Category: legislature

Inslee, Senate Democrats Clash Over Housing Expenditures in Unusual Intra-Party Fight

Image via Gov. Jay Inslee’s office

By Ryan Packer

Governor Jay Inslee is pushing back on a budget proposed by the Washington state senate that he says fails to adequately invest in housing. The senate’s capital budget, released this week, would allocate $625 million to affordable housing, with $400 million going to the state’s housing trust fund, which provides financing to preserve and build housing for low-income residents across the state.

The governor’s budget, released in December, went much bigger on housing expenditures by proposing a ballot measure to increase the state’s bonding capacity, issuing another $4 billion in debt to fund more than 17,000 subsidized housing units, including nearly 5,000 in the next two years.

But that idea fell flat for many lawmakers, who said it could raise the cost of state borrowing in other areas. Inslee’s plan would raise the percentage of state spending on debt above the 5 percent recommended by state treasurer Mike Pellicciotti, potentially risking the state’s credit rating.

“The Senate’s capital budget proposal would take us backwards on housing,” Inslee said in a statement after the senate released its budget. “It’s less than what we approved last biennium. In the middle of a housing crisis, less is unacceptable. We need to go big, so people can go home.”

“This work is not free. Building tiny home villages is not free. This is an issue that you can’t nickel and dime. Baby steps won’t cut it. The Legislature cannot just do half measures this year.”—Gov. Jay Inslee

Senator Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), the capital budget lead on the senate’s ways and means committee, has said it would be fiscally irresponsible to increase the state’s bond limit. “To borrow $4 billion above the state’s constitutional debt limit right now, we would need to spend nearly $2.4 billion in additional interest payments going into the future,” Mullet wrote in an op-ed in the Seattle Times. “Yes, $2.4 billion in interest payments! That’s a lot of money! That’s billions of dollars spent on interest payments to our lenders instead of priorities like education, health care and, yes, affordable housing construction.”

Inslee argues that slowing down on investments in housing would push the state further away from making progress on homelessness. “This work is not free. Building tiny home villages is not free,” Inslee said during a visit this week to an encampment on state-owned property in South Park, where residents were removed last week. “This is an issue that you can’t nickel and dime. Baby steps won’t cut it. The Legislature cannot just do half measures this year.”

Democrats in the Senate, who have touted their proposed investments in the housing trust fund as “historic,” are pushing back.

“I was really disappointed to see both the specific content of what the governor said, and the tone of how he said it, because I didn’t think that was in any way collaborative or productive,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-3, Spokane) told PubliCola at a media availability last week. “We all have the same goal, which is to build more housing, to have a home for everyone. … We hope the governor will be collaborative and be part of the team to bring home the final proposal in the end.”

Billig disputed Inslee’s claim that state spending on housing would decrease under the senate budget plan. But that dispute seems to hinge mostly on how federal dollars, which the state can’t control, factor into the overall state budget. Out of the $415 million in total housing investments in the state’s 2022 budget, $350 million was one-time federal grants, not state funding.

Democratic senate leaders in the senate also say Inslee is making an apples-to-oranges comparison by comparing the full 2021-2022 biennial budget, which the legislature added onto in 2022, to the first year of the 2023-2024 budget.

“Taken together, we believe these numbers show that it would be misleading to claim that our 2023 Senate budget proposal reduces our state’s commitment to addressing our affordable housing challenge,” Alex Bond, a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said.

Inslee has described investments in affordable housing as one leg of the Democratic legislative strategy this session, along with bills to increase the supply of market-rate housing and provide new protections for renters. Most of the market-rate housing bills are moving forward, including House Bill 1110, a centerpiece bill that would require cities to allow more density in most of their single-family zones; that bill cleared the Senate housing committee last week.

Bills to beef up renter protections didn’t fare as well. Legislation that would cap annual rent increases at 7 percent, or require six months’ notice of rent hikes greater than 5 percent, both failed to advance before legislative deadlines this year.

This week, the House will release its counterproposal to the Senate budget. Inslee seems unlikely to give up on his bond proposal, setting up a rare intra-party fight over housing and homelessness.

Despite Deadly 2022, Traffic Safety Bills Fail to Gain Traction

By Ryan Packer

After 2022—the deadliest year on Washington state roadways since the early 1990—it seemed likely that traffic safety would get significant attention during this year’s legislative session. But following a key early March deadline for bills to pass out of their house of origin, a number of promising bills are off the table.

A bill to reduce Washington’s blood-alcohol threshold for a DUI from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent was a top priority for safety advocates, winning early support from a broad group of transportation sector organizatios, including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, and the National Safety Council. However, the bill failed to make it through the Senate, in part because legislators opted to debate a bill allowing more police pursuits instead during the final hours before a key deadline.

Another safety bill that failed to advance would have required car dealers to put warning labels on large trucks and SUVs that are designed in a way that puts pedestrians and cyclists at greater risk; the bill would have also increased fines for traffic infractions committed by people driving those vehicles. For decades, federal programs have rated the “crashworthiness” of specific types of cars and trucks, but as Americans have opted for larger and larger SUVs, that rating hasn’t taken the safety of people outside the vehicle into account,

A bill that would have prohibited drivers from turning right at any red light within 1,000 feet of a school, park, or other high-traffic public facility received strong support from walking and biking advocacy organizations but never got a committee vote in either the house or the senate. In 2018, Washington, D.C. piloted right-turn-on-red restrictions at 100 high-volume intersections, finding a 92 percent reduction in drivers failing to yield to pedestrians compared to before the restrictions were added. Based on that data, the district broadly adopted the restrictions citywide in 2022.

There is data showing that Black people are getting stopped at a rate of four times their share of the population, and unhoused individuals make up half of jaywalking stops. [The law against ‘jaywalking’] isn’t being enforced to promote safety.”—Matthew Sutherland, Transportation Choices Coalition

Legislators also weren’t ready to pass a bill that would have prohibited traffic stops for non-moving violations like broken taillights, or a proposal that would have to banned most “jaywalking” stops of pedestrians crossing outside legal intersections. One issue was that there isn’t enough data yet to determine the impact eliminating such laws has on pedestrian safety.

“Certainly [we] want to look at how we reduce disproportionality in our transportation space, but we need to flesh out how this fits into an overall safety strategy,” Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), chair of the Senate’s transportation committee, told PubliCola.

