The 2020 Washington State Legislative Session:
A Major Disappointment
by John Stafford
This article reviews the just-completed 2020 Washington State Legislative Session. It has three objectives: to summarize the key themes of the session; to provide a summary of progress in each policy area; and to evaluate the session.
As is commonly known, Washington State operates on a biennium basis, with “long sessions” of 105 days occurring in odd-numbered years (as in 2019) and “short sessions” of 60 days occurring in even-numbered years (as in 2020). Three budgets (operating, transportation and capital) are created in the long sessions, and then they are modified in the short sessions. In addition, several thousand bills are considered for passage in every session.
Three major themes emanated from the 2020 Legislative Session: (1) Timidity and lack of structural change; (2) Inadequate response – in both public health and economic policy – to the Covid-19 crisis; (3) Poor positioning for the 2021 Legislative Session and the need for a delayed Special Session.
- Timidity and Lack of Structural Change
The 2019 Legislative Session was one of the most successful in decades (I summarized it last year -- giving it the grade of A- in this South Seattle Emerald article -- https://southseattleemerald.com/2019/06/11/opinion-grading-the-2019-washington-state-legislative-session/). The session had a bold liberal agenda that sought to restructure the manner in which Washington State operates. It succeeded in multiple realms:
- Climate Change: Requiring the state’s electric grid be fully renewable by 2045
- Health Care: Introducing a public option (“Cascade Care”) to augment the Affordable Care Act
- Mental Health: Transitioning from a centralized to a community-based mental-health delivery model
- K-12 Education: Completing the McCleary changes to K-12 finance by transitioning from local-district financing to state-level financing
- College Finance: Guaranteeing financial aid for all students with need
- Elections: Fully transitioning to statewide, mail in, postage-paid elections
- Gun Control: Passing numerous gun control measures
The 2020 Session stands in stark contrast to the 2019 Session. The 2020 Democratic Party Legislative Agenda was unambitious from the outset, and then legislators failed to pass a number of important bills from this modest agenda. Importantly, no major areas of state operation were fundamentally transformed in this session, a striking reversal from 2019.
Some will argue that this is to be expected – this was a short session with less time to pass transformative legislation, and it was important to consolidate last year’s gains and not be overly aggressive in two consecutive sessions. I disagree. There were huge omissions from the 2020 Legislative Agenda, including: a new source of revenue (via, for example, a capital gains tax or an income tax); and more aggressive climate change legislation (discussed later). And this was an ideal session for Washington to make progress in these areas, for two reasons. First, Washington State is one of 15 states with a Democratic Trifecta (Democratic Party control of the governorship, the State House and the State Senate). Democrats should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by these majorities to continue to make momentous structural change. Second, the excitement and momentum from last year’s session should have been harnessed to continue the process of implementing structural change. Thus, in my view, the 2020 Legislative Session was immensely disappointing, and represents a major squandered opportunity.
- Inadequate Response to the Covid-19 Crisis
The severity of the coronavirus crisis was not appreciated until far too late in the session. In part, this is attributable to the tragic and pathetic delay in the acknowledgement of the severity of the pandemic at the federal level.
There will, of course, be massive implications from Covid-19 for Washington State with respect to both public health and economic growth (not to mention other realms). However, the late realization of the magnitude of the crisis led to a significant under-reaction by state legislators. Late in the session, the amount devoted to the public health response to the coronavirus crisis was increased from $100 million to $200 million, which included funding for a dedicated call center. This level of funding will prove woefully inadequate.
On the economic side, it is important to recognize that the state’s finances will be devastated from both sides (revenue and expense) due to Covid-19: state revenue will decrease dramatically due to the looming severe and prolonged economic recession; and many of the state’s expenses will increase dramatically due to Covid-19 (e.g., Medicaid, unemployment benefits, TANF, housing, homelessness response and other social program needs). Thus, the state is about to confront a gargantuan budgetary vice. Moreover, the response to this emergency will be hamstrung by the fact that Washington State must balance its budget (unlike the federal government which can run a budget deficit and finance it via borrowing).
- Poor Positioning for 2021 and the Need for a Special Session
The disconnect between the budgets that were just created in Olympia, and the reality of the massive health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, will create a crisis for the state. In my view (and the view of many analysts), this situation calls for a delayed Special Session in Olympia – a reconvening of the Legislature (hopefully in the near future) to develop the myriad plans necessary to deal with the pending health and economic emergencies. This option has been discussed, but not yet effected. It is also important to note that the amount of legislative capacity that will be necessary to deal with the implications of the Covid-19 crisis during the 2021 Legislative Session will be immense, and this will lead to diminished capacity to deal with other issues. Thus, advocacy groups will have to have scaled-back expectations for liberal policy reform in the 2021 Legislative Session.
