inflation was relatively low.

The new minimum wage for hourly workers is among the highest in the nation, trailing Washington, D.C., and California. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 has not been increased since 2009.

Meanwhile, state rules that took effect last year dictate that workers at small companies (50 or fewer employees) must earn a yearly salary of $42,712.80 to be exempt from overtime, and employees at larger companies must earn at least $49,831.60 to be exempt.

Employees and employers, however, are not the only people who might be impacted by new state laws:

• Medical insurance plans may not charge members more than $100 per month for insulin under a new cap on costs. There also are new restrictions on the price of prescription drugs, with Washington taking the lead on a pressing issue the federal government has largely ignored.

• The state has made it easier for families with children, especially in rural areas, to receive a full year of the Working Connections Child Care subsidies.

• People who have a record of child abuse or neglect cannot be denied employment if they have obtained a certificate of parental improvement relating directly to the case. Improvement certificates may not be obtained in cases of sexual abuse or severe physical abuse. The bill passed 63-35 in the House and 47-2 in the Senate.

• Military veterans may waive a knowledge test for driving commercial vehicles if they have had comparable training, easing the path for obtaining a commercial license. There are about 520,000 veterans in Washington, and the law is designed to improve their employment prospects.

• Motorists traveling in or through Seattle caught by automated traffic safety cameras can receive tickets of up to $75 for infractions. Before the new year, they would receive only warnings.

Meanwhile, restrictions governing whale watching take effect in May. Commercial vessels may view orcas during a pair of two-hour windows per day, and there are new limits on how many boats may be close to a pod.

The rules come from a 2019 law that directed the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop guidelines for vessels near orcas. “The purpose … is to reduce the impacts of vessel noise and disturbance on the whales’ ability to forage, rest, and socialize while enabling sustainable whale watching,” the department’s website says.

The slate of new laws does not include a marquee item such as legalized marijuana or gun control. But as passed by lawmakers after due consideration, they each will play a role in making Washington more livable for its citizens.