State Legislature closes doors on 2021 session

State Legislature closes doors on 2021 session

State Legislature closes doors on 2021 session

The Washington state Legislature closed its legislative session Monday after a session unlike any other. The enormity last year’s events demanded a robust response from Washington’s lawmakers, who worked hard to step up to the plate — despite the difficult circumstances under which they were required to work.

One issue loomed over everything the state’s lawmakers did — the global coronavirus pandemic. Washington was the site of the first recorded U.S. cases of the disease, and the pandemic’s effects on Washingtonians have been severe.

The Legislature passed two major bills early in the session to deal with the damage that COVID-19 has wrought on the economy: Senate Bill 5061, which was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Feb. 8, ensured that the wave of pandemic-related layoffs in 2020 would not dramatically inflate businesses’ unemployment tax bills; and House Bill 1368, signed 11 days later, poured $2.2 billion into Washington’s economy, propping up struggling small businesses, schools, renters and many others.

The presence of the COVID-19 pandemic was constantly felt throughout the session; all legislative committees met via Zoom, as did most of the lawmakers during floor sessions, except for a few masked and socially distanced individuals, who stood up to speak while surrounded by empty desks. The Legislature was not immune to the technical hiccups that other industries felt when going remote; lawmakers often struggled to unmute themselves, use the remote voting machines or deal with malfunctioning Zoom backgrounds.

The Legislature’s other major priority was in response to last year’s racial justice protests. While every state has had to reckon with the Black Lives Matter movement, Seattle briefly became the center of national attention during June’s protests, when activists declared a police-free “autonomous zone” covering several blocks of the Capitol Hill area.

The Legislature’s response to last summer’s events came via a slate of police reform measures.

These broke into two broad categories. Several bills set new standards for how police perform their duties: HB 1054 limited the tactics that police departments are allowed to use, banning chokeholds, tear gas, no-knock warrant and other controversial methods. HB 1310 set a standard for police to use deadly force only “when necessary to protect against an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death.” SB 5066 made it mandatory for police officers to intervene against excessive use of force by their colleagues; and a series of bills made it mandatory for both individual officers and police agencies to report excessive uses of force and other kinds of misconduct to superiors and other state agencies.

The Legislature also expanded the avenues for holding police officers accountable. HB 1267 created an Office of Independent Investigations in the Governor’s Office that could investigate police conduct. Alongside investigative powers, the Legislature also made it easier to punish abusive officers: SB 5051 made it easier to departments to decertify police officers for dishonesty, excessive force or misconduct. A large number of police reform bills failed to make it through the Legislature, however, showing how complicated the process of law enforcement reform is.

Sunday, the Legislature approved a key piece of tax reform legislation, SB 5096, which enacts a capital gains excise tax to pay for expanding and affordability of child care, early learning and the state’s duty to fund education in Washington.

The legislation, once it takes effect, will assess a 7 percent tax on “extraordinary profits from the voluntary sale or exchange of stocks and bonds and other highly-valued capital assets,” according to a news release. The first $250,000 in profit is exempt from the tax annually.

According to the news release, the tax is designed to avoid taxing working families and also includes exemptions for all real estate, retirement accounts, livestock, agricultural land, fishing privileges, a qualified family-owned small business and more.

The legislation, which passed the House April 21, was sent to conference as state Senators refused to sign off on House amendments. The final bill adjusted the distribution of collected revenues by capping deposits in the Education Legacy Trust Account at $500 million annually and directing additional revenues to the Common School Construction Account.

It also now includes a charitable donation deduction for taxpayers donating at least $250,000 to qualified nonprofit organizations that tax year.

“This capital gains excise tax, along with the Working Families Tax Rebate that we passed earlier this session, will help support working families in every corner of our state,” said Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, chair of the House Finance Committee, in a news release. “By asking the wealthiest among us to share in the responsibility of funding the needs of our communities and putting money back in the pockets of low-income families via a sales tax rebate, these policies are the first steps on the path to balancing our tax code. We’ll continue down that path of tax reform with the ongoing work of the Tax Structure Work Group.”

When this excise tax will take effect is uncertain as it is likely to be challenged in a lawsuit.

Environmental issues were also a high priority for the Legislature this session. Two major bills will dramatically effect carbon emissions from the state.

HB 1091 will impose a clean fuel standard, while SB 5126, known as the Washington Climate Commitment Act, aims to create a cap-and-trade program — similar to the one in California — in which companies that emit pollution have fixed carbon allowances that they can sell and trade to one another. SB 5126 is one of Gov. Jay Inslee’s top priorities, and the Senate bill was introduced at his office’s request.

Both bills passed Saturday, although SB 5126 had a lot of back and forth between the Senate and House to get to an agreement.

The Legislature also dealt with a wide range of other issues during the session.

As well as directly responding to the pandemic, lawmakers introduced legislation concerning broader healthcare concerns, expanding Medicaid coverage to new mothers, expanding patients’ rights to sue hospitals and enabling the state to buy or manufacture generic drugs in response to price gouging. SB 5030 impacted both health and education by increasing mental health services in schools. 

Other bills passed by the Legislature included a ban on new private prison contracts, which will directly affect the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainment center in Tacoma; a bill barring bringing a weapon to a protest, a response to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol; and mandating legal counsel for renters facing eviction.

— Editor Jessica Keller contributed to this report