Category: State of Washington

Toll Revenue Projections Plummet for Costly Waterfront Tunnel as Drivers Stay Away

By Erica C. Barnett

Revenues from tolls on the SR 99 tunnel, which replaced the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the downtown Seattle waterfront, are coming in much lower than the state Department of Transportation assumptions, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future, the state treasury department told the Washington State Transportation Commission this week. Deputy state treasurer Jason Richter told the commission that the new projections likely represent a “permanent reduction” in toll revenues, which pay for construction debt, ongoing maintenance, replacement and repair costs, and a loan from the state’s motor vehicle account.

In May of this year, for example, the state collected just under $5.7 million from tunnel tolls, about $3 million less than projected last year. That trend extends into future projections, which show a shortfall ranging from around 16 percent over the latter half of the 2020s to 30 percent or more in the future. In some years, according to the latest projections , toll revenues won’t be enough to cover debt service on the $3.4 billion tunnel and waterfront roadway project. By 2026, the projections show the tunnel project about $2.5 million in the red, and “then the difference starts to climb at a pretty uncomfortable clip,” Richter said, with a cumulative negative balance of more than $200 million projected 25 years out.

The state can make up for some of the shortfall, Richter told the WSTC, “but I’m suspicious that that’s not going to be sufficient to cover the entirety of this issue, given that the shortfall in a lot of years is equal to roughly a third of the revenue coming in.”

The COVID pandemic had unprecedented impacts on traffic into and through downtown Seattle, changing commute patterns and reducing the number of cars on every road. During 2020, the number of people using the tunnel plummeted to less than 40,000 vehicles a day, and that number has not increased much even as other roads, like I-5, have started to approach pre-pandemic traffic levels. Gas prices, which are currently at unprecedented highs, have also caused people to rethink how they get around, combine trips, and avoid unnecessary driving.

But even before the pandemic and $6 gas prices, people weren’t using the tunnel nearly as much as WSDOT predicted they would; in fact, once tolls went into effect in 2019, the number of vehicles using the tunnel dropped by 28 percent to fewer than 60,000. Contacted by email, WSDOT toll division spokesman Christopher Foster noted that “prior to the pandemic, trafficvolumes in the tolled tunnel were exceeding forecasts,” but both the forecasts and “baseline” tunnel usage are moving targets; while the tunnel was originally justified on the grounds that 130,000 cars would use it every day, the state has continually adjusted its forward-looking projections downward in light of actual traffic volumes.

One of the major reasons people aren’t driving in the tunnel is that there’s no real incentive to use it: If you can from point A to point B quickly and conveniently for free, why would you pay for the privilege? If you’ve driven in the tunnel, you’ve probably noticed that it often feels like an empty highway in the middle of the night—people avoid the tunnel in favor of existing surface streets, including the currently two-lane surface Alaskan Way, which WSDOT is currently widening into yet another highway.

Cary Moon, the founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, which advocated against the tunnel, is reluctant to say “I told you so.” But she will say that the data WSDOT used to justify building the tunnel—which initially projected 130,000 vehicles would use the tunnel every day—was “a joke” even before COVID came into the picture.

“Driving alone, especially in the tunnel, is dropping significantly and that’s’ a good trend long term,” Moon said. It’s also “what we knew would happen. … If we had invested in the right infrastructure, can you imagine what we could have done?”

But to WSDOT, despite its stated commitment to sustainability, the best outcome is one in which drivers get back in their cars and start using the tunnel again. The state could continue to boost toll rates, which currently range from $1.20 to $2.70 each way, to make up for lost revenues, and undoubtedly will, but higher tolls tend to lead to more diversion and people making different travel decisions. It’s a delicate balance.

“I think the transportation commission is doing their best to set tolls at a level that covers costs but also doesn’t cause excessive diversion,” Richter told PubliCola. The negative balance in WSDOT’s tunnel account is “cumulatively growing to the point where there’s going to have to be a conversation with legislators, as well as the transportation commission, to come up with a viable way to solve this,” Richter said. In other words, the legislature needs to come up with a solution, and funding, because the tunnel’s financial underpinnings are shaky.