Matthew Sutherland, the Advocacy Director at Transportation Choices Coalition, said police use jaywalking stops as a pretext for targeting vulnerable people.  “Folks are being harassed,” he said. “There is data showing that Black people are getting stopped at a rate of four times their share of the population, and unhoused individuals make up half of jaywalking stops. This isn’t being enforced to promote safety.” Sutherland also noted that the jaywalking bill would have shifted more of the burden of pedestrian safety from pedestrians onto drivers, a controversial element of the proposal.

Liias said some bills didn’t advance because they weren’t bolstered with enough relevant supporting data. “I’m really trying to ensure that we’re data-driven.,” he said. “When we talk to vulnerable [road] users, we know right-turn-on-red is a problem. I think we now need to build the evidence and be able to articulate that piece of it, because we’re asking for a culture shift … and I think people are reluctant to do that without the full picture.”

Convincing data didn’t seem to help the proposal to drop Washington’s blood-alcohol content threshold for a DUI to 0.05 percent, however. Utah, the first state to adopt the lower limit in 2019, saw a double-digit drop in statewide traffic fatalities in the year after the new law took effect, without a corresponding rise in alcohol-related traffic stops or arrests. The bill was expected to prevent around 30-40 deaths in Washington state annually, but it received significant pushback from the restaurant and hospitality industries, which were concerned about increased liability for servers and bartenders who overserved patrons. Supporters of the bill, including Gov. Jay Inslee, said they looked forward to its return next year.

Liias pointed to several traffic safety bills that are still advancing where the impacts are more clear-cut. One bill would allow the Washington State Department of Transportation to use automated cameras to ticket drivers speeding on state highways. Another would require drivers under 25 to complete a driver’s education class before receiving their license, eliminating the current loophole allowing drivers 18 and older to get a license after passing a written test. Only around half of drivers under 25 licensed in Washington have received comprehensive driver training and those who have not have a crash rate that’s significantly higher than those who have.

“I knew coming into session that we aren’t going to achieve Target Zero in the next two years,” Sen. Marko Liias said, refering to a goal Washington has had in place since 2000 to eliminate serious traffic-related injuries and fatalities. “I think we’ve put this issue on the map, and now we’re starting to build that comprehensive set of policies that will help us get headed in the right direction toward zero.”

But Liias also noted the significant hurdles to changing behavior, even with the potential benefit of saving lives. “We’re used to doing things across the safety space in one way, and shifting to a new framework and a mindset takes time for folks.”

In the other chamber, Representative Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma), chair of the house transportation committee, said there has been some progress on traffic safety, citing a bill that will provide hiring incentives to Washington State Trooper recruits: $10,000 over two years for cadets and $15,000 over two years for lateral hires from different police departments. That bill is now in the Senate after passing the House with only one vote in opposition.

Fey told PubliCola he considers efforts to increase the number of police on state roadways complementary with trying to reduce unnecessary stops. “Part of the intent was to make troopers and other law enforcement available for other important work, and not dealing with minor things that have the net effect of targeting certain populations,” Fey said. But with Democrats incredibly divided over police issues, hope for future movement on the issue could be dim.

With nationwide trends, like vehicle design, generally outside of state control also having a big impact on increasing traffic fatality numbers, the best legislators were hoping for was small progress on the issue this session. “I knew coming into session that we aren’t going to achieve Target Zero in the next two years,” Liias said, refering to a goal Washington has had in place since 2000 to eliminate serious traffic-related injuries and fatalities. “I think we’ve put this issue on the map, and now we’re starting to build that comprehensive set of policies that will help us get headed in the right direction toward zero.”








Cash Benefits, Drug Possession Bills Move Forward

Michele Thomas of the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance testifies about benefits for low-income people at a senate committee last week.

By Andy Engelson

Two bills that would have a significant impact on poor and vulnerable people moved forward in the legislature this week. 

The first —a bill sponsored by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle) that would end the requirement that people who receive the state’s Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program pay back these benefits once they qualify for federal disability aid—passed out of the senate’s human services committee last week. ABD recipients are generally some of the lowest-income people in the state: 57 percent struggle with mental illness and 33 percent are homeless. The reform bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, the final hurdle before a floor vote.

In testimony before the human services committee, Michele Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said ending the pay-back requirement is long overdue. 

“It changes an unfair, decades-long practice of forcing people to forgo their SSI payments that [impoverished people] desperately need,” Thomas said. “Please understand that at the same time folks are required to make these back payments, they also lose their eligibility for the Housing & Essential Needs [HEN] rental assistance program, which is already furthering their instability.” HEN is a federal program that provides emergency rent and utility assistance and access to basic household supplies to people with disabilities.

A bill that would have better aligned HEN and ABD benefits and guaranteed at least 12 months of HEN support to recipients failed to pass out of a senate committee earlier this session. 

The second bill that’s moving forward is Sen June Robinson’s (D-38, Everett) bill revising the state’s drug possession policy in response to the 2021 Blake state Supreme Court ruling that found the previous law unconstitutional. The bill, which makes possessing small amounts of drugs, such as fentanyl and meth, a gross misdemeanor and requires prosecutors to divert people into coercive treatment, received a hearing in the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee on Monday.

In testimony to the committee, Sen. Robinson gave her bill mixed reviews. Centrist Senate Democrats modified the bill substantially with amendments, including a provision that forces those who drop out of court-mandated treatment to serve jail time. “My goal is to find a balance, and that is very hard to do,” Robinson told the committee. “A balance between compassion and lots of options for treatment, and—some people call them off-ramps. But, options for diversion, treatment, and services for folks who are found to be in possession of illegal substances. And also to give our communities the tools that they are asking for in these situations.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect or exactly the right balance, but you will grapple with that,” Robinson told her colleagues in the House.

Eight-Month-Old Program to Mitigate Rent Hikes Shows Promise, Areas for Improvement

By Katie Wilson

In September 2021, the Seattle City Council passed two laws, both sponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, to help renters cope with rent hikes. One required landlords to give 180 days’ notice of rent increases. The other tackled “economic evictions,” requiring landlords to pay relocation assistance equal to three months’ rent to lower-income tenants who move after an increase of ten percent or more. In a state that bans local rent regulation, these laws were designed to mitigate the harm caused by rapidly rising rents.

Since then, other cities around King County have passed new landlord-tenant laws, including longer notice requirements for rent increases, and even some protections—like caps on late fees—that Seattle doesn’t have. But so far, no other city has required landlords to pay relocation assistance when they impose large rent hikes.

