When Gov. Jay Inslee delivered his State of the State address at the beginning of the 2018 legislative session, he challenged lawmakers to use this year’s 60-day session to tackle some of our state’s biggest problems.
On many fronts, the Washington Legislature rose to the occasion. Lawmakers approved a supplemental budget that meets the state’s final basic education obligations under the McCleary lawsuit, adds crucial funding for behavioral health services, provides property tax relief for homeowners and invests in strategies to fight the opioid epidemic.
Additionally, legislators approved modest new regulations for firearms, a first-in-the-nation net neutrality bill and long-awaited policies such as the Reproductive Parity Act, equal pay for women, Breakfast After the Bell and several measures to improve voter access and strengthen democracy.
“This was a very productive session, and state lawmakers can leave Olympia feeling proud about a job well done,” Inslee said. “They passed a long list of thoughtful legislation that will have impacts on Washingtonians for decades to come. They took on significant challenges and adjourned on time.”
Right out of the gate, the Legislature handled leftover business from the 2017 session by approving a capital budget, which provided funding for construction projects to meet pent-up needs across the state and passed a bill to ease the effects of the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision on rural builders.
Washington leads the way
This session, Washington became one of just a few states to pass a ban on bump stocks and the first state in the nation to pass a law protecting net neutrality.
The perpetrator of the Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest in modern U.S. history, used bump stocks. That tragedy prompted Inslee and other state leaders to call for the ban. The bill Inslee signed makes it a crime to manufacture, sell, purchase, own, furnish, assemble, repair, loan, transport or possess bump stocks in Washington.
The legislation also lengthens the prison sentence of anyone who uses a bump stock while committing a felony and creates a buyback program for the devices. The parts of the bill prohibiting the manufacturing and sale of these devices take effect July 1 of this year, while the rest of the bill takes effect July 1, 2019.
The net neutrality bill protects an open internet in Washington, despite rollbacks by the Federal Communications Commission late last year.
The law will prohibit companies that offer internet services from blocking legal content, applications, services or nonharmful devices. It prohibits them from impairing — or throttling — internet speeds based on the content internet users consume or the apps, services and devices they use. And it will prohibit companies from favoring certain traffic for its own benefit, a practice referred to as paid prioritization.
“As more of our economic opportunities such as education, health care, banking, job functions, media viewing and relationships thrive online, the more important it is to preserve consumer choice,” said Sarah Bird, CEO of Seattle-based search engine optimization company Moz. “Internet service providers cannot be allowed to substitute their money-motivated judgment on how you spend your time online. Our internet economy is the envy of the world; Washington lawmakers are helping make sure that remains true.”
Leaving a legacy
Also notable was the Legislature’s passage of the Access to Democracy package, which includes the Voting Rights Act, Election Day voter registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and an automatic voter registration program.
The Voting Rights Act will help ensure fair representation in local races by authorizing district-based elections.
Fair representation was recently an issue in Yakima, where nearly 40 percent of the population is Latino, yet no Latino had ever been elected to the city council. The U.S. District Court found in 2014 that the city’s at-large voting system was disenfranchising Latino voters and diluting their voting power. Yakima moved to a district-based election in 2015, and three Latinas were elected that same year. The Voting Rights Act allows other communities to take similar actions.
This session, lawmakers also approved legislation to:
- Offer Breakfast After the Bell programs in high-need schools. These programs allow students to eat breakfast during instructional time, accommodating hungry students who can’t make it to school for breakfast before class begins.
- Require reproductive parity in all health insurance plans in Washington, meaning plans that offer maternity coverage must also cover contraception and abortions.
- Improve the state’s behavioral health and addiction services by transferring those responsibilities from the Department of Social and Health Services to the Health Care Authority and Department of Health, where services will be better coordinated.
- Restrict conversion therapy, the scientifically unfounded practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This law prohibits licensed health care providers from performing conversion therapy on patients under 18.
- Ban the box. This law prohibits employers from asking job applicants about prior arrests or criminal convictions and is an important step in helping individuals who have been incarcerated to successfully re-enter the community.
- Help reduce Washington’s carbon footprint with more than $140 million in clean transportation investments in electric ferries, electric buses, ultra high speed rail and electric-vehicle charging stations.
The governor had also proposed legislation that would strengthen the state’s response to the opioid crisis, including more resources for medication-assisted treatment, new requirements for prescription monitoring and authorization for emergency rooms to dispense overdose-reversal medication, among other improvements. While the bill passed unanimously in the House, it failed to pass out of the Senate.
Although a carbon tax bill, one of Inslee’s proposals for fighting climate change, stalled near the end of the session, it received more traction than it had in previous years. It passed through two committees in the Senate and garnered support from a range of groups in Washington, including business, tribal and labor leaders.
Sen. Reuven Carlyle, the bill’s primary sponsor, said he was glad to partner with Inslee and Sen. Guy Palumbo on the effort.
“I’m proud that the Washington Legislature embraced the global dialogue for climate action and carbon pricing,” Carlyle said. “We have proven that Washington will ultimately join the global trend toward investing in the next generation of clean energy infrastructure and jobs.”
Supplemental budget follows Inslee’s lead
In approving changes to the current two-year state budget, lawmakers largely followed the framework of the supplemental budget Inslee proposed in December.
Most notably, the budget includes $970 million to fully fund the state’s basic education obligations in the 2018–19 school year. This investment is expected to finally bring an end to the years-long McCleary lawsuit.
Over the past four years, in response to the lawsuit, the state has added billions of dollars in new funding for public schools. While the state Supreme Court ruled last fall that the plan put forward by lawmakers in 2017 would meet the state’s constitutional school funding obligations, it said the budget fell short because it did not fully fund higher salaries for teachers and other school staff until 2019, a year later than the court-mandated deadline.
With the $970 million lawmakers added in this year’s supplemental budget, K-12 spending will make up nearly 51 percent of total state General Fund spending — the highest level in more than 30 years. In addition to funding the final steps under McCleary, lawmakers approved $27 million to boost funding for special education.
“The investments we’ve made in education are truly historic,” Inslee said.
Inslee praised lawmakers for including funding in the budget to reduce property taxes in 2019 for homeowners and businesses. And thanks to a recent uptick in Washington’s revenue forecast, the state is still projected to have nearly $2.4 billion in total reserves at the end of this biennium.
The Legislature also made significant investments and reforms to the state’s behavioral health system, including about $157 million in new state funding to expand behavioral health services in communities, make vital improvements at the state’s psychiatric hospitals and fund a package of strategies the governor advanced to combat the state’s opioid crisis.
The budget includes $1.5 million to protect Southern Resident killer whales and support the governor’s efforts to develop a long-term orca recovery plan.
Lawmakers also provided funding to strengthen the state’s earthquake and tsunami preparedness, improve efforts to prevent oil spills and increase the state’s wildfire prevention and response capabilities.