Here Are the Issues to Watch After the Legislature Convened Monday for 2023 Session

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The economy. Public safety. Homelessness and the housing shortage. Taxes.

These vexing issues are front and center as the Washington Legislature convened this week for its first in-person session in two years due to the pandemic.

Democrats hold strong majorities in both chambers, and they will be tasked with writing a budget for the next two years as well.

A Crosscut Elway poll this month found those top issues are on the minds of voters, so here’s what to look for.

Housing

Gov. Jay Inslee has made addressing the state’s housing and homelessness crisis a top priority this legislative session in his proposed budget, and legislators on both sides of the aisle have agreed it’s top of mind for them.

Inslee is calling for a referendum to allow an increase in the state’s bond capacity to raise $4 billion over the next six years toward housing and behavioral health investments.

Lawmakers have not said whether they think they have the votes to place the referendum to pass on the ballot.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, the Spokane Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said the state should make housing investments for the homeless and those who need down payment assistance for a new home.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said Republicans and Democrats often have a lot in common on housing issues, particularly when it comes to zoning and building code reforms.

A proposal co-sponsored by Democrat Rep. Jessica Bateman and Republican Rep. Andrew Barkis would make it legal to construct fourplexes on any residential lot in cities with more than 6,000 people.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, agreed that all segments should work on housing, but said the primary focus needs to be on building affordable housing for low-income people because they are the ones who need it most.

Workforce

Workforce issues will be omnipresent this session.

“There’s probably no more widespread problem in our economy,” Wilcox said.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said addressing the child care shortage is a priority. He also pointed to expanding apprenticeship.

Jinkins also pointed to allowing more opportunities for people to start working while in school to work their way up to higher positions quickly. She also mentioned changing licensing requirements, particularly for health care workers, and loosening them to get people into work faster.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said he agreed on licensing and educational requirements, such as needing a master’s degree instead of a bachelor’s and work experience.

“We have to look broadly at how we get after this,” Braun said.

Behavioral Health

Along with housing, Inslee has made behavioral health a budget priority.

He is pushing for funding for diversion and treatment facilities for offenders with behavioral health needs, building a new forensic hospital at Western State Hospital, expanding the 988 crisis team — the group that takes calls in hopes of preventing suicide — and providing additional resources for families with children.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that behavioral health is a priority, especially when it comes to housing and substance abuse.

One of the biggest ways to address that is by increasing the behavioral health workforce.

Ways and Means Chair Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the Legislature has been working to gradually set up the behavioral health infrastructure across the state but one of the largest bottlenecks that remains is workforce. Addressing that could mean providing loan forgiveness or tuition assistance, or getting people through the educational system quickly, she said.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said she also wants to look at licensing requirements, especially for those from other states who may want to move and practice in Washington.

Blake Decision

Lawmakers have a July deadline to fix the state’s drug possession statute, which they scrambled to change in 2021 after the Supreme Court ruled the state’s law unconstitutional.

The Legislature passed a bill after the ruling to make possession of a drug a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. Prior to the ruling, it was a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and $10,000.



Some lawmakers will likely push to move Washington toward policy that decriminalizes drugs, while others say those suffering from substance abuse need some sort of incentive, in this case jail, to help get them on a road to recovery.

A committee has said decriminalization is the way Washington should move, but some lawmakers, including Law and Justice Chair Sen. Manka Dhingra, have said they don’t have the votes in the Legislature for such a change.

Some Republicans, including Spokane Valley Sen. Mike Padden, have said they want to go back to the old statute of making possession a felony, but add the word “knowingly.” The absence of that word is what the Supreme Court said was unconstitutional.

Almost all legislators, however, agree more funding and resources are needed for recovery and behavioral health.

Economy

Perhaps the biggest job facing the Legislature is writing a two-year budget.

Lawmakers have more money to allocate than in previous years — likely around $70 billion — but less of it will come from temporary federal pandemic relief dollars.

As lawmakers look to address inflation, Republicans have continued to push for tax relief.

Wilson said the Legislature should be “laser-focused” on making Washington more affordable.

Last week, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said Republicans will look at how to deliver as much tax relief as possible.

Democratic budget writers have pointed to targeted tax relief, such as a tax credit for working families that went into effect this year, as how they are helping Washington residents handle rising costs.

“What we’re trying to do in the House Democratic Caucus is find specific needs of individuals that find themselves left behind, marginalized, under-represented, and using expenditures in the budget to target those individuals,” Ormsby said.

Meanwhile, Inslee’s proposed budget focuses on bigger investments into housing, behavioral health, education and other programs. His proposal does not include any tax relief or tax increases.

Public Safety

A continuing fight over police reform bills from 2021 will likely resurface.

One in particular: police pursuits.

After a slew of bills passed two years ago, law enforcement pushed for clarity on a number of issues, including vehicular pursuits, which they said they were unable to do under new laws, resulting in a number of people fleeing crime scenes.

Lawmakers failed to pass a bill last session that would have upped the bar for when law enforcement can engage in vehicle pursuits, going from the current “probable cause” standard to needing “reasonable suspicion.”

In the end, the bill never received a final vote.

Republican lawmakers have said they will be pushing for it again.

Lawmakers may look at grants to retain and hire officers and create new regional training centers.

Inslee also wants to address gun safety, including a ban on assault-style semiautomatic weapons in Washington. Such proposals have failed in previous years.

Their proposal would ban the sale, manufacture and import of assault weapons in Washington, with exceptions for law enforcement and the military.

Inslee also proposed permit-to-purchase legislation, which would require a person to have a permit and some safety training to buy a gun.

Other Issues to Watch

Over the course of the next 105 days, lawmakers will likely address a slew of other issues.

Enshrining the right to an abortion in the state constitution, building off of climate policies passed two years ago, addressing pandemic-related learning loss and expanding access to child care will all likely come up.

And some fun topics, like naming the state’s dinosaur, are also sure to be discussed.

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