Five takeaways from the 2024 Washington legislative session


March 28, 2024

Thursday marks the end of this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers put the finishing touches on legislation, approved budget proposals, and prepared to bail out of Olympia. Barring an unexpected special session, they are not scheduled to return until January 2025.

Here are five storylines that shaped what happened this year:

Initiatives overshadowed the session

Democrats were forced to take a detour after getting pelted with six citizen initiatives they weren’t eager to embrace. They approved three this week and hope to defeat the other three this fall when the measures will go to voters to decide.

Figuring out how to handle the initiatives and how they meshed with existing law sucked up time and weighed on conversations around the Capitol. Lt. Gov. Denny Heck said the initiatives presented a “huge task” for the majority heading into the session. “I think they thought that through very well, and I think it took up a lot of the bandwidth,” he added.

The ones that the Legislature did approve – with varying degrees of Democratic support – will lift restrictions on police vehicle pursuits, prohibit income taxes, and establish a “bill of rights” for parents of K-12 students. Rolling back the police pursuit rules was an especially sour pill for some Democrats, who put the restrictions in place in 2021 as part of broader police reforms.

Passing three is widely considered a ballot-decluttering exercise by Democrats heading into November. The three measures that will go to voters seek to repeal or roll back the Climate Commitment Act and its carbon market, the state’s capital gains tax, and Washington’s long-term care insurance program. If voters approve those initiatives, it will winnow billions of dollars from the state budget, torpedo the main pillar of Democrats’ efforts to combat climate change, and leave the finances of the long-term care program in peril.

Getting three measures out of the equation reduces the possibility voters will be overwhelmed by too many initiatives. And Democrats and their allies can go all in fighting the three remaining ones.

Republicans had a ‘pretty good’ year

Though outnumbered in the House and Senate, the Grand Old Party checked many boxes on its to-do list. They notched a major win with approval of the three initiatives. Statewide rent restrictions, an expanded tax on high-dollar real estate sales, unemployment benefits for striking workers, and new regulation of the oil industry did not happen. More dollars for special education, mental health services, and fighting fentanyl did.

“It’s actually turning out to be a pretty good session,” said House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary.

But, reality check, much of the legislation Republicans disliked didn’t fail because of their opposition alone or because they presented alternatives that won the day. In most cases, these policy ideas are still stewing and brewing on the other side of the aisle and Democratic champions for these bills will return in 2025 ready to push for them, having had more time to build support and a longer runway to get legislation off the ground in a 105-day session. Meanwhile, Republicans face a steep path to gaining majorities in either chamber. GOP legislators have been disciplined in staying on message about affordability and public safety, avoiding many of the culture war fights that dominate Republican platforms in other states. Even so, the party’s brand may soon once again have a giant “MAGA” label pinned to it if Donald Trump completes his glide path to this year’s Republican presidential nomination. The former president is unlikely to help state Republicans attract moderate Democrats or Independents to their camp. So the blissed-out GOP vibes around the state Capitol may be short-lived. Big progressive priorities flared out. Progressive Democrats crashed into the fiscal and political limits of their more moderate and pragmatic colleagues. Bolder ideas pushed by the party’s left flank – unemployment insurance for striking workers, regulating hospital mergers, granting new rights to prisoners, overhauling the state’s approach to recycling, and capping annual rent increases – all went up in smoke. But as mentioned above, just because these bills didn’t survive this year doesn’t mean they won’t reemerge. As Rep. Emily Alvarado, D-West Seattle, said after the collapse of legislation she sponsored to cap residential rent increases for most tenants at 7% annually: “The momentum is building, and next year, I believe we will pass this bill.” With a growing wave of retirements, the party’s progressives could be in a stronger position next year. This will depend on who takes over leadership posts and who replaces more moderate Democrats who are moving on – including Sen. Mark Mullet, who has earned a reputation as a slayer of progressive priorities in the Senate over his three terms.

Democrats have a climate policy quandary. Democrats face a serious dilemma in achieving their climate goals. Decarbonizing is expensive. Companies have no obligation to absorb regulatory costs and typically pass them to consumers. Lower-income households will pay more of their earnings to bear these costs.They know they need to do something to thwart criticism that their climate agenda is hurting those with less means to pay. Debate over House Bill 1589 – the controversial legislation to grease the gears of Puget Sound Energy’s transition away from natural gas – drove home the point. In the Senate, first, and then the House, Republicans pilloried Democrats and positioned themselves as the party of the poor, pummeling the bill as a “regressive” policy that would drive up energy costs for cash-strapped Washingtonians. Their message struck a nerve. Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, said on the floor that the bill was not easy for her to support, fretting over how it might squeeze utility ratepayers. “We have to make sure there is money available to make our constituents whole,” she said. Then, a day after the bill won final approval, Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, who also backed the legislation, announced she would work in the months ahead to “coordinate a comprehensive policy platform on the needs of overburdened, underrepresented, and low-to-middle income communities in the clean energy transition.” It’s not as if Democrats weren’t aware of this looming problem. The year’s budget includes $150 million for a plan drawn up by Gov. Jay Inslee to provide $200 electricity bill rebates for tens of thousands of low- and middle-income households. Notably, the credits should appear on bills by Sept. 15, a month before voting begins on the citizen initiative to repeal the cap-and-trade program. Democrats also dedicated $30 million in the budget for farmers who paid higher fuel costs for which they were supposed to be exempt.

This all follows last summer’s flare-up over the Climate Commitment Act and high gas prices. Opponents pounced at the chance to highlight expensive gas as a downside of the law. Affordability themes continue to underpin their quest to overturn it. This session may force a realization for Democrats. Rather than arguing over the size or source of higher prices, a surer path to short-circuit the criticism would be to funnel more money to rebates or tax breaks that offset the cost of the energy transition for low-income families. They could tap some of the cash gushing in from the carbon auctions to do this. But that would mean saying “no” to allies and interest groups looking to get their hands on chunks of the money for other programs. That may not be a hard sell given the stakes. Inslee’s last lap This is Gov. Jay Inslee’s 12th and final legislative session. He’s not been seen much around the Capitol of late due to a bout with pneumonia. Then again, he wasn’t known for keeping a high profile during sessions when he was well either. Inslee isn’t one for negotiating the finer points of his own legislative requests. He’s an ideas guy, a communicator, and a coach. He points to the goal line and then trusts the talents of his team to handle the nitty gritty stuff. Most weeks Inslee has traveled to somewhere in the state to talk about how Washington is confronting the fentanyl epidemic, expanding behavioral health services, and getting people who are homeless into shelter. And pretty much every trip he is selling the promise of the Climate Commitment Act and celebrating how the dollars it’s generating from polluters are getting plowed back into communities to fight the ill effects of a changing climate. As noted, this signature achievement faces erasure in November. So it makes sense he’s not hanging around looking for something to negotiate but instead doing what he does best, campaigning, in what will be a defining moment for his political legacy.


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