“The bills have to be paid, and I have no doubt they will be paid—it’s going to be a question of, how do we do so without causing harm to the corridor and do so in a sustainable manner?”

 

Democrats, Republicans, and “Nonpartisan Party” Candidate Face off for Secretary of State; Council Takes Up Abortion Bills

1. The race for Washington Secretary of State—a position to which no Democrat has been elected since the 1960s—has drawn eight candidates, among them two Republicans, two Democrats (including the appointed incumbent, former state Sen. Steve Hobbs), and four candidates with other affiliations, including Pierce County auditor and “nonpartisan party” candidate Julie Anderson. (One candidate, Tamborine Borelli, is running with an “America First (R)” affiliation).

At a virtual forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Washington last week, five of the eight candidates described what their priorities would be if elected. Three of the five—Hobbs, Anderson, and former Republican state legislator Mark Miloscia—have reported raising more than $50,000.

The other two candidates at the forum were Marquez Tiggs, a Democrat who said he would support in-person voting to increase turnout and require voter IDs at polling stations, and Bob Hagglund, a Republican who said he wants to require voter ID so that “the people who should not be voting don’t get their vote and don’t get their ballots counted.” Borelli, “Union Party” candidate Kurtis Engle, and Republican Keith Waggoner did not participate.

Hobbs and Anderson, the two top fundraisers and likely frontrunners, both emphasized their experience—Hobbs as an expert on disinformation from his training as a member of the US Army National Guard, and Anderson as Pierce County auditor for the past 12 years. Anderson said she would be the first Secretary of State to embrace nonpartisanship. “Political parties do not belong in the Secretary of State’s office,” she said, adding that she would support legislation to make the office officially nonpartisan. Hobbs said it doesn’t matter to him whether the office is partisan or not, because “it’s about the person that’s in the office, not the label.”

Among other claims, Republican Secretary of State candidate Mark Miloscia has argued that “perverts” on the left are “coming after our children,” denouncing abortion rights supporters, and accusing Democrats of “indoctrinating children with the demonic tenants of pagan radicalism.

The two candidates also differed on the issue of ranked choice voting (Anderson said she supports it as a matter of “local choice,” while Hobbs said it “just adds a new complicated element to elections” and “is vastly unfair to new Americans to come to this country where English is not their first language.” Both agreed that the state should do more to protect the security of elections, although Hobbs emphasized outreach and voter contact, including heightened efforts to reach voters when the signatures on their mail-in ballots are rejected while Anderson proposed a “statewide risk limiting audit” on a single race to test election security.

Since leaving office (and running unsuccessfully for state auditor in 2012 and 2016), Miloscia has been the director of the Family Institute of Washington, where he has written prolifically and conspiratorially about the decline of “traditional values.” Among other claims, Miloscia has argued that “perverts” on the left are “coming after our children,” denouncing abortion rights supporters, and accusing Democrats of “indoctrinating children with the demonic tenants of pagan radicalism.” (Also, he is positively obsessed with drag queens, who he says are tempting children with “lie[s] from the devil.”)

2. The city council will take up three different bills aimed at addressing access to abortion, two of them delayed because one of their sponsors, Councilmember Tammy Morales, contracted COVID.

The first, sponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, aims to turn Seattle into a “sanctuary city” for abortion providers by directing the City Attorney’s Office and police not to cooperate with investigations, subpoenas, or search or arrest warrants by out-of-state authorities seeking to prosecute abortion providers who take refuge in Seattle. “If people break the unjust anti-abortion laws in their own state and believe they will be caught, they can come to Seattle to stave off prosecution,” Sawant said at a Monday afternoon council briefing.

The legislation also says that if Washington state bans or restricts abortion in the future, the police must make cooperation with other law enforcement authorities among its lowest law-enforcement priorities, along with marijuana-related offenses.