PROGRESS BY POLICY AREA
- Budgets: Grade D+
To evaluate the budgets, one must separating the Operating Budget (by far the largest, at $53.4 billion) from the Transportation Budget ($10.4 billion).
As noted above, the Operating Budget calls for revenue and spending levels that will not be sustainable as the state moves into its Coronavirus Recession. At the end of the 2020 Session, confronted with the emerging reality of a pending recession, legislators made several changes to their budget proposal: they reduced spending; left over $900 million in projected revenue unspent; and planned for reserves of $3 billion (an all-time high). But all of this will not come close to addressing the damage to the state’s finances from the coming recession.
In short, the Operating Budget was created using one set of assumptions, and when it became clear that these assumptions would become inadequate due to Covid-19, legislators made a few changes which will prove inadequate to the challenge at hand. Representative Drew Stokesbury (R 31) notes: “[The budget] relies on a revenue forecast that does not account for the global economic shocks likely to occur if the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt supply chains and consumer demand” (cited in Washington State Wire, 3/11/20). This pending financial crisis is not, of course, unique to Washington State. Kevin Yamamura, writing in Politico Online (3/19/20), summarizes the situation: “A plunging stock market. Restaurants, gyms and movie theaters shutting their doors. Workers losing more income each day. It’s an unprecedented public crisis, and it’s also billions of dollars in state tax revenue that’s evaporating quickly — and scrambling the economic equation for governors and mayors across the nation.”
The State’s Transportation Budget represents a more impressive effort by state legislators. Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976, which passed last November, calls for a significant reduction in car tab taxes which, if effected, would have a significant negative effect on the Transportation Budget. This initiative is currently being litigated in the courts, and it is unclear whether the provisions of I-976 will become law. Lawmakers developed the Transportation Budget by assuming that I-976 will, in fact, come into effect. In order to avoid a cancellation or significant delay in major projects, lawmakers then used creative accounting techniques (e.g., bringing funding into the Transportation Budget from other accounts). Thus, the Transportation Budget represents an inspiring attempt to deal with the challenge of I-976. That being said, the Transportation Budget will also face additional funding challenges from the pending revenue decline from the pending Coronavirus Recession.
- Taxation: Grade F
Washington State legislators continue to operate negligently with respect to the state’s tax structure.
Washington State is ranked 32 out of 50 states in its level of total taxation (state and local) as a percentage of personal income. It is ranked 50 out of 50 states in its level of regressivity (that is, we have our poor citizens pay a higher share of their income in taxes than any other state). Thus, we are a relatively low-tax state with exorbitant regressivity. The reason for this is that the state is one of only 8 states without an income tax and 9 states without a capital gains tax.
It is appalling that in a political environment where the Democratic Party has a trifecta in the state (comprised of a seven-seat advantage in the Senate and a 16-seat advantage in the House), the Legislature will not pass a new, progressive source of revenue. The ongoing failure to make this happen is a blight on the state’s record. And it goes without saying that a tax on high-income earners would be exactly the vehicle necessary to partially deal with the pending state financial crisis (notwithstanding the obvious rejoinder that tax revenue on high-income earners will fall significantly in the pending recession, and this is especially true of the capital gains tax).
It is worth noting that in the 2020 Session, the Boeing tax breaks of 2013 were repealed, and this was done at the company’s request. The reason Boing wanted the tax breaks repealed is that the World Trade Organization ruled them illegal, and the tariff penalties that Boeing would confront if it kept the tax breaks would exceed the benefits of the breaks.
- Climate Change: Grade D
Several important bills were passed in this session. A “Zero Emission Vehicle” bill to increase the sales of electric vehicles in Washington State was passed. In addition, a bill to improve agricultural practices to enhance carbon sequestration passed. Also, new Greenhouse Gas Emissions targets were set, calling for Washington State to be GHG neutral by 2050.
However, there were major disappointments. The Clean Fuels Bill, calling for the use of biofuels to decrease the carbon content of fuels failed to pass for the second year in a row. There was no progress on passing a much needed statewide carbon tax. A bill to ban the sale of new internal combustion vehicles in Washington State did not pass (this bill will likely require numerous sessions before it succeeds). Moreover, bills to declare a climate change emergency in Washington State and to incorporate climate change into the state’s K-12 curriculum did not pass.