The organization I work for, the Transit Riders Union (TRU), along with allies in the Stay Housed Stay Healthy coalition, hopes to support passage of renter protections in several more King County cities this year—including Tukwila, where last year we ran a successful ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. Renter Arc Di wants the Tukwila City Council to pass a relocation assistance law.

“With two months’ notice of price hikes, it’s incredibly difficult to pull together the money to move and pay moving and storage fees,” Di said. “With my current apartment, if I don’t have a place to go when the lease is up, my rent jumps up 75 percent month to month, from $2,050 to $3,500.” Moving expenses would quickly wipe out Di’s savings.

“These large landlords don’t care if you have somewhere to go and will happily take advantage of our precarious situation as renters,” Di said.

Seattle’s Economic Displacement Relocation Assistance (EDRA) program went into effect last July, so it’s been in effect for over eight months now. So how’s it going?

According to a high-level summary from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, which oversees the program, 83 tenants applied for relocation assistance between July 2022 and the end of last year, an average of about 14 a month. But the pace appears to be picking up. By February 21, there had already been 61 applicants in 2023, an average of 36 a month so far.

Of these 144 applications, SDCI has determined that 33 are eligible for relocation assistance; 28 were disqualified, generally because the increase was less than ten percent or the landlord gave notice before the ordinance was in effect. SDCI only disqualified one application because the household earned more than 80 percent of Seattle’s median income, the threshold for eligibility. The remaining applications are still in the pipeline—a time-consuming process that sometimes means tenants must move before they get relocation assistance.

“These large landlords don’t care if you have somewhere to go and will happily take advantage of our precarious situation as renters.”—Tukwila renter Arc Di

When Seattle landlords give notice of a rent hike of 10 percent or more, they’re supposed to include a notice about the EDRA program, which explains that the tenant may qualify for financial assistance. To find out if landlords are actually doing this, TRU ran a survey asking tenants about recent rent increases. Of 105 respondents, 13 were Seattle tenants who received notice of a 10-percent-plus rent increase after June 30, 2022. Of these, only three reported getting an EDRA notice from their landlord.

The survey results suggest several other interesting conclusions. First, a disproportionate number of Seattle rent increases hover just under ten percent, suggesting that EDRA may be changing landlord behavior to impose lower rent increases than they otherwise would. As annoying (and costly) as these increases can be, it’s a heck of a lot better than a much larger rent hike. This shifting of incentives would be a positive side effect of the law.

Second, some landlords appear to be misinterpreting the law. The key number isn’t base rent, but “housing costs,” which includes other monthly charges such as pet rent, parking, and storage, and may include utilities, internet, and cable if these are paid to the landlord in a fixed monthly amount. One person reported receiving notice of a 9.8 percent rent hike and wrote that the landlord also steeply raised parking and other fees, effective immediately. That brought the total increase to well over 10 percent, but the respondent didn’t receive an EDRA notice.

Tenants face an additional timing bind, since Seattle’s law requires them to give their landlord notice that they plan to move in order to complete their EDRA application. That means they have to commit to leaving without knowing for sure whether or when they’re going to get relocation assistance.

Third, many landlords, both inside and outside Seattle, appear to be giving shorter notice of rent increases than required by law. (The immediate fee increase reported by the person who got a 9.8 percent rent hike was also illegal, since Seattle law requires 180 days’ notice for any increase in housing costs, including fees.) A surprising number of respondents reported receiving only a single month’s notice, when even Washington state law requires 60 days.

All of this suggests a need to better inform both renters and landlords about EDRA and notice requirements.

Seattle has encountered some additional challenges implementing the new relocation assistance law.

First, the process of determining income eligibility has proved time-consuming, requiring a lot of back-and-forth between city staff and tenants. “Applications are often missing required income information, which adds time to the process of filing a complete application before SDCI can determine eligibility,” SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens said. So far, it’s taken an average of 37 days from the time a tenant files an application until SDCI determines it’s complete, which leads some tenants to leave and find new housing before SDCI deems them eligible for assistance.

Tenants face an additional timing bind, since Seattle’s law requires them to give their landlord notice that they plan to move in order to complete their EDRA application. That means they have to commit to leaving without knowing for sure whether or when they’re going to get relocation assistance.

After the city pays relocation assistance to a tenant, it tries to recover those funds from the landlord—and that’s been a challenge, too.

“My little family is quite privileged in terms of income, and even that’s not enough to be able to stay here,” one survey respondent wrote. “I’m exhausted of moving every two years (if I’m really lucky).”

“By law, it’s necessary to communicate with the owner of the property, and it’s often very difficult to determine the real owner,” given that many property owners structure their businesses as quasi-anonymous LLCs or have outdated contact information, Stevens said. And many landlords are appealing the charges, which causes delays. As of February 21, the city had billed $126,738 to landlords, but recovered only $52,578.

These challenges suggest some straightforward ways to revise and improve the ERDA program. City staff should be able to communicate with someone other than the owner, like a manager. Tenants should be allowed to apply for the program before committing to moving out. And the income qualification should be jettisoned altogether—a great example of how the U.S. obsession with means testing creates costly bureaucracy and hurts the very people that programs like this are supposed to help.

It’s also not true that renter households above 80 percent of area median income are doing just fine. “My little family is quite privileged in terms of income, and even that’s not enough to be able to stay here,” one survey respondent wrote. “I’m exhausted of moving every two years (if I’m really lucky). I don’t know how much longer we will be able to live with reasonable access to public transit, which is essential to me as a disabled person.” The survey respondent’s income is too high to qualify for relocation assistance,  “so we have to wait and pay the new fees until we either get desperate enough to take on some (more) debt or the lease runs out,” they wrote.

This respondent wished they could leave before the end of their lease. That’s another idea to consider. House Bill 1124 would have (among other things) given tenants the right to terminate their lease without penalty with 45 days’ notice, if they received notice of a rent increase greater than 5 percent. Since that bill died, Seattle could take action to allow tenants facing significant rent increases to leave early.

Understanding the inner workings of this program does raise questions about the ability of smaller cities, like Tukwila, to implement something similar. Setting up a program that requires significant staff time is a lot harder in cities with populations in the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands.

