WA lawmakers prepare for first in-person session since 2020

More homes, less homelessness, a Blake ruling fix and an assault weapons ban are among the issues to watch.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s 147 citizen legislators returned to the state Capitol on Jan. 9 for the 2023 session.

Their return is kind of a big deal.

Most everything got transacted virtually the past two years. Only in the final days of last session did the House and Senate allow a limited number of masked lawmakers to participate from their regular seats on the floor.

Working remotely certainly didn’t slow lawmakers. They churned out hundreds of bills in the past two years.

Still, with a 105-day session, in which a new two-year operating budget must be passed, there’s bipartisan joy at the chance to discuss, negotiate and iron out wrinkles in person — barring any COVID resurgence, of course.

“It’s definitely a net positive,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, who is chair of the House Housing Committee, which is expected to be one of the busiest panels this session.

Democrats hold majorities in the House, 58-40, and the Senate, 29-20. Add Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the party’s grip on the reins of legislating power is complete.

Republican leaders will press hard to slow the majority’s agenda — with the help of a few moderate Democrats — and keep a focus on theirs.

Here are five things to watch this session.

More homes, less homelessness

Increasing the supply of housing and decreasing the number of people without shelter sit atop most lawmakers’ agendas. Gov. Jay Inslee’s too. He’s gone big, proposing a $4 billion bond to catalyze the building of thousands of new affordable housing units in the next six years. Lawmakers would need to put it on the ballot and voters would need to approve it. Meanwhile, there’s a bipartisan push to intensify development in neighborhoods near transit centers by allowing development of at least four units on residential lots, and six units if two of them are affordable. Expect the capital budget to again contain very large sums to remove homeless encampments from roadways and assist local governments with buying and converting motels into transitional housing.

Drugs and guns

Since the state Supreme Court in 2021 erased a law that made drug possession a felony, lawmakers have been trying to find a good solution. What’s on the books, and expires in June, makes drug possession a misdemeanor and requires cops to direct folks to where they can get treatment. What’s on the drawing board now would increase the penalty for possession to a gross misdemeanor, create paths for those arrested to avoid prosecution or get convictions vacated by completing treatment, and increase availability of services. A ban on assault weapons will be debated for a seventh year. Also expect discussions on the need for longer waiting periods to obtain a firearm and a means to hold gun makers and sellers accountable if one of their products harms someone.

Highways and byways

Last session Democrats muscled through a 16-year, $17 billion transportation package without a single Republican vote. At the time, they only laid out where money would go in the first two years. This session they will try to decide, maybe in a bipartisan way, what sums will go to which projects and when. A new U.S. 2 trestle and a wider Highway 522 are among those vying for some serious cash. There will be a search for ways to reduce fatal accidents and pedestrian deaths. And a bill has been introduced to lower the maximum blood-alcohol content, or BAC, for drivers from 0.08% to 0.05%. At that mark, Washington would join Utah with the toughest standard in the nation.

Staffing shortage

Arguably the most widespread problem facing public and private sector employers is a lack of workers. There aren’t enough nurses, cops, ferry crews, child care providers, health care professionals, etc. And there are too few people applying, let alone in the pipeline, to fill vacancies of retiring Baby Boomers and Great Resignees. Lawmakers may provide money for higher wages, retention bonuses, and school loan payments to help out in several fields. License requirements for health care professionals may get overhauled in hopes of bolstering their ranks. A revamped nurse staffing bill will be rolled out soon. Last session a bill to limit the number of patients assigned to a nurse and to fine hospitals that failed to comply with staffing plans died in the final days.

Budget wild cards

State bean counters are gearing up to start collecting a new capital gains tax. It’s supposed to generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year for childcare, early learning and education-related programs. The money is assumed in the next budget. But the tax might not be legal. A Douglas County judge reached that conclusion last March. The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Jan. 26. While a decision might not come before adjournment, if justices uphold the lower court ruling, it will create an impressive hole that may require filling with reserves until the 2024 session.

In the meantime, the Department of Ecology is expecting a big pay day for state coffers Feb. 28 when it holds its first auction of carbon emission allowances under Washington’s Climate Commitment Act. There are going to be four auctions a year. Officials think they might net around $480 million this year — more than double previous projections. Higher-than-expected receipts are anticipated for the next few years. Lawmakers will want to spend the extra dough if they can agree on exactly where it should go.