- Other Environmental Bills: Grade C-
A bill to ban plastic bags and charge an 8 cent per bag fee for paper bags passed (although there is some activity to repeal the plastic bag ban during the coronavirus, as plastic bags are deemed safer than the re-use of personal bags). There were bills passed to increase protections for Orcas and to ban suction drudge mining, as well as a pilot program to study the feasibility of using traffic cameras to ticket drivers that enter into crosswalks (“block the box”). However, there were also important shortcomings, including the failure to create a nuclear waste repository for Hanford, the failure to pass a shoreline management act to reduce fossil fuel infrastructure development and not passing a statewide ban on single-use plastic straws.
- K-12 Education: Grade C
There was little change in K-12 education policy as a result of the 2020 Legislative Session. There remains inadequate funding for special education and “wraparound services” for students (e.g., nurses, counselors, etc.). A bill was passed to require science-based sex education in the state’s K-12 schools (this was controversial as it raised issues of curriculum-appropriateness and local school district control). Also, a measure to fully equalize funding for charter schools failed, which will please most liberals who oppose the charter school movement.
- Health Care: Grade C-
As noted above, $200 million was dedicated to the health care demands of Covid-19 (including testing and a statewide dedicated call center). These funding levels will certainly prove inadequate. In addition, a bill to limit insulin expenses to $100/month passed, as did a bill to create a task force to study insulin procurement. However, a bill to allow the state to engage in the bulk purchasing of insulin did not pass. Also, there will not be an ongoing ban on flavored vaping ban, and a proposed committee to study the viability of universal health care in Washington State was not funded.
- Social Services: Grade C
There was an increase in funding for homelessness, although the magnitude of this increase was reduced significantly at the end of the session in order to re-appropriate funding for the Covid-19 response. There were also two tax measures considered that would increase local government authority to raise taxes to address homelessness: a bill to allow local municipalities to increase their current excise tax authority – which passed, and a bill to allow jurisdictions with over two million people to tax large businesses – which failed.
- Elections: C
A bill to modernize the redistricting process passed. However, bills to limit gerrymandering, to allow ex-felons to vote, and to eliminate the cumbersome advisory votes on election ballots, did not.
- Public Records, Citizen Privacy, Government Surveillance, Etc.: C-
State Senator Reuven Carlyle sponsored a bill to provide additional protections for the state’s residents over the collection and use of their personal data. This important bill failed. However, another important bill – one that prescribes limits on the use of facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence for surveillance by the state government – did pass. A bill was passed to limit the Public Records Act by enabling the state government to conceal the birthdates of state employees (this measure was strongly opposed by The Seattle Times). The effort to eliminate the use of title only bills – bills with no substance (only a title) that are introduced prior to bill cut-off deadlines – did not pass.
- Gun Control: D
Several gun control measures passed, including a ban on firearms in child care facilities. However, critical measures did not pass – including a proposed ban on high capacity magazines and a measure to ban assault weapons.
- Other: C
A number of other measures passed. These include bills to increase funding for rape kits, to ban private prisons and detention centers, to ban employment discrimination based on hairstyle, to encourage diversification of marijuana establishments, and to ban tenant evictions during the Covid-19 crisis. Other bills that did not pass include bills to test the concept of Universal Basic Income, to prevent employers from not interviewing job applicants who use marijuana and to prevent immigration officials from arresting individuals within one mile of a courthouse.
I grade the 2020 Washington Legislative Session as a “D”, for the following reasons:
- Democratic Legislators set insufficiently ambitious from the outset, and failed to pass many of the important bills from this modest agenda.
- The ongoing failure to change the state’s tax structure to place more of the tax burden on its most affluent individuals is appalling. This failure will now constrain efforts to deal with the economic devastation from the Covid-19 crisis.
- In addition, the state desperately needs to move forward much more aggressively on climate change policy – the failure to pass bills calling for Clean Fuels and the declaration of a climate emergency, and to not institute a mandatory K-12 climate change curriculum represent major disappointments and need to be reintroduced in subsequent sessions until they pass.
- The Operating Budget is unworkable upon completion. It does not square with the pending economic realities brought forth by the Covid-19 crisis.
- The ongoing pursuit of liberal structural reform is hindered both by the pusillanimous approach adopted with this year’s legislative agenda, and the bleak financial outlook for 2021, which will further diminish progress with the liberal agenda.
Much more could have and should have been accomplished in the 2020 Legislative Session. A prolonged Special Session should be called to begin planning for the many effects of the looming Covid-19 health and economic crises.
OPINION: Grading the 2019 Washington State Legislative Session
Re-posted from The South Seattle Emerald
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.
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