By Diana Carlen
The Washington Legislature convened on Monday, Jan 10, for a short, 60-day session. Short sessions have been described as drinking from a fire hose since everything happens on a condensed timeframe, and this year is no exception. Prior to the session even starting, the legislature had prefiled more than 500 new pieces of legislation for consideration.
Once again, legislators are meeting in a mostly virtual format with the legislature reassessing every two weeks whether to expand in-person participation.
The first week included the governor’s State of the State Address, public hearings on the governor’s proposed budget, and the legislature taking early action to advance top priority issues such as delaying the new payroll tax to fund a long-term care insurance program.
On Wednesday, Jan. 19, there is a hearing scheduled on controversial legislation that would have devastating impacts to agriculture. The bill was drafted without any input from agricultural groups, local governments and builders who would all be impacted by the legislation. House Bill 1838 is governor request legislation aimed at protecting salmon. The bill would impose not only a requirement to restore and protect private property located in riparian management zones, but also imposes buffers around waterways that could be up to 240 feet. The legislation raises a lot of questions including how much agricultural land in the state would be in jeopardy of being taken out of production permanently. The bill is opposed by agriculture, developers and local governments.
There is still no hearing scheduled on legislation supported by the industry to provide some limited flexibility to the new overtime requirement for agriculture. House Bill 1750 would allow farmworkers to work up to 50 hours per week for 12 weeks of the year before overtime provisions kick in. This legislation would allow agricultural employers limited flexibility to shape work schedules during a narrow window of time to best fit the peaks of labor demand, thereby providing them some ability to weather the unpredictability of agricultural work.
The first legislative deadline is Feb. 3, 2022, when all bills must pass out of their respective policy committee to remain alive.
Early Action Taken on Long-Term Care Insurance Program
In 2019, the legislature enacted the Long-Term Care Act to provide long-term care benefits to Washington workers, funded through a .58 percent payroll tax that went into effect on Jan 1, 2022. Overwhelming public objection and fears about backlash in the upcoming November election has prompted Democratic leadership to advance bills during the 2022 Legislative Session to delay implementation and make modifications. Two pieces of legislation were heard and passed out of the House Appropriations Committee in this first week of session. They are both expected to advance quickly to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. Here are details on the two bills:
- House Bill 1732 delays the implementation from Jan. 1, 2022 to July 1, 2023 (18 months). This bill also addresses near-retirement age workers by allowing a person born before Jan. 1, 1968, who has not met the duration requirements, including payment of the premium, to be eligible for the program at the percentage of years paid into the program. Currently, someone close to retirement would pay the tax, but never benefit because they would not work long enough to vest in the program. It also provides that any premiums collected from the employee prior to July 1, 2023, shall be refunded to the employee within 120 days of the collection of the premiums.
- House Bill 1733 would allow disabled veterans, spouses or domestic partners of active-duty service members, nonimmigrant visa holders, and Washington workers who hold residence outside of the state to seek exemption from the program. The bill stipulates that should the status qualifying a worker for the exemption change for any of the groups outside of disabled veterans, their exemption will be discontinued.
Republicans continue to call for a full repeal of the Long-Term Care Act and have introduced several proposals along those lines. However, none of them have been scheduled for a public hearing.
Supreme Court Halts COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement for Large Businesses
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the Biden Administration’s vaccine-or-test requirement for large businesses. In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lacked the authority to impose the vaccine mandate, however, the court did let stand a vaccination requirement for most health-care workers. If the mandate for large businesses had been upheld, unvaccinated employees of large employers (those with 100 employees or more) would have been required to wear masks at work and test negative for COVID-19 each week.
At this point, it is unknown what action what might happen on the state level. Previously, Gov. Inslee had made public statements that the state had independent authority to impose such a vaccine mandate, but now it appears he does not plan at this time to have the state impose a state mandate, but may reconsider in the future.
Revenue package negotiations are resuming after negotiators failed to agree on a solution for a special session in the fall. Transportation leaders on both sides of the aisle have now ruled out a funding solution for transportation in 2022 that includes a gas tax increase. However, there is growing interest in developing a stopgap investment package to address immediate needs utilizing a combination of funding sources, including federal funding, and operating budget transfers. Reportedly, House and Senate operating budget leadership continue to disagree on the preference of a one-time transfer vs. ongoing investment out of the operating budget, with the House favoring a one-time transfer and the Senate favoring an ongoing investment.
Negotiators are also adjusting to the change in Senate Transportation Chairmanship, with Sen. Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood) replacing former Chair Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens). Sen. Liias has taken a different direction than Sen. Hobbs, voicing a preference to pass what he calls a “bridge” proposal this session to fill funding gaps, while working to develop a larger, multi-year package that invests in new infrastructure. Sen. Liias is considering multiple revenue streams for this package, including transportation fees, Climate Commitment Act dollars, federal ARPA funds and a transfer from the operating budget, with the intent to prioritize funding relief for key maintenance and preservation needs and the ferry system. Sen. Liias has also indicated a desire to allocate Climate Commitment Act money to invest in transit, electrification and bike and pedestrian projects.
The controversial 2021 redistricting process may finally be coming to a close. On Thursday, Jan. 6, the Washington State Supreme Court declined to hear two lawsuits that sought to invalidate the maps that were approved late in 2021 in an unprecedented fashion. The lawsuits argued that the redistricting maps are invalid due to a violation of the State’s open public meeting laws by the commissioners negotiating behind closed doors and passed the Nov. 15 deadline. Both lawsuits will now proceed in Thurston County Superior Court, where they were originally filed. Lawmakers still have the opportunity to amend the maps within the first 30 days of the session, but any change requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers and no change may exceed 2 percent of the total population. Once the 30-day period ends, the new political maps will take effect and will be in place for the next 10 years, starting with the 2022 elections. A recent article in the Everett Herald can be found here.
Competing Legislation to Reorganize Conservation District Elections At Play
Two bills addressing conservation district elections have been introduced so far this session: House Bill 1910 requiring conservation district elections to move to the general ballot and House Bill 1652 taking a more flexible approach to when elections are held. HB 1652, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Dolan (D-Olympia), was heard in the House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee on Wednesday and is supported by the conservation districts.
While the legislation received positive feedback in the hearing, the Washington Farm Bureau raised a point of concern. The Farm Bureau noted that while districts would not be required to move to the general election ballot, they may feel pressure to do so. And, as conservation districts would have to help pay for general election costs, should they choose to participate, money would be diverted from necessary conservation activities and priorities. Many smaller conservation districts may be unable to bear the cost of general election status.
Building Decarbonization Efforts Underway
Fossil fuel use in buildings looks to be the next frontier on climate change at the state level. Last week saw two hearings on part of a suite of bills (four in total) aimed at decarbonizing the building sector and phasing out of the use of natural gas as spearheaded by Gov. Inslee and Rep. Alex Ramel (D-Bellingham). Senate Bill 5722, sponsored by Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-White Center), was heard in the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee on Jan. 13. The proposal would expand the Clean Buildings Act that passed in 2019. Under current law, the Department of Commerce is required to develop energy performance standards for buildings larger than 50,000 square feet and provide incentives to encourage efficiency improvements. Senate Bill 5722 would expand the act, incorporating new tiers of energy performance standards for buildings between 20,000-49,999 square feet.
The House Environment & Energy Committee heard House Bill 1767 sponsored by Rep. Alex Ramel, the second in the combined effort. The legislation seeks to provide explicit authority for municipally owned utilities and public utility districts to run incentives programs (i.e. offer rebates) to switch customers from natural gas to electric space and water hearing. incentivize “targeted electrification.