Short legislative sessions in Washington state are designed to be relatively quick and painless. But with a huge hole ripped into the transportation budget with the passage of Initiative 976, lawmakers could be asked to tackle a complex funding debate in 2020.
In a typical short year, legislators are asked to fill any gaps in the biennial budget (passed during the previous year's longer session), tackle the most pressing issues with legislation and then recess within 60 days.
However, in November, voters approved Initiative 976, which eliminated many vehicle fees and lowered car tabs to $30, creating an immediate shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars that was expected to come in during fiscal year 2020.
While the initiative is being challenged in court and not being enforced until that process is finished, lawmakers will still need to evaluate how the state pays for many of its transportation and road improvements.
On top of that, Gov. Jay Inslee announced his plans to use this supplemental budget year to further address homelessness and expand early education, and other groups hope to build on major climate change legislation passed in 2019, leaving lawmakers with a lot to look at by March.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) is confident everything that needs to be done can get accomplished on time; Billig points out that the Democratic majority managed to push the Legislature to complete both the 2018 and 2019 sessions on time.
"The last two years have been very busy, productive legislative sessions, really across all policy areas, including climate, education, higher education, behavioral health, voting access," Billig says. "In contrast, I think this session will be a true short session, with a lower volume of bills."
Here's a look at a few things different groups hope to see the Legislature tackle in 2020.
The courts have placed I-976 on hold while the state Attorney General's Office defends the will of voters, who passed the measure to lower car tabs to $30 per year. While that case shakes out, with jurisdictions like King County, Garfield County Transportation Authority, the Association of Washington Cities and others fighting the initiative, dozens of state transportation projects have been put on hold.
"Even though the injunction was granted, the state is putting that money into a reserve account. We really can't spend that, because if we were to spend that money and then lose the case, we'd have to pay all of it back," Billig says. "So the important part out of all of that is the Legislature is going to have to write a budget that assumes that 976 money is not available."
That could mean cutting $450 million from the transportation budget for this year, Billig says. In the long run, the Office of Financial Management estimates state funding could take a $1.9 billion hit over the next six years, and local jurisdictions could lose another $2.3 billion in that time.
Among the list of state transportation projects that have been put on hold is the North-South Freeway in Spokane, which is funded by both gas tax revenue (unaffected by I-976) and money from vehicle weight fees, which were eliminated under the initiative.
Billig says it's good that Inslee hit pause on many state projects, leaving lawmakers with all options on the table when they go to Olympia in January.
"For instance, we might say we want to not cut the 70 state troopers that would have to be cut if we just didn't do anything," Billig says. "Instead we'd like to delay some other things going on with transportation."
Also at risk if I-976 is implemented without changes are bus services for the elderly and people with disabilities, which Billig hopes to protect, as well as local funding that Spokane receives from its Transportation Benefit District to help with residential paving projects.
"In the city of Spokane, I-976 did not pass, so I don't think that the people of my district are saying that they wanted this," Billig says. "But to look at it from a statewide perspective, it's very much still respecting the will of the voters to take the reduced revenues and make sure that we are spending them in the smartest way."
Washington's Environmental Priorities Coalition, made up of more than 20 environmental organizations, has four major goals for the upcoming session, following on the major strides taken in 2019, when lawmakers passed a bill that will get the state onto 100 percent clean electricity by 2045.
This year, the groups hope to again push for a CLEAN FUEL STANDARD, similar to policies that are in place in Oregon, California and British Columbia. The standard, which would require fuel producers to decrease emissions but allow them to choose which technology to use to do so, failed to gain traction in 2019.
However, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is currently considering implementing its own clean fuel standard in the Puget Sound area, with the expectation it would significantly improve air quality and prevent millions of dollars in health impacts.
The other three major climate priorities the groups have for this year include a PLASTIC BAG BAN, updating the state's GREENHOUSE GAS REDUCTION GOALS, and working to improve ORCA HABITAT.
Many lawmakers have already filed legislation for consideration so it can be taken up early in the session. While there are dozens of bills already filed, here are just a few and the thinking behind them.
HB 2206 — Concerning equity by authorizing government services outside of urban growth areas. Introduced by Rep. Drew MacEwan (R-Union).
What it would do: HB 2206 would allow cities to extend water and sewer service outside of their urban growth areas, which is prohibited under the Growth Management Act (GMA) that was created to prevent sprawl.
Why: "I represent a fairly rural district, and I think there's been a lot of unintended consequences from the GMA and the Hirst decision," MacEwan says.
Namely, it's getting tougher to build affordable housing in rural communities, MacEwan argues. The cost of installing septic systems and digging wells, combined with difficulties in acquiring water rights (which the Hirst decision deals with), can make it unaffordable to build on 5- or 10-acre rural lots, which are not allowed by law to be combined into a development to share costs and make it more affordable, he says.
"In Mason County we have one incorporated city, Shelton," MacEwan says. "There are tracts of land available just outside the urban growth boundary, and again, it becomes cost prohibitive when you look at doing a well or septic.
"To me this is one small piece of the overall puzzle. I would love to have us overhaul the whole GMA," MacEwan continues. "What was written in 1991 is not working. You're not going to cram three million more people into an urban area with it remaining affordable."
HB 2192 — Concerning complimentary liquor by short-term rental operators. Introduced by Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-Seattle).
What it would do: Require short-term rental operators (think Airbnb, VRBO, etc.) to get a $75 per year permit if they'd like to offer a complimentary bottle of wine to guests over 21.
Why: "I have a constituent who apparently is a short-term rental operator, and he likes to provide a complimentary bottle of Washington wine for his guests, which I can certainly see why he would want to do that as a gesture of hospitality," Santos says. "Apparently it came to his attention that he was doing so illegally."
He didn't want to be breaking the law, so Rep. Santos is introducing the bill, which was modeled after similar rule changes that allowed nail salons to offer complimentary wine to their customers.
HB 2201 — Ensuring equitable competition between students who participate in school athletic activities. Introduced by Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kennewick)
What it would do: HB 2201 would prevent trans students born with male genitalia from competing against female students in individual-level competitive sports such as track and field.Why: "I have had constituents contact me and show me several articles nationwide about how males who identify as females have been competing in female individual sports such as track and field and bicycling and dominating the sports," Klippert says. "The only reason why is they're boys, not girls. They have the muscle structure of boys, they're not girls. ... So in the interest of equitable competition, I ran this so girls are not forced to run against boys in individual sports such as track."
HB 2199 — Concerning marijuana use in guest rooms of hotels, motels, and inns in violation of the owner or operator's rules. Introduced by Rep. Klippert.
What it would do: HB 2199 would make it illegal to smoke or vaporize marijuana in a hotel, motel or inn guest room if the owner prohibits it.
Why: A hotel owner told Klippert about troubles with a guest smoking marijuana in his hotel room. Despite a new HVAC system, the other guests could smell the smoke. When the owner confronted the guest, Klippert says, the guest told the owner, "Here's my medical marijuana card, you go ahead and try to stop me. You'll see me in court."
"So I'm trying to put clarification in the law so hotel and motel owners don't have this problem in the future," Klippert says. ♦