There is another model out there for cities to consider. In 2018, Portland, Oregon passed a relocation assistance law that can be triggered by several events, including a rent increase of 10 percent or more over a 12-month period. The assistance is a fixed amount based on unit size—for example, $3,300 for a one-bedroom apartment—and all tenants are eligible, with no income-based restrictions. But the biggest difference in the program design is that the city doesn’t mediate the transaction; the landlord is supposed to pay the tenant directly, then report the payment to the city.

A community-labor coalition in Tacoma is taking a similar approach a just-launched citizen’s initiative campaign that’s aiming to win an ambitious “Landlord Fairness Code.” Among other pro-renter policies, it would require landlords to pay relocation assistance equal to two months’ rent for rent increases over 5 percent; two and a half months’ rent for increases over 7.5 percent; and three months’ rent for increases over 10 percent. As in Portland, the landlord is supposed to pay the tenant directly and report the payment to the city.

It may be possible to give more power to tenants, too. For example, instead of relying on the landlord to write a check, what if tenants faced with large rent increases had the right to simply not pay rent in the final months of their tenancy, up to the amount of relocation assistance?

There is an obvious downside to this approach. If Seattle, with all the authority of the city government, is struggling to recover funds from landlords, how many will do the right thing by their tenants on their own?

You might think that four full years of Portland’s program would answer that question. But about a year after the law went into effect, Oregon enacted a statewide rent stabilization law that limited rent increases to seven percent plus the rate of inflation. Between 2019 and 2022, the maximum allowed rent increase ranged from 9.2 to 10.3 percent. As a result, according to the Portland Housing Bureau, only 33 tenants received payments as the result of rent hikes through the end of 2021, most of them in 2018. (For comparison, the total number of relocation payments reported for all reasons throughout the life of the program, as of March 7, was 1,478.)

But thanks to roaring inflation, the maximum rent increase for 2023 climbed to 14.6 percent, so starting sometime last year landlords once again began giving notice of rent increases that trigger the law. Landlords reported making 13 payments for raising rents more than 10 percent in the last five months of 2022 and one in January 2023. A few months of data isn’t much to go on, but, in a city with more than 130,000 renter households, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that these represent only a fraction of the payments Portland tenants are legally entitled to.

Nevertheless, an approach like Portland’s is probably more feasible for smaller cities, and they could take steps to improve compliance. An obvious one is to work harder to ensure that tenants and landlords are aware of the law. But it may be possible to give more power to tenants, too. For example, instead of relying on the landlord to write a check, what if tenants faced with large rent increases had the right to simply not pay rent in the final months of their tenancy, up to the amount of relocation assistance?

Adequate enforcement of renter protections is a problem that goes way beyond EDRA—even in Seattle, which unlike most King County cities has a large department overseeing its landlord-tenant laws. Often the only effective recourse a tenant has when a landlord breaks the law is to sue, and not many renters have the money and time for that. One solution was floated in last year’s legislative session: House Bill 2023 aimed to create a streamlined process for tenants to address violations and obtain relief in superior court, without having to lawyer up. Seattle, at least, could explore establishing a similar “summary proceedings” process in municipal court.

But cities should not let the challenges of enforcement deter them from passing good policies. If, extrapolating from the results of TRU’s survey, about 25 percent of Seattle landlords aren’t following the 180-day notice requirement, 75 percent are. As a Seattle renter who did get six months’ notice of a $130-a-month rent increase last year, I’m grateful for the law, and I know that many thousands of my fellow renters are benefitting too.

Katie Wilson is the general secretary of the Transit Riders Union and helps to coordinate the Stay Housed Stay Healthy Coalition, an alliance of over fifty organizations fighting for stronger renter protections in Seattle and King County.

Legislative Cutoff Fizz: Police Pursuit Bill Moves Forward While Tenant Protections Die

Wednesday was the legislature’s deadline for bills to pass out of their house of origin—meaning if a bill didn’t receive a floor vote yet in either the House or Senate, it’s dead for the year. 

In a session that was supposed to be all about affordable housing, a slate of tenant protection bills—including one capping rent increases at 7 percent per year, and one requiring six months notice of rent hikes of more than 5 percent—both failed to get a floor vote. However, a bill that would reform a state disability benefit by no longer requiring recipients to pay back the funds passed the House and moved on to the Senate. 

One of the most contentious votes of the session happened last Friday, when a coalition of centrist Democrats and Republicans in the Senate defied progressives and passed a new drug possession bill that increases criminal penalties for drugs such as fentanyl, meth, and cocaine and pushes those convicted into coercive treatment. The senate also passed a bill that makes fentanyl test strips legal.

Most of the legislature’s proposed criminal justice reforms—including a bill that would have granted victims of unlawful police actions the right to sue for damages and one raising the age of juvenile sentencing from 8 years to 13—never made it to a floor vote. One bill that did survive reforms the state’s criminal sentencing system so that juvenile convictions no longer lead to longer sentences for crimes people commit as adults.

The bills that survived now move to the opposite house, and in the next month and a half, the legislature will tackle Gov. Inslee’s proposed $70 billion biennial budget before adjourning on April 23. 

The new bill lowers the threshold for police to pursue a person in their car from “probable cause”—which requires more evidence—to “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed.

Also on Wednesday, the senate passed a bill giving police officers additional authority to pursue drivers, using an unusual maneuver to move the legislation forward. A bill on the issue had been moving through the state house, but did not appear likely to make it to the floor by the 5pm deadline for bills to pass out of their original chamber. Senate Bill 5352, sponsored by Sen. John Lovick (D-44, Lake Stevens), had not even been heard in any committee since its introduction, but majority floor leader Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) made a motion to suspend the rules and put the bill in front of the full body, which then adopted a new version of the bill by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond).

The new bill lowers the threshold for police to pursue a person in their car from “probable cause”—which requires more evidence—to “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed. The bill would allow police to chase people they suspect have committed violent offenses as well as DUI—currently one of the only instances where reasonable suspicion is the standard. It also allows officers to merely notify a supervising officer that they are initiating a pursuit, rather than receive authorization. Changing the law would roll back reforms the legislature approved in 2021.

Democrats voted down a number of amendments to the new version of the bill, including proposals that would have allowed pursuits for reckless driving and motor vehicle thefts. With many Republicans voting against the bill because they felt it didn’t go far enough, and many Democrats unwilling to change the current pursuit law, the bill passed on a narrow 26 to 23 margin.

