As Washington lawmakers convene a short, election year session Monday, they’ll confront a range of issues from homelessness to gun control to whether to expel state Rep. Matt Shea.
But first, the 60 day session will begin with a historic vote and swearing-in ceremony of Democratic state Rep. Laurie Jinkins. She will become the state's first woman speaker of the House and only the second openly lesbian House speaker in the nation after Oregon's Tina Kotek.
One of the first tests of Jinkins' leadership will come as she and her Democratic colleagues meet to decide what to do about Shea. Last month, an investigation commissioned by the Washington House concluded the Spokane Valley Republican is a leader in the Patriot Movement who helped plan the Malheur National Wildlife Occupation in 2016, which the report called an "act of domestic terrorism against the United States."
"Matt Shea should resign and if he does not resign, he should be expelled," Jinkins said at a legislative preview event hosted by the Associated Press.
Expulsion has only been done once before and requires a two-thirds vote. House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, who previously suspended Shea from the Republican caucus and stripped him of his committee assignments, said he doesn't support removing Shea from the House. Instead, Wilcox thinks voters in Shea's district should decide later this year whether he stays or goes.
For his part, Shea issued a statement on the eve of the session that said he’s been falsely accused of being a domestic terrorist and that he deserves due process before any vote to expel him.
“You don’t have to agree with my political views to believe that anyone accused of a crime has a right to see all the evidence against them, to face their accusers, and to call witnesses in their defense,” Shea wrote. “Any action by the Legislature based solely on the dossier and without affording me those basic rights undermines the very pillars of our Republic.”
Jinkins has promised if the House pursues an expulsion vote it would set up a process to give Shea “another chance to be heard.” Shea declined to be interviewed by the House investigators for their report.
Any effort to expel Shea, even if ultimately unsuccessful, could overshadow the regular work of the Legislature. Since lawmakers adjourned last April, several pressing issues have piled up at the front door of the statehouse.
They include passage in November of I-976, a $30 car tabs measure, that blew a big hole in the state’s transportation budget. While majority Democrats are looking for ways to fill that hole, some minority Republicans say lawmakers should affirm the “will of voters” by passing legislation to uphold the initiative which is now being challenged as unconstitutional before the state Supreme Court.
In recent years, Washington lawmakers have grappled with weighty issues like school funding and how to shore-up the state's beleaguered mental health system. But now another ongoing crisis is demanding their immediate attention – homelessness. A new Crosscut/Elway Poll shows homelessness is a top concern of voters across the state.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who is seeking a rare third term, is proposing to tap the state's constitutionally protected rainy day fund with the goal of reducing by 50% the number of unsheltered homeless people in the state.
While both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature agree homelessness is a top priority, there’s not a lot of early enthusiasm on either side of the aisle for the governor’s plan to reach into the state’s emergency reserves, which would require a 60% vote. Inslee says he’s agnostic about where the funding comes from.
“The method of financing that is subordinate,” Inslee said. “Our success is getting thousands of people from these unhygienic situations into shelter.”
Pressed on whether the Legislature can do something in the next 60 days to address the scores of people living in tents and under tarps, lawmakers were noncommittal and spoke frequently of the complexity of the problem.
“There is more work to be done,” agreed Democratic state Sen. Patty Kuderer who chairs the Senate’s new Housing Stability and Affordability Committee. “We do need to do more.”
During the 2020 session, Inslee is also looking for more progress on his signature issue of combating climate change. Last year, majority Democrats passed a clean-electricity-by-2045 bill that he championed. This year, on the heels of his short-lived run for president, Inslee is pushing once again for what he calls a clean-fuel standard, similar to what Oregon and California have adopted.
Since it’s an election year, majority Democrats will likely be looking to deliver key wins to their base constituencies – like labor unions.
In the lead up to the legislative session, the Washington State Labor Council, the state's largest union organization, released its 2020 priorities. The list includes passage of a bill to require employers of larger food and retail businesses to give their employees notice of their work schedules at least two weeks in advance. So-called "secure scheduling" is already in place in Seattle.
As for minority Republicans, they’re likely to step up their role – and their rhetoric – as the loyal opposition. In fact, that’s already happening. At the preview event hosted by the Associated Press, Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler railed against last year's Democratic-led tax increases aimed mostly at businesses.
“Our job creators haven’t seen anything but a hostile environment from state agencies or state government and threats of more hostility towards job creators,” Schoesler said.
Meanwhile, Jinkins, the incoming Speaker of the House, isn’t entirely ruling out more new taxes for 2020 – including a capital gains tax.
“I’ve been the prime sponsor of the capital gains for seven years so it’s not as though I don’t support it,” Jinkins said. But she added that she wasn’t sure there was support for it this year.
Also up for discussion this year is a ban on so-called assault weapons and limits on magazine capacity – something both Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson have endorsed.
Jinkins, who is personally supportive of additional restrictions, said she expects the bills will get public hearings and be discussed among House Democrats. But she did not predict passage of either measure. Historically, former longtime Speaker of the House Frank Chopp was wary of having his members wade into the gun control debate without bipartisan support.
Other issues that are likely to come up during the 2020 session include: a permanent ban on flavored vaping products, an increase in nursing home reimbursement rates and proposals to address prescription drug pricing.
Even before the session had begun, state lawmakers had pre-filed more than 400 proposed bills and resolutions on topics ranging from the use of marijuana in hotel rooms, solitary confinement among youth and making Juneteenth an official day of remembrance marking the end of slavery.
The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on March 12.