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Progress in Olympia? Police reform, ‘cap and invest,’ voting rights, and a Juneteenth holiday

What has changed after a year of protest, and pandemic isn’t always clear. Seattle’s steps toward increased spending on social and community programs and efforts to reduce its policing budget are moving are moving forward — but more slowly than many who marched have called for. But there is change. This year was possibly one of the most consequential in Olympia in recent history. Progressive politics dominated the Legislature, and a host of wish list policies, some which had been stalled for years, have been placed on the governor’s desk. “We experienced first-hand the real cries of frustration of a lot of people about the police and how they have interacted with our communities,” Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the chair of his chamber’s Law and Justice Committee,said during a town hall on the 2021 session with his fellow electeds representing Capitol Hill and the state’s 43rd District.

Here is a look at what legislators pushed forward for Washington in 2021. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to take action on many of the bills Monday afternoon (PDF).

“The Communist Party Newspaper, New World, published articles attacking racial restrictive covenants in 1948” — Racial Restrictive Covenants: Enforcing Neighborhood Segregation in Seattle

In something that might matter to hill homeowners, the state has planned a review of property titles with an eye toward removing unlawful racial property restrictions. (HB 1335) The practice of adding title restrictions that forbade selling properties to people of color (commonly known as redlining) was rampant in Seattle, and on Capitol Hill in particular, forcing most of Seattle’s black population into the Central District, while Asians were routed to what is now called the International District. Though such covenants are no longer legal and cannot be enforced, some may still exist on title documents. The bill directs the University of Washington and Eastern Washington University to comb through property records looking for such restrictions, and then inform the property owners of such restrictions. It also provides methods for removing the language from property titles. The bill won’t do anything to stop rampant gentrification, but removing racist language from the public record isn’t a bad thing.

Juneteenth will officially be recognized as a state holiday. (HB 1016) The holiday, to be observed on June 19, marks the end of slavery in the United States.

Equity training will be required in a number of new places. Health care professionals who require licensing will need racial equity training as part of their continuing education programs at least once every four years (SB 5229), and the program will be added to state medical school curriculums. (SB 5228)

In addition, cultural competency training will be required for school board members, school district superintendents, teachers and pretty much all other school employees across the state. (SB 5044)

In perhaps the most tangible (literally) gesture toward racial equity, the state directed a statue of Billy Frank, Jr., a member of the Nisqually Tribe known for his activism surrounding tribal treaty rights, be placed in the Statuary Hall in the U.S Capitol in Washington, DC. His statue will replace Marcus Whitman, a pioneer, which has stood in the capitol since 1953. Each state is permitted to send two statues. Washington’s other statue is of Mother Joseph, erected in 1980.

The state has also banned the use of Native American names for use as school mascots. (HB 1356) The restriction applies to public schools, and offers an exemption for schools on reservations, among other exemptions. This isn’t likely to impact Hill residents too directly, Capitol Hill’s kids typically end up as Garfield High School Bulldogs, Meany Middle School Jaguars or Washington Middle School Jr. Huskies.

Rent control is still not allowed in the state of Washington.

But there was some other movement on rights afforded to renters (SB 5160), mostly Covid related. Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on evictions last year as Covid left many out of work and unable to pay their rent. That moratorium has been extended since then, and is currently set to end June 30, 2021. The Legislature codified many of the provisions in Inslee’s proclamations, and took some things a step further. The state barred landlords from seeking late payment fees for overdue rent from March 1, 2020, until six months after the governor’s moratorium ends. It’s worded just that way, six months after it ends, not a specific date, so that if Inslee should extend the moratorium, the six month clock won’t start ticking.

At that same time, six months after the emergency ends, the landlord may present the tenant with a “reasonable” repayment schedule for any back rent they might owe. The bill the goes into detail about what is “reasonable” and the process if the tenant does not agree to the repayment schedule.

The bill also allow landlords a bit more leeway in applying for funds to mitigate rent unpaid by low-income tenants.

Finally, the bill established a program for allowing people who are evicted access to an attorney at no cost. It’s unclear how this program will work with the recently approved program in Seattle which does more or less the same thing – that is to say, if the state is going to pick up the tab, will the city continue to do so.

Police gather near a “community vision” sign during the Cal Anderson sweep (Image: Matt Mitgang)

In the neighborhood that put the CH into CHOP, state-enacted policing reforms are likely to be of concern to many, and boy were there a lot this year.

A number of the reforms in HB 1054 seem directly related to CHOP. It restricts the use of tear gas, forcing officers to exhaust other forms of crowd control, get permission from a supervisor, announce their plans to use the gas and allow time for the crowd to disperse before using it. In addition, if a riot is occurring in front of a jail or correctional facility, the officer must get permission from the highest elected official in the area (in Seattle, the mayor). The bill also mandates that officer’s identification, either their name or badge number, be “reasonably identifiable.”

Other aspects seem more of a response to national issues; the same bill ban the use of chokeholds and neck restraints, and forbids no-knock warrants in the state.

It also restricts the use of military gear in policing. The bill enumerates different kinds of equipment police will not be allowed to acquire as military surplus (weapons of .50 caliber or higher, armed vehicles, tanks, rockets and more). Any agency that already has items on the list must return or destroy them by the end of 2022.

It restricts circumstances when an officer may engage in vehicular pursuits. Finally, the bill requires the state to develop policies surrounding the use of police dogs.

But wait, there’s more.