The second, from Morales and Councilmember Lisa Herbold, incorporates a 1993 state law that makes it a gross misdemeanor to interfere with a patient’s access to health care facilities, such as clinics and hospitals that provide abortions, by blocking entrances, disturbing the peace, and harassing or threatening patients or clinic employees. And the third, also sponsored by Morales and Herbold, would prohibit discrimination based on a person’s perceived pregnancy outcomes; for example, an employer could not fire or penalize an employee because the employer believed she had an abortion.

Although both proposals seem likely to pass, they also illustrate the limitations of what blue cities in blue states can do to mitigate the impact of abortion bans nationwide—it’s unlikely, for example, that abortion providers from across the country will resettle in Seattle en masse to avoid pursuit and prosecution by anti-choice judges and law enforcement officials in their home states.

Statewide efforts to fund abortion providers who will be inundated with out-of-state patients would be more impactful, as would restrictions on additional mergers between secular and Catholic hospitals, which not only refuse to provide abortions but often refuse to manage miscarriages in progress or provide tubal ligations or birth control. Earlier this year, a state bill that would have required some transparency when health care systems merge failed to make it out of committee.

Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments

1. The Seattle City Council voted not to overturn Mayor Bruce Harrell’s veto of legislation that would have directed a research university, such as the University of Washington, to collect information from landlords about the size of their units and how much they charge. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored the proposal because, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, it would help the city “validate [the] affordable benefits of smaller mom and pop landlords,” informing the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan rewrite; Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2) co-sponsored it because she said it would give renters better information to make housing decisions and could ultimately bolster support for rent control.

“This could mean, for tenants, that they finally have the ability to make an informed decision and to make a choice between units when they’re searching for a new home—something that landlords have been able to do with background checks on tenants for decades,” Morales said. “We would finally have concrete data that dispels the illusion that private-market, trickle-down economics is the solution to our affordability crisis.”

Renters, unlike homeowners, lack access to crucial information to help them make informed housing decision. While home buyers can easily access public information about what a house sold for most recently, the assessed value of adjacent and nearby houses, and (through data maintained and published by the Multiple Listing Service) the average prices of houses in a particular area, renters have to rely on sites like Apartment Finder and Craigslist to get a general idea of local rents. Searches for the “median rent” in Seattle yield numbers that vary by hundreds of dollars, making it impossible to know whether the rent a landlord is charging is reasonable. 

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information.

Overturning a mayoral veto requires a minimum of six council votes; as in the original vote, just five councilmembers supported the legislation this time.

2. JustCare, the COVID-era program that engaged with people living in encampments and moved them into hotel-based shelter, will no longer continue in its previous form. The program, run by the Public Defender Association, ran out of city funding at the end of June. Its new iteration, which will focus exclusively on encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, will be funded using state dollars allocated in a supplemental state budget for shelter and services tied to encampment removals on state-owned property.

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare. That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association

The funding is only available to groups that focus on encampments in sites “identified by the department of transportation as a location where individuals residing on the public right-of-way are in specific circumstances or physical locations that expose them to especially or imminently unsafe conditions, including but not limited to active construction zones and risks of landslides.”

By moving its focus to encampments in state rights-of-way, such as highway overpasses, JustCare will lose its geographic, neighborhood-based focus, PDA co-director Daugaard acknowledges. 

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare,” Daugaard said. “That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.” Continue reading “Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments”

Amid Court Battle Over Capital Gains Tax, House Finance Chair Previews Future Reforms

State Rep. Noel Frame (D-36)
State Rep. Noel Frame (D-36)

By Clara Coyote

Following up on last year’s capital gains tax—a major legislative win for progressives during the 2021 session that puts a 7 percent tax on profits greater than $250,000 from the sales of assets, such as stocks and bonds—state Rep. Noel Frame (D-36) has her eye on comprehensive structural change for Washington’s upside-down tax code. The poorest fifth of Washington state residents pay, on average, 16.8 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes while the richest 1 percent of Washingtonians pay an average of just 2.4 percent.

