Washington’s short legislative session kicks off

By Paul Marshall (OPB)
Jan. 19, 2024 9:27 p.m.

Washington State’s 60-day short legislative session kicks off today. As in Oregon, Democrats hold a majority in both houses and the governor’s office. They’ve said they want to focus on housing, climate change and the opioid epidemic.

Jeannie Lindsay covers the Washington State government for OPB. She sat down to speak with OPB host Paul Marshall.

A view of the Washington Capitol building in Olympia, Washington, in January 2022. The Washington Legislature is currently convened for a short 60-day session.

A view of the Washington Capitol building in Olympia, Washington, in January 2022. The Washington Legislature is currently convened for a short 60-day session.

Austin Jenkins / NW News Network

Marshall: Let’s start with the opioid crisis. Unlike in Oregon, Washington State did not decriminalize hard drugs, but overdose and death rates from fentanyl are still rising. What is the legislature looking at to address this?

Jeanie Lindsay: This is a huge issue, and folks might recall that last year as part of the work that Washington lawmakers did on drug possession penalties. That bill included a lot of things focused on treatment and diverting people from jails in the court system into sort of these treatment and care options in order to treat people for addiction and get them off these drugs. This year funding for those treatment programs and those options remains top of mind — making sure that more treatment centers can open up and getting people already dealing with addiction the care that they need to get off drugs and stay that way.

They’re talking about adding some more money to that effort and that they already put towards that last year. But there’s also a focus among lawmakers to do whatever they can to prevent deaths specifically.

Lawmakers have been pre-filing legislation already through December. And so we’ve seen some proposals to make sure that there’s more access to opioid overdose reversal medication like Naloxone and also to add more availability and access to those resources and education around that in schools so that people know about the risks of opioids and fentanyl and know about things like naloxone.

Marshall: The Washington legislature passed bills last year to increase housing density but it will be a while before construction catches up with the demand. So, what’s coming this session to tackle housing instability?

Lindsay: There are efforts to sort of strengthen protections or take a closer look at what protections there are for tenants, for renters. Because most people rent their homes and the places that they live.


So rent stabilization in some form, and then some of the proposals that didn’t cross the finish last year are also likely to come back. But those are again rooted in sort of construction questions like building housing near transit centers around bus stops and light rail stations and then other bills to create more housing options and density. That construction will take time. So in the immediate term they’re trying to figure out a way to just slow the rise in rents so that people can stay in their homes.

Marshall: Washington’s one-year-old cap and invest program isn’t popular with Republicans, but there are also some Democrats looking to make some tweaks to the program. Can you quickly explain what the law does and what’s likely to happen this session?

Lindsay: The Cap and Invest program, it’s called a lot of things: cap and trade, a lot of people just call it by the law that created it, the Climate Commitment Act. It’s a carbon emissions auction system where the state sets limits on carbon pollution and companies have to pay for their emissions that go over those limits. There’s a certain number of allowances and the idea is that over time the allowances, the permits for pollution, will be smaller and smaller until the state is carbon neutral in the next 25 years. Last year was the first year that these carbon emissions auctions were happening.

It’s unclear if lawmakers can do a whole lot with the program this year because there has been a lot of pushback. There’s a Republican backed policy initiative that’s seeking to repeal this program entirely and it’s sounding like enough people signed petitions last year in support of that repeal initiative that it’ll end up going to voters.

Lawmakers could give voters an alternative option basically saying here’s the repeal option and then here’s something that we think is better: take your pick. But that can make ballots really complicated.

It’s unclear how the legislature is going to try to tackle that but when it comes to making changes to the carbon emissions auctions program, they can’t really mess with the policy that is being targeted by this policy initiative, this repeal effort, because if they change anything about the underlying law that becomes the alternative that goes on the ballot. So they’re kind of in this weird space with these initiatives looming over them and they’re kind of limited in what they can do and how they can approach it.

Right now lawmakers, especially with it being the first day of session, it’s still too early to really know how they’re going to tackle that.

Marshall: There’s also a bill that would force oil companies to open their finances to state scrutiny. What’s the thinking behind that?

Lindsay: In the face of this criticism of the cap and trade program, the carbon emissions auctions, there was a lot of consternation in Washington last summer when Washington topped the average price of a gallon of gas. People who are already opposed to this carbon emissions auctions program said that program is to blame because this is the first year in effect and here we are with high gas prices.

In response to that criticism and those concerns about gas prices being so high. Democrats and the governor are pushing for this bill to basically try and show people like, ‘Hey, it’s the oil companies, it’s not our climate program that’s to blame.’

Marshall: This is a short session. So how much is actually likely to get done?

Lindsay: It’s hard to say. It’s a 60-day session. So by mid March, hopefully we’ll be out of here.

It’s also an election year. So lawmakers are going to be proposing a lot of bills that, you know, say a lot of things and do a lot of things, but just the nature of the amount of time that there is, some of those things just might not get done. We have several lawmakers who are running for higher offices, Congress, statewide offices and then in the House. You have all of the house members up for election in the fall.

You’ll see lawmakers talking about things that potentially could show up on the campaign trail later on.