Police officers are now required to step in if they witness another officer using unreasonable force. (SB 5066)

Officers are now subject to higher standards for when they are permitted to use physical force. (HB 1310)

The Office of Independent Investigations is created within the Governor’s office to investigate the use of deadly force by a police officer anywhere in the state, once the office is up and running by July 1, 2022. (HB 1267)

And another grab-bag policing bill would make it easier to de-certify an officer. In addition, it changes training and background check requirements. It also makes complaints made against officers public, and mandates that those complaints be placed in a publicly searchable database. (SB 5051)

Washington is poised to join California in enacting a cap-and-trade program (though it’s being called cap and invest) designed to reduce carbon emissions. (SB 5126) Under the new program, companies will be allocated a certain amount of pollutants they are permitted to pump out into the environment. Companies which don’t use all of their credits may sell them to others who will exceed their limits. The total amount of permitted carbon will be reduced year after year until 2050, when it’s hoped the state will reach a net-zero state. Money collected by the program will go towards reducing transportation emissions, and funding responses to climate change.

Washington will also follow the rest of the west coast in implementing a clean fuels standard. (HB 1091) The bill mandates the greenhouse emissions from fuels (mostly gas for cars and trucks, but some other vehicles as well) be reduced to 20 percent below 2017 levels by 2035.

Both of the above bills aren’t quite done deals yet. They both require the state to pass a transportation funding program before they are implemented. An attempt at such a program, a multi-year, multi- billion dollar program, failed to pass this session.

Washington has banned a number of different kinds of Styrofoam (SB 5022) starting Jan. 1, 2023. The same bill also requires some plastic products (drink bottles and garbage bags, among others) to increase the amount of recycled plastic they use. The minimums kick in in 2023, and gradually ramp up over five years. Additionally, as of Jan 1, 2022, restaurants will only be permitted to provide customers with single use items like straws, utensils, drink lids and condiments if they are specifically requested by the customer.

Other states seem bent on making it harder for people in general, and people of color in particular, to vote.

Washington went a different way. The Legislature this session decided to re-enfranchise felons who have served their sentence. (HB 1078) The bill restores the right to vote to felons who are not under “total confinement,” an estimated 20,000 people.

There wasn’t much done, but the Legislature did take steps to protect itself (and other governing bodies) with SB 5038. After a year where armed protesters took to state capitol grounds in Olympia and across the country, Washington said no more. Open carry of firearms will no longer be permitted during protests on the state capitol campus. The bill goes further, banning firearms during demonstrations (defined as a permitted protest with 15 people or more) in any public place. People with a concealed weapon permit, and who are concealing their weapon, are exempt. A legal challenge is expected.

Back in February, the state Supreme Court upended decades of drug cases by essentially invalidating the laws around possession of small amounts of controlled substances, aka simple possession. The state hammered out a new law (SB 5476), designed to be temporary, which re-shapes the way Washington handles drug cases. Simple possession of controlled substances will now be classified as a misdemeanor, instead of a felony. In addition, people convicted of simple possession will now be sent to a drug treatment program instead of jail. Just to clarify, this only applies to possession of small amounts. Drug dealing and manufacturing is still considered really bad.

The white whale of tax reform for progressives, a graduated income tax, remains out of reach, unless the state Supreme Court changes a decades-old ruling. But there were a couple of changes that will help makes the state’s rules surrounding tax collection a bit more fair, and they tackle the program from both ends – taxing the wealthy and giving money to the poor.

The state looks to implement a capital gains tax (SB 5096) of 7 percent. The new tax would be levied on capital gains, typically defined as the profit made on sale of assets. Typically capital gains taxes include real estate, but sale of real estate is specifically exempted from this tax, along with a number of other exemptions – the bill largely targets the sales of stocks. It would apply only on amounts greater than $250,000 per year. For example, of someone made $250,001 in capital gains in a year, they would only pay the tax on the one dollar that went over the threshold (so 7 cents). The tax will go into effect Jan 1, 2022, and could raise more than $500 million per year. The funds are earmarked for education. A legal challenge is expected.

In an effort to help low-income families, for the first time since it was created in 2008, the state funded the “Working Families” program. The money will offer tax credits of $300 to $1,200 to a bit more than 400,000 Washingtonians.

In most years, passing a $59 billion budget, and doing it on time, would have been the top item. But all that stuff above it here is just too interesting. So, yes, the state passed a two-year, $59 billion budget. Lots of it is Covid-mitigation related and there’s about $10 billion in federal money that the state is spending on various projects. Some of the big-ticket items include $1.7 billion for education, to help schools re-open and address learning loss caused by Covid school closures; $1.1 billion for public health, specifically paying for vaccine deployment, hiring public health workers and contact tracing; $658 million to the state rental assistance program, plus another $187 million to prevent foreclosures on people below the median income; $500 million in unemployment benefits; $170 million for people who had to take family leave during the pandemic; and $340 million to adults who can’t access other funds due to their citizenship status. In non-Covid items, there’s $125 million toward wildfire prevention. (So, maybe we can breathe outside this summer? Or maybe next summer?)

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3 days ago

Redlining still exists. White affluent techies transplanting from California and other places are displacing current residents and they are all forced to move south to less developed communities. North of lake union is even worse. It’s basically all white up there.

3 days ago
Reply to  Derek

This is like the bring back coal argument, don’t fix education, improve living standards, reduce crime we wouldn’t want that of course.

2 days ago
Reply to  Shema

Improve what living standards? Displacing people to more rundown communities is an improvement how? I hate gentrification.

2 days ago
Reply to  Derek

If the economy goes up or down you’re going for a ride is the problem. But you can reduce those swings if your population is better educated.

3 days ago

Thank you for this comprehensive recap. Reflects the value of local journalism in keeping citizens informed and engaged.