A key piece of that larger agenda for Frame, the House finance chair, is a wealth tax; she introduced a version last year,  HB 1406, which the state department of revenue estimated would bring in $2.5 billion a year. Frame passed the bill out of her Finance Committee last year before it stalled in House Appropriations. Frame said she sees the senate version, SB 5426, as this year’s vehicle, and hopes the Senate Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation. 

Additionally, Rep. Frame said there will be smaller but meaningful bills during this year’s short (60-day) legislative session to clarify the implementation of existing legislation—for example, refining the 2023 rollout of the Working Families Tax Credit, a program Democrats passed last year, that will provide payments ranging from $300 to $1,200 to low-to-moderate-income people. Frame’s committee may also consider progressive modifications to the existing estate tax, by lowering taxes on small and medium estates while increasing taxes on the largest. This is work that first began with HB 1465, introduced (but not passed) last year.

Frame said that larger, systemic reform is emerge from the work of the multi-year bipartisan Tax Structure Work Group, which Frame chairs. Frame told PubliCola that she hopes to see bills as soon as 2023 refining an anti-displacement property tax exemption proposal meant to protect housing for mid-to-low income Washingtonians. In its final draft, Frame said, the legislation will incorporate feedback from town hall meetings where participants said renters as well as homeowners should benefit from the exemption. Frame said the work group will also figure out the details of her proposed wealth tax. 

Frame believes small businesses also need help. “We have the business and occupation (B&O) tax passed in the 1930s as a temporary measure that never went away,” Frame said. The B&O tax applies to all revenues a business takes in, regardless of whether a business turns a profit. “This disproportionately harms small businesses,” Frame said. “A central goal of the working group is finding a better alternative.”

Frame said she’s well aware that the progressive capital gains tax is already facing a court challenge but said she’s undeterred about moving forward with additional reforms that could draw more lawsuits. “Just because the rich and the powerful will threaten us every single time with a lawsuit doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask them to pay their fair share,” she said. 

A Functional Democracy Requires A Challenge to New Redistricting Maps

Washington State Redistricting Commission adopted state legislative boundaries
Washington State Redistricting Commission-adopted state legislative boundaries

By Andrew Hong and Margot Spindola

Earlier this month, the Washington State Supreme Court declined an opportunity to fix a gross miscarriage of democracy, declining to redraw the state’s political boundaries after the Washington State Redistricting Commission abdicated its authority by submitting their maps a day after the constitutional deadline. With this decision, the supreme court effectively endorsed maps that violate the voting rights of communities of color, turning a blind eye to a process that prioritized partisan advantage over communities’ interest.

Every decade, state and local governments redraw their legislative districts to reflect population shifts revealed by the US Census. The process has the power to reshape the political landscape—granting outsize power to one party, for example—and increase or reduce the power of communities, such as Washington state’s Latino population. This year, the redistricting commission—a hyperpartisan group made up of two Democrats and two Republicans—failed, after hours of closed-door meetings, to reach consensus on new political maps by the November 15 constitutional deadline. Despite this failure, the state supreme court swiftly announced that the maps were fine, disregarding both the contours of the maps themselves and the deeply flawed process that produced them.

This redistricting commission and the courts had a unique opportunity to take in community input and set the boundaries of our democracy in a way that ensures communities’ voices are heard. By that measure, they failed spectacularly.

The court didn’t consider, for example, whether the Commission violated the Open Public Meetings Act when they conducted eleventh-hour negotiations, off camera, to make a decision on a final map plan. Perhaps, they would have considered otherwise if they had seen a memo written by commission staff leaked last week that revealed the commissioners prioritized naked partisan advantage over equitable representation.

Most importantly, the court did not consider how the maps likely violate both state law and the federal Voting Rights Act, by diluting the Latino vote in Yakima County. Amid all the process drama, both the commission and the court failed to consider the impact of these maps on the actual people who live and vote in those districts.