“This bill may not be as adequate as I would like, Senator Ann Rivers (R-18, Vancouver), said before voting yes, “[but] I think it’s as good as we’re going to get for now.” Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) also voted yes. “I voted for this bill [increasing the standard for pursuits] back in 2021,” Mullet said, “but I think the unintended consequence” was that “it became widely known” that police were not going to pursue for most offenses. 

The bill will now go back to the house, where it could go through normal committee review or—because the senate broke with its usual procedure—go directly to the house floor.

After taking much of the afternoon to debate this bill, the Senate was unable to advance some of the other bills on its calendar, including SB 5002, a bill that would have lowered Washington’s blood-alcohol content threshold for a DUI from 0.08% to 0.05%. That bill was next in the list when the Senate adjourned after the 5pm deadline Wednesday.

—Andrew Engelson, Ryan Packer

State House Says Yes to Density, Senate May Be Tougher Audience

Washington State Capitol (Creative Commons)

By Ryan Packer

Late Monday night, House Bill 1110 passed the Washington House of Representatives on a bipartisan 75 to 21 vote. The bill, which has taken center stage this session as legislators focus on ways to increase the state’s housing supply, would require most cities in the state’s urban and suburban areas to allow a slightly higher level of density in residential neighborhoods.

“We need homes now, and we need action now, because we’ve seen so much inaction in local communities for so long,” Representative Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle), said on the floor before the vote. Alvarado, in her first term in the legislature, previously served as the director of Seattle’s Office of Housing. 

The City of Seattle has been supportive of the policy change statewide even as its own Office of Community Development has shied away from studying the most impactful changes to city zoning ahead of a required update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan next year. ”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in,” Alvarado said.

The bill now heading to the state senate had several amendments, with the biggest changes proposed by Rep. Tana Senn (D-41, Bellevue). Cities in her district, including Mercer Island, have loudly opposed the bill. “The upzoning of all single-family zones will force the City into an expensive and protracted planning process to study and right size infrastructure densities far beyond anything contemplated,” a letter addressed to the 41st district’s legislators and unanimously approved by the Mercer Island City Council in early February said.

”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in.” —State Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle)

Senn’s amendments mean cities with fewer than 75,000 residents, like Mercer Island, would only be required to permit triplexes on residential lots that aren’t close to frequent transit lines, no matter how close they are to a large city like Seattle. The previous version of the bill set the floor at four units. Larger cities, like Bellevue, would still have to allow four units per lot, and cities of all sizes would have to allow six units per lot near light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit stops. 

“All cities are different sizes, and have unique aspects,” Senn said as she introduced her amendment.

Senn also succeeded in passing an amendment that removed a requirement for cities of any size to allow six units per lot around large parks and public schools, treating these valuable “community amenities” the same as a frequent transit line.

Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle), who was chair of the house’s local government committee when a similar bill failed to make it to the house floor last year, also amended the bill. Pollet’s amendment would allow cities to hold off on any zoning changes for up to two years in areas where it considers residents at “high risk of displacement.” Pollet said those changes allowed him to support the bill, even with outstanding concerns over affordability.

“I’m disappointed that this bill still fails to bring housing to the people of Washington who need it the most,” Pollet said on the house floor. “Those are the people who do not earn $100,000 or $150,000 or $200,000 a year.”

In fact, the bill had already been amended to explicitly allow any city to add additional affordability requirements.

Now the bill heads to the senate, where it has fewer full-throated supporters. “I’m searching for other solutions better suited for Mercer Island than HB 1110,” Senator Lisa Wellman, who represents the 41st District in the senate, said in early February. “There may be more useful legislation in the senate right now.”

Wellman appeared to be referring to Senate Bill 5546, which would allow denser housing immediately around transit stations while leaving most single-family areas around the state untouched.

The night after the house approved HB 1110, the Mercer Island City Council voted to support SB 5466, in the explicit hope that HB 1110 would not move forward. That bill has already passed the senate and is now in the house.

Landlords Target Renters With Predatory Junk Fees

Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr; CC by 2.0 license

By Katie Wilson

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Progressive, and is reprinted here with permission.

Last summer, Seattle renter Jake Thoennes received a written notice from his landlord demanding that he remove the potted plants from his balcony within ten days. That might sound absurd, especially given that Thoennes’ lease permitted planting flowers on balconies. But here’s the kicker: The notice came with a $75 “Notice Fee.” This hefty fee was charged “for preparing and giving the notice” that the plants had to go.

When President Joe Biden announced an offensive against “junk fees” in his State of the Union address, many renters around the United States must have been nodding their heads knowingly. The nation’s 44 million renter households, especially tenants of corporate landlords, are facing an explosion of bogus fees.

Like the hidden charges that appear when you buy a ticket to a sporting event, these fees are not correlated with any tangible service being provided, or with any special effort or cost incurred by businesses. They are predatory fees that landlords charge simply because they can, and today’s rental market appears to be amplifying rather than correcting them.

Rental “junk fees” are arguably more noxious than those attached to consumer purchases. They can cause families to lose their housing and become homeless. They can tank people’s credit scores and imperil their ability to successfully apply for rental housing in the future.

Notice delivery fees like the one imposed by Thoennes’ landlord are becoming more common, according to Devin Glaser, an attorney who represents tenants in legal disputes with their landlords. “More often than not the landlords just surprise people with a fee after delivering a notice,” he said.

But sometimes a new policy is officially announced. “Hello Residents,” the property manager at Sorento Flats Apartments in Seattle began in an email to tenants in December 2022. “Sorento will now be implementing notice fees. This means that any notices given in regards to lease violations and or past due payments will accrue a notice fee. The notice fee is: $50.00 and will be issued per violation.”

In addition to imposing notice delivery fees, landlords are increasingly adding on nonrefundable charges when a tenant signs a lease. Renter Corina Pfeil paid a $300 “administrative fee” and a $162.75 “application fee” when she signed her second-year lease renewal last fall. 

This new fee, the email emphasized, is not the same as a late fee. Rather, “the notice fee will be in addition to the late fee and you will be responsible to pay both fees along with the past due balance. Thank you for your tenancy.”

In addition to imposing notice delivery fees, landlords are increasingly adding on nonrefundable charges when a tenant signs a lease. Renter Corina Pfeil paid a $300 “administrative fee” and a $162.75 “application fee” when she signed her second-year lease renewal last fall.

“They told me the administrative fee was for employee time and whatever it took to process the lease,” said Pfeil, who serves as a city council member in Kenmore. How about the $162.75? “They were never really clear about that.”

