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News / Northwest

The Washington Legislature kicks off today. Here’s what to watch

Lawmakers are expected to focus the 2024 session on behavioral health, housing and homelessness, the environment, public safety and transportation.

By Donna Gordon Blankinship, Crosscut
Published: January 8, 2024, 8:42am
7 Photos
Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, chair of Senate Ways and Means Committee, left, talks with Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, ranking minority member of Senate Ways and Means Committee, at right, during a legislative session preview in the Cherberg Building at the Capitol Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024 in Olympia, Wash.
Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, chair of Senate Ways and Means Committee, left, talks with Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, ranking minority member of Senate Ways and Means Committee, at right, during a legislative session preview in the Cherberg Building at the Capitol Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024 in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson) Photo Gallery

The 60-day Washington legislative session begins Monday with a relatively short to-do list before everyone decamps to focus on the election.

Lawmakers will not write a new two-year budget, but they will nibble around the edges of the way the state plans to spend tax dollars over the next few years. Legislative leaders said last week during a press preview that they will focus their time in Olympia this year on mental health, substance-abuse treatment and prevention, housing and homelessness, the environment, policing and a few issues they can’t really avoid, like shoring up the ferry system.

These are all priorities that cost money to address, as does most of the Legislature’s work, and thanks to the state’s new capital gains tax and carbon pricing system, lawmakers expect to have a surplus of  more than $1 billion to tap if they choose to. Most of that money, however, is already assigned to build and support schools and address climate change.

Although the legislative website listed hundreds of prefiled bills before the Legislature convened – some of which will get some committee attention – most of their attention will be on these topics, many of which are intertwined. Looming over their work will be six initiatives that appear to have the signatures required to go before voters next fall, including proposals to eliminate both of the state’s new sources of income: the cap-and-invest carbon pricing system and the capital gains tax.

Voters who responded to the recent Crosscut/Elway poll had a slightly different list. Their to-do list for the Legislature – the same as last year’s – included the economy, public safety, homelessness, taxes, government (including polarization, election security, democracy, less government and corruption), education and the environment.

Here are six things to watch during the 2024 legislative session, scheduled to run between Jan. 8 and March 7.

Behavioral health, including substance abuse

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget includes money to pay for the new 100+-bed Tukwila psychiatric hospital bought by the state earlier this year after it was closed by a private company. He’s also requesting $38.4 million to recruit and retain workers at Eastern State and Western State hospitals, Washington’s two big public psychiatric facilities.

Lawmakers are working to move mental health and substance-abuse treatment closer to people’s home communities. Inslee’s budget calls for $64 million to spend on new programs, including opioid prevention, education and public awareness campaigns and nearly $12 million to increase treatment programs in jails and state prisons.

Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said that the state has focused its recent behavioral health spending on the most expensive care in state hospitals. “I would love for us to be able to balance our approach to behavioral health,” she said during last week’s legislative preview. She wants to focus more spending on community-based help.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, chair of the House Appropriations Committee noted the interconnectedness of many of the issues before the state government right now.

“You can’t just pull on the behavioral health string without a bunch of other things moving. …

We need to support our workers with adequate child care and we also, through policy and budget, need to work on housing affordability because we will not be able to attract workers if they’re only able to afford living arrangements too far from where they work,” Ormsby said.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said those interwoven issues will be the priorities of this legislative session: housing, access to affordable child care, mental health treatment and the fentanyl crisis, plus efforts to move forward on addressing climate change.

Housing and homelessness

Housing was the acknowledged issue of the year in 2023, but no one is declaring mission accomplished. Lawmakers and the governor have plans to keep putting money into building more housing and getting the unhoused into stable housing. Some lawmakers seem to be inspired by local initiatives in Tacoma and Bellingham to establish some statewide renter protections, including a rent-stabilization proposal.

Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, introduced Senate Bill 5435 during the 2023 session to hold rent increases to at or below the rate of inflation, and says she will be pursuing something similar in 2024.

Inslee included $100 million in his budget proposal for the state Department of Commerce to buy properties that could be converted into housing for people experiencing homelessness. That emergency housing could include hotels transformed into apartments, as well as tiny home villages and supportive housing with wraparound services.

The environment

Two proposals related to Washington’s new carbon pricing system will likely get attention this session. Washington is considering joining California and Quebec to create one big carbon auction, which government officials hope will decrease its impact on gas prices. Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic legislative leaders also want to create a new agency to regulate the oil industry in Washington and gain more transparency around oil- and gas-industry profits and pricing. Inslee contends the five biggest oil companies made $200 billion in profits in 2022.

Inslee said on Thursday at the media preview that his two biggest concerns for his last year in office are making sure his grandchildren inherit a clean, healthy and beautiful Washington and addressing the state’s behavioral health concerns.

Policing and public safety

The governor and most lawmakers are concerned about helping local police departments and the State Patrol hire more officers. Inslee put $30.9 million into his supplemental budget proposal to add 80 new officers to the State Patrol and 100 non-field positions.

The governor also wants to help local agencies hire more police, in part by continuing to expand officer training opportunities around the state. The Legislature already put hundreds of millions into the regular biennial budget to expand police training, but at the legislative preview event last week, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers spoke about increasing these efforts.

Several noted that Washington has had the lowest per-capita presence of police officers. According to the 2022 crime report from the Washington Association of Police Chiefs and Sheriffs (the latest available), the state is last among the states and the District of Columbia with 10,666 officers – or 1.29 full-time commissioned officers per 1,000 people. This made 2022 the 13th year in a row Washington placed last for law enforcement staffing.

Transportation

Although Republicans aren’t big fans of Washington’s new carbon pricing system, they do have a lot of ideas about how to spend the money the Carbon Commitment Act has brought into the state. Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, is very concerned about Washington’s troubled ferry system, which is short on both operational ferries and people to run them. He said during Thursday’s legislative preview event for the media that lawmakers should consider using some of the money set aside for climate-change mitigation for the ferry system.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, is also concerned about the ferry system and wants lawmakers to pay more attention to traffic safety this year. Liias said the state is obviously not doing enough when a hit-and-run fatal accident occurred within the first few days of the new year. Liias and his Democratic and Republican transportation committee colleagues said creative solutions are needed to address this issue, possibly including more highway and road cameras and better enforcement by a larger State Patrol. The governor’s supplemental budget includes a pilot study of automated enforcement on the state’s highways.

“We’re going to be looking under every proverbial rock for ideas,” Liias said concerning both the ferry system and traffic safety.

Initiatives and lawsuits

A GOP-backed group called Let’s Go Washington has proposed six initiatives to the Legislature aimed at turning back much of the progress Democrats have made in state government over their years of majority rule. All six appear to have the required signatures to be certified by the Secretary of State’s Office, but we’ll know for sure later in the session.

An initiative to the Legislature has three potential paths: Lawmakers can consider the proposal, pass or reject it and send it on to voters; ignore the proposal and let it go directly to the ballot; or propose an alternative initiative to face off against the citizen initiative on the November ballot.

The proposed initiatives are:

A few lawmakers have said out loud what many others are probably thinking: Will the state lose the cash infusion it has enjoyed this year if voters approve the proposals to repeal the capital gains tax and the carbon pricing system? The recent Crosscut/Elway poll found support for the idea of repealing the capital gains tax and the cap-and-invest system, but the poll did not provide voters with any details about what that might look like.

“I hope that we can stay within the budget and be very mindful also of the initiatives that are being brought forward. Some of these initiatives affect revenue and we need to consider what that might do to the budget going forward,” said Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, during the legislative press preview last week.

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