In its effort to remain apolitical, the court gave this two-party commission a political victory: Partisan-driven incumbent protection by way of a voting rights violations for which taxpayers may end up footing the bill in a legal challenge. Throughout this broken process, commissioners ignored requests from communities of color in Western and Central Washington to be kept together to right the wrongs of previous districting failures. And yet the commissioners claimed victory in the name of diversity and representation. When they were called on it, they refused to listen to community input and public testimony.

District maps, as with all government services and entities, should serve the people, not the political establishment. This redistricting commission and the courts had a unique opportunity to take in community input and set the boundaries of our democracy in a way that ensures communities’ voices are heard. By that measure, they failed spectacularly.

In many ways, this is nothing new. Communities of color all across our state, at every level of government, have always been tossed around like a political football. In Seattle, I-5 splits the Chinatown-International District in half. And after its construction, the city zoned the historically Asian-American and Pacific Islander neighborhood with downtown and Pioneer Square—not accounting for the fact that our residential and industry interests more closely align with Beacon Hill and South Seattle. Continue reading “A Functional Democracy Requires A Challenge to New Redistricting Maps”

Inslee Proposes $800 Million Housing, Homelessness Plan

Gov. Inslee’s supplemental budget proposal includes funding for new tiny-house village shelters.

By John Stang

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced $815 million supplemental budget proposal to respond to homelessness across the state. His announcement came one day before King County planned to release a new count of the region’s homeless population, based on data obtained from homeless service providers through a database called the Homeless Management Information System, that is expected to be significantly higher than previous “point in time” counts.

Inslee’s proposal did not include detailed information about how much funding Seattle and King County stood to receive.

While it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, the Washington Department of Commerce typically divides capital projects in thirds, with one third going to Seattle and King County, one third going to other cities and one third going to rural areas, Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee told PubliCola. The commerce department would handle more than $700 million of the $815 million package in its capital and operations budgets.

If approved, the package would help build tiny-house villages, provide help for people to pay their utility bills, expand behavioral health facilities for the homeless, and speed up efforts to find places for the homeless living in tents on public right-of-ways.

Inslee announced the package Wednesday at the Copper Pines Habitat For Humanity complex in Ballard, which will include seven three-bedroom units for families making 80 percent or less of Seattle’s median income.

Inslee also announced legislation that would allow what low-rise apartments, split lots, duplexes, and other types of low-impact density on all residential lots within a half-mile of a major transit stop in cities with populations greater than 25,000 people. The legislation would effectively override laws dictating suburban-style single-family development in cities.

“We cannot wait years and decades to get people out of the rain,” Inslee said, adding that the state’s population growth has created a shortage of roughly 250,000 homes. “It is unacceptable to us to have people living under bridges and not have solutions.”

He said the state’s population growth has created a shortage of roughly 250,000 homes in Washington. His proposals addresses a range from the extremely poor to renting families in danger of losing their homes because of rising bills. Inslee said his proposals would build 1,500 new permanent housing units and fund acquisition of existing properties to add another 2,400 shelter beds, tiny house village units, and permanent housing units, including short-term shelter for people living in encampments across the state.

A document outlining Inslee’s proposal estimated that about 30 of every 10,000 state residents were homeless before the pandemic, a number the state believes has increased by about 2 percent. Statewide, 80,000 families said they could soon face eviction or foreclosure, according to the US Census Bureau. Continue reading “Inslee Proposes $800 Million Housing, Homelessness Plan”

Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process

Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington

by Leo Brine

Transportation advocates were actually pleased when lawmakers ended the most recent legislative session without passing a new transportation package.

After the transportation committees released their proposed revenue packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities. Wanting a more equitable transportation package, advocates repeated a line of critique they’ve been making for years: The state needs to find new transportation revenue sources and free up revenue that is otherwise restricted to highway spending.

However, and perhaps because their recommendations have gone unheeded for a decade, a new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative for Disability Rights Washington, said the current system is a “pork model,” where legislators pick projects for their districts rather than investing in projects that make the whole state transportation system function better.

“A transportation system has to work across the state,” she said. “If you have everyone competing, that’s not going to create the best system overall.”