Washington Democratic State Representative Nicole Macri, a longtime advocate for stronger renter protections, explains that fees like these can be used in a discriminatory manner: “People looking for rental housing have reported to me that a landlord said something like, ‘Normally I don’t rent to people like you, but if you pay this fee, we can work it out,'” Macri said.

That means the most vulnerable renters—people with imperfect credit scores or criminal histories, as well as low-income and Black and brown families—may be the most likely to get stuck with additional fees.

Lease-signing fees like these are not a universal practice, as my own experience as a Seattle renter highlights. I’ve lived in one building since 2018 and signed five leases in that time. The property is managed by a company that oversees over 6,000 units in the Seattle area and is known neither as an especially good nor an especially bad actor; it gets a measly two stars on Yelp. But never once have I been asked to pay any kind of administrative fee for the privilege of signing a lease. Why should I? I pay a lot of rent to my landlord every single month.

“The property management did not tell me, ‘Oh, by the way, you will have to go month-to-month, you can’t sign a new lease,’” Kirkland renter Lynda Hardwick said. And that meant paying an extra monthly fee of almost $600—on top of rent and the repayment plan.

So does Pfeil. On top of the lease renewal fees, her landlord raised her rent from $1,793 a month to $2,043 a month—an increase of 14 percent. She did have the option not to sign a new fixed-term lease. Instead, she could have let her tenancy convert automatically to a month-to-month lease. But, she said, “if I went month-to-month it would be $817 a month more.” Her rent would have jumped to $2,860, or a total increase of nearly 60 percent.

Month-to-month fees are not a new phenomenon, but Glaser and other attorneys I spoke with said they appear to be increasing in prevalence and magnitude. In part, this may be a response to regulation. In 2021, the Washington State legislature passed a Just Cause Eviction law, requiring landlords to cite a good reason when evicting a tenant. This law, however, exempts many fixed-term leases, allowing landlords to force a tenant out at the end of a lease for no stated reason. The exemption creates an extra incentive for landlords to keep tenants on fixed-term leases, and charging prohibitive month-to-month fees is one way to do that.

But some landlords seem to be pushing tenants into month-to-month leases with outrageous fees. A landlord will simply let a tenant’s lease expire without offering a new one, and months later the tenant will be informed that thousands of dollars in month-to-month fees have been accumulating on the ledger. This is also illegal, since Washington state law requires sixty days’ written notice of any rent increase, and a number of local jurisdictions have established even higher notice standards.

Lynda Hardwick, a renter in Kirkland, found herself trapped in a different way. After losing a major source of income during the COVID-19 pandemic and falling behind on rent, she worked out a repayment plan with her landlord. When her lease expired last fall, with $1,800 left to pay off, she got a nasty surprise: She couldn’t renew her lease.

“The property management did not tell me [upfront]… ‘Oh, by the way, you will have to go month-to-month, you can’t sign a new lease,’” she said. And that meant paying an extra monthly fee of almost $600—on top of rent and the repayment plan. Continue reading “Landlords Target Renters With Predatory Junk Fees”

New Drug Possession Bill Emphasizes Coercive Treatment

State. Sen. June RobinsonBy Andrew Engelson

Democrats in the legislature are making procedural moves that will decide what the state’s new drug possession law will look like—an exercise that became necessary after the state supreme court’s 2021 ruling Blake v. State of Washington invalidated existing law. 

Whatever bill emerges will correct the element of current law the court found unconstitutional:  that someone who “unknowingly” possesses drugs could still be convicted. But the legislature is also taking the opportunity to debate what the state’s approach to drug use, and an unprecedented overdose crisis, will be. Various camps in this debate favor a criminal justice approach; a coercive treatment approach; or a public health approach focused on decriminalization.

The bill that has emerged from committee in the senate favors the “middle” option—coercive treatment—and amendments added in the past few days double down on that strategy.

Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who chairs the Law & Justice committee, is a strong supporter of decriminalization and safe supply. But her bill moving things in that direction,  which would implement recommendations in a report issued in December by the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC), didn’t have the votes to pass the Senate and never made it out of committee.

What did survive is a bill sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), that would make possession of a “small amount” of schedule 2 drugs (which include cocaine, fentanyl, and methamphetamine) a gross misdemeanor and require prosecutors to offer defendants diversion to treatment instead of jail time. 

“We’re basically saying: Upon conviction, you’re auto-enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program. But if for whatever reason you fail, if you choose to exit the program because you don’t feel like doing it—now there’s going to be consequences.”—Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah)

Last Friday, when the bill was in the Ways and Means committee, vice chair Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) succeeded in adding a major amendment to the bill empowering (and in some cases requiring) judges to impose jail sentences on defendants who fail to complete treatment.

Mullet told PubliCola he filed the amendment with input from Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline), whose own drug possession bill, which is more punitive than either Dhingra’s or Robinson’s, failed to make it out of committee.

“We’re basically saying: Upon conviction, you’re auto-enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program,” Mullet told PubliCola. “But if for whatever reason you fail, if you choose to exit the program because you don’t feel like doing it—now there’s going to be consequences.”

This sort of language, focused on pushing drug users into treatment and demanding results, mirrors testimony that Salomon, who works as a public defender, gave during a committee hearing for his bill on Feb 6. Introducing that bill, Salomon expressed concerns about an “unacceptable level of public, open drug use,” and then told a story about seeing people using fentanyl outside his child’s day care, lamenting what he called  “a high level of public disorder and a decrease in public safety.” 

“Our current referral system… “ Salomon said in his testimony, “effectively only asks people to get help, but has no consequences when those folks don’t get help.”

Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher on substance use disorder at the University of Washington— and a member of the SURSAC committee that recommended decriminalization—says this approach ignores the realities of opioid and stimulant use. 

“You don’t treat substance use disorder,” Banta-Green said, “You manage it as a chronic relapsing condition. One of the challenges when the criminal legal system is involved is that if you have a return to use, you’re a failure and you’re committing a crime. Rather than: you’re showing symptoms of your disease and we’re going to continue to provide you care.”

Mullet’s amendment would give judges discretion on the first offense, but on the second offense, those who fail to complete treatment will face a minimum of 21 days in jail, and for a third offense a minimum of 45 days—sentences Mullet said are often be knocked down, with good behavior, to 14 days and 30 days, respectively.

“Our hope is that in those 14 days, people can go through that kind of challenging withdrawal process where they don’t have access to substances,” Mullet said. “Then hopefully, at the end of those 14 days, now they’re in a better spot to realize: oh, maybe I should get treatment.”

Banta-Green says this is the approach the state has used for decades, and he believes it’s ineffective and harmful. “Incarceration is not innocuous,” he said. “I think legislators think it’s like having to go to a Motel 6 for the weekend and miss out on some parties.” A drug conviction and jail time can be a “scarlet letter” that limits a person’s future opportunities; it also “dramatically increases [the] risk of overdose,” Banta-Green said.

Two academic studies of people released from Washington state prisons have shown that the majority of deaths among those recently released from prison were overdoses and that within two weeks of release, inmates were 129 times more likely to overdose than the general population. 

Michelle Conley, director of integrated care at REACH, which serves unhoused Seattle residents with substance abuse disorders, says that for many of her clients who end up incarcerated, jail is detrimental to recovery. “People are traumatized by jail,” Conley said. “And then we’re 15 steps back from where they were. As providers we have to engage with them and rebuild trust… to make sure they see us as a provider and not just a part of the system.”

Even the bill’s seeming compromise between criminalization and decriminalization—coercive treatment—is problematic, Conley said.

Conley said the expectation that someone can be pushed into recovery with one session of 30 to 90-day inpatient treatment is unrealistic, especially if they’re released from treatment without ongoing support. “Churning people through this kind of treatment mill, and then sending them back on the streets, really serves as little more than a moment of respite,” Conley said. “Especially when people are released back to the same circumstances that drove them, oftentimes, to aggressive use.”

Not everyone who uses drugs needs to go to treatment, Banta-Green said, and people who would benefit from services “don’t want the treatment we have,” which often takes an all-or-nothing approach to sobriety. Instead of coercing people into conventional treatment with the threat of jail time, Banta-Green believes the state should implement one of the SURSAC committee’s recommendations: aggressively funding “health engagement hubs” that offer a range of services and treatment options to people who use drugs, including comprehensive harm reduction, health care, mental health care, addiction treatment, and medications.

“I absolutely believe that the criminal justice system is not the right place to deal with addiction. It’s just—this is where we are. And we need to move to provide alternatives, to provide other systems, and to fund and destigmatize other ways of helping people through addiction.”—Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett)

Banta-Green’s research team has worked with local public health agencies to establish pilot hubs in Seattle, Kennewick, and Walla Walla. He says the state would ideally have one of these hubs for every 200,000 residents, for a total of about 38 such facilities statewide.

Robinson’s bill directs the Washington Health Care Authority to “make sufficient funding available” to create health hubs within a 2-hour drive of all residents at the ratio to population Banta Green recommends. The bill also appropriates a $51 million—much of it from the state’s legal settlement with prescription opioid manufacturers—to fund opioid use disorder medications, crisis relief centers, and grants to LEAD and other programs that offer alternatives to arrest or jail time.  

Among other provisions, the bill legalizes handing out drug paraphernalia (such as smoking supplies) statewide, but an amendment added in the Ways and Means committee by Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-19, Sedro Woolley) would allow cities to opt out of that provision.

Dhingra added language to the bill that would set up a working group to study the creation of a safer drug supply system. Canada has incrementally started to experiment with prescribing pharmaceutical-grade drugs such as fentanyl to drug users to reduce the risk of overdose from street drugs, whose contents are unpredictable. However, that language also got stripped out of the bill in Ways and Means.

Following a year when King County had a record 998 fatal drug overdoses, all options should be on the table, Dhingra said.

 “If you want to help people get to recovery,” she said, “you have to make sure they’re alive in order to do that.”

Sen. Robinson, who sponsored the bill now moving forward, told PubliCola she believes her legislation offers a politically viable balance between restoring some criminal penalties and providing options for treatment.

Robinson, who has a masters in public health, said, “I truly believe all the research” about the need for a variety of approaches to drug use and addiction. “I absolutely believe that the criminal justice system is not the right place to deal with addiction,” she said. “It’s just—this is where we are. And we need to move to provide alternatives, to provide other systems, and to fund and destigmatize other ways of helping people through addiction.”

Robinson’s bill will likely get a floor vote this week, and it’s also likely that supporters of each competing approach to drug policy will offer a frenzy of competing floor amendments to shape the final bill. 

As Density Bills Move Forward, It’s Statewide Housing Goals vs. “Local Control”

1908 apartment building in Seattle. Source: Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0 license.

By Ryan Packer

At the halfway mark of the 2023 legislative session, the state house and senate are both moving ahead with a number of bills that would change land use in cities across the state, with the goal of increasing the supply of new housing over the coming decades. But the two chambers have gone in starkly different directions when it comes to the specifics, with the house leaning harder into pro-density proposals.

When House Bill 1110, one of the highest-profile bills dealing with local zoning this year, passed its final house committee last Friday on a bipartisan vote, the core idea of the bill was still intact despite a few major amendments: Cities must allow more density in areas that are currently zoned for single-family use. 

Specifically, the bill would require many smaller cities to allow duplexes in residential areas, and cities with more than 75,000 people, or suburbs of large cities like Seattle and Spokane, would have to allow fourplexes everywhere and six-unit buildings within a quarter mile of frequent transit stops, major parks, and public schools. The amended bill is a downgrade from the original version, which would have allowed more density in even more cities across the state, but would still represent a significant increase in the amount of density allowed in cities across Washington. 

The bill has come under intense criticism from local elected officials who don’t want to lose their ability to restrict development in some of their cities’ lowest-density neighborhoods.

“I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January.

“This bill completely disregards critical local context and will surely lead to untold and unintended consequences,” Woodinville City Manager Brandon Buchanan told the house appropriations committee last week. Woodinville, Edmonds, and Mercer Island have all adopted formal resolutions or written letters to lawmakers opposing the legislation, while individual officials in other cities have also criticized the bill. “I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January. Despite this pushback, the bill is moving toward a vote on the house floor.

The bill’s supporters contend that it doesn’t interfere with local control. Instead, they argue, it allows property owners to do more with their land, with a goal of increasing the “missing middle”buildings that are larger than a single-family home but smaller than an apartment complex. Older examples of these buildings  exist in many neighborhoods but can no longer be built under modern zoning rules.

“We have to make it easier to build housing,” Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), the prime sponsor of HB 1110, said at the bill’s first hearing in January. “As a former city councilmember and planning commissioner, I can tell you that the majority of cities make it either illegal outright to build middle housing throughout the majority of their residential land use areas, or they make it infeasible by creating things like minimum lot size or minimum set back requirements.”

The senate companion bill to HB 1110, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), did not move forward. Instead, the senate Ways and Means Committee advanced Senate Bill 5466, Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) bill that would require cities to allow higher-density apartment buildings, condos, and office buildings near transit. That bill has seen fewer tweaks so far, and currently would require cities to allow buildings of around five stories in height for three-quarters of a mile around any transit stop with service every twenty minutes during peak hours, and larger buildings, around eight or nine stories, closer to the most frequent transit like light rail. 

With the Washington Department of Commerce now projecting that the state will need an additional million new housing units to keep up with population growth over the next two decades, no single approach to increasing supply will be enough to meet the demand. An analysis of HB 1110 by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that the changes in the bill could produce just over 200,000 new housing units in the central Puget Sound region, where most new housing will be concentrated, in the next 20 years—a fraction of the need, but a start.

The house and senate are approaching density differently in other zoning legislation as well, including a pair of bills intended to remove barriers to building backyard or basement apartments, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). House Bill 1337, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Burien), would require cities to comply with at least three of four guidelines for new ADUs: no off-street parking requirements, no on-site residency requirements for people who build an ADU on their property, a limit on impact fees, which can discourage homeowners to build ADUs, and allowing two ADUs per property.

In contrast, Senate Bill 5235, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham), would allow cities to limit the number of ADUs on small lots, and allow cities to require parking for all ADUs except for a quarter-mile from major transit stops. The bill would ban owner occupancy requirements, but not when a homeowner wants to use their ADU for a short-term rental.  Shewmake, a former state representative in her first year as a senator, sponsored a similar bill last year in the house that didn’t make it to the senate floor, but this week the senate resoundingly approved this year’s version of the bill, by a vote of 42-6.

“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass.”—Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham)

The house let its companion bill to SB 5235, HB 1276, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46), die ahead of a committee deadline in February, focusing instead on HB 1337. “This is the strong one… the one that will get things done quickly,” Rep. Andy Barkis, (R-2, Olympia), one of 1337’s sponsors, said at a hearing on both bills. HB 1337 is facing opposition because it’s much more prescriptive about what cities have to allow.

“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass,” Shewmake told PubliCola. “Maybe Mia’s will be the one that passes, because she has that bipartisan support, or this will be the one that passes, and they can be folded one into the.”

Shewmake said she saw the two competing ADU bills as a bellwether. “Figuring out what we can get off the floor with this ADU bill is going to be important for figuring out what we can do generally on housing,” she said. In other words, if the senate doesn’t pass HB 1337, it’s probably not going to consider even more substantive changes like HB 1110.

Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle), who has signed onto HB 1110 and also sponsored the house version of Liias’s bill, HB 1517, told PubliCola, “You kind of have to have both…because of the way our cities are quite spread out, in Washington State, and because of the types of homes that people are looking for. …Not everybody wants to live in a multi-unit apartment building. Some people are really looking for that fourplex, that townhouse, [or] the duplex model just fits their family and their lifestyle better.” 

House Speaker Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle) conceded that local control can be in tension with statewide housing goals. “Cities have a tough job, and we recognize that, and we want to make that job easier by making a floor for jurisdictions, small, medium and large… knowing that Seattle is not the same as Moses Lake, but the housing shortage impacts every part of our state,” he said during a press briefing in late February. 

One of his counterparts on the senate side, Deputy Majority Leader Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), pushed back on the idea that the senate was being more conservative and timid about changing local zoning. “I’m not sure I would say that the senate is more deferential to local control versus the house,” she said. “But I think that is a struggle that is always front and center.”

Qualified Immunity Bill Passes Key Hurdle as Other Criminal Justice Reforms Stall Out

By Andrew Engelson

Several criminal justice reform measures moved past last Friday’s deadline for bills to pass out of their committees of origin, including a bill sponsored by Rep. My-Linh Thai (D–41, Bellevue) that would give victims of unlawful police actions the right to sue for damages.

In Washington, and nearly every other state, “qualified immunity” is a doctrine established by the US Supreme Court that protects law enforcement officers from most civil misconduct lawsuits unless a person can prove that a previous case with very similar circumstances resulted in an officer or agency being held accountable. (Qualified immunity does not apply to use of excessive force.) In the past two legislative sessions, Rep. Thai introduced similar bills that would eliminate qualified immunity, but both failed to pass. 

This time around, Thai’s bill no longer includes provisions giving the state attorney general’s office power to investigate and bring cases against police officers or law enforcement agencies for violating a person’s constitutional rights. As a result, it might have a better chance passing the House. (A separate bill, also sponsored by Thai, would give the attorney general the authority to investigate and sue law enforcement and corrections agencies.)

Thai’s bill could face a tougher road in the Senate, where police unions, local law enforcement agencies and the Association of Washington Cities have wielded considerable clout opposing similar bills in the past. Thirty-five states have tried and failed to eliminate qualified immunity since the protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and only Colorado succeeded passing a law in 2020 that allows victims of misconduct to sue law enforcement agencies.

“Without accountability, there cannot be true justice,” Thai said in a press release. “This bill provides avenues to justice for victims of police misconduct. By holding municipalities accountable when their employees violate a resident’s state constitutional rights, I hope we can encourage them to properly train, support, and discipline their police forces.”

Candice Bock, a spokesperson for the Association of Washington cities, said the organization still opposed to Rep. Thai’s bill. “Our concern is that it’s not going to really lead to greater accountability – which I know is what the proponents hoped for,” Bock said. “It’s going to result in an increase in claims and litigation costs, and cities settling those claims because the litigation costs are too expensive.”

Two other bills to reform the state’s juvenile justice system made it out of their committees last week. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), would raise the minimum age for a child to be prosecuted in juvenile court from 8 years old to 13. The other, sponsored by Rep. David Hackney (D-11, Tukwila), would reform the state’s criminal sentencing system so that juvenile convictions no longer lead to longer sentences for crimes people commit as adults.

Bills that failed to make the deadline included one that would have prevented evidence gathered during police misconduct from being admissible in court, another that would have limited the use of solitary confinement, and one that would have allowed judges to consider releasing people who are serving long sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 25.