Advocates say lawmakers have too much power over which projects get funded and have political incentivizes to fund major highway expansion projects rather than expand transit services or improve pedestrian infrastructure. Featuring friction over projects, funding, regionalism, mode split, and maintenance versus new construction, the legislative ritual, akin to passing a kidney stone, played out in 2003, 2005, and 2015.

A new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

In April, during the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), shared their transportation revenue proposals. The House proposal would have spent $22 billion over 16 years, earmarking the majority of the dollars for highway projects, with about 20 percent going to multimodal projects. The Senate’s proposal would have spent $18 billion over the same period, with less than 10 percent going to multimodal projects.

Leah Missik, transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions, said lawmakers’ proposed investments in multimodal projects were a major step up from previous packages, but “continuously investing in road expansions is certainly not the way we want to go.”

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered, a BIPOC environmental group, said, “this package process needs to go.”  Transportation packages never meet people’s needs and are a hodgepodge of project ideas from legislators, he said. Instead, Nunes-Ueno says lawmakers should establish climate, infrastructure, and safety goals, and allocate funding to state and local agencies that would decide how to allocate funding on projects.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, said politics play too great a role when lawmakers craft transportation packages. She said lawmakers are more likely to invest in large projects, like highway expansions or major road repairs, because they garner more attention than smaller multimodal projects. “This process doesn’t incentivize … projects that help people travel between places,” Serebrin said. “Instead it incentivizes larger, geographically isolated projects.”

Other advocates agree that politics should play less of a role in the state’s transportation system. Vlad Gutman, Climate Solutions’ Washington director, like Nunes-Ueno, wants legislators to devise a set of goals and values for Washington’s transportation infrastructure and allocate funding to state agencies who can come up with projects and programs to accomplish the goals.

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno said, “this package process needs to go.”  Instead, Nunes-Ueno wants lawmakers to set climate, infrastructure, and safety goals and allocate funding to state and local agencies.

“We need to be selecting projects and investing and designing our transportation system in a sort of objective, metric-based way that also recognizes and inputs the needs of communities and people who are impacted and stakeholders of transportation,” he said.

To do so, he argued, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should study the needs of the state and select projects based on those needs, “instead of [lawmakers] sort of piecemealing it by selecting projects one at a time,” Gutman said.

This participatory approach to transportation planning doesn’t make sense to Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs. “We’re in a democracy and legislators have a right to say how their districts should be supported by government,” he said.

Continue reading “Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process”

Olympia Fizz: More Calls for Inslee to Reject Weakened ADU Bill; State Rejects Eyman’s Anti-Capital Gains Tax Efforts

1. A pro-renter outcry against watered-down state legislation emerged this week when two dozen organizations and businesses signed on to a letter, originally drafted by the progressive Sightline think tank; the Sightline letter, which we reported on last week, asks Gov. Jay Inslee to issue a partial veto of accessory dwelling unit legislation that state representatives amended with anti-renter provisions.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? The AARP of Washington, Climate Solutions, 350 Seattle, Amazon, the Washington State Labor Council, SEIU 775, and the Sierra Club, among others.

As we reported, the initial proposal, by state Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), would have banned owner-occupancy for secondary units, such as backyard cottages, allowing renters to live in both single-family houses and their accessory units—opening up exclusive single-family neighborhoods to more people. However, state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) kicked off a House process that led to a radical rewrite, allowing owner occupancy mandates and imposing new restrictions designed to prevent homeowners from renting out their secondary units as Airbnbs.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? 350 Seattle, AARP Washington, Climate Solutions, the Washington State Labor Council, and the Sierra Club, among many others.

“ADUs alone will not solve the state’s housing shortage,” the letter says. “But they are the gentlest way communities can add relatively affordable homes that offer lower income families more choices and allow seniors to age in place.”

2. Coming off yet another major legal loss, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman has stumbled again. The Republican Washington Secretary of State’s office threw out all four of Eyman’s anti-capital gains tax (SB 5096) referendum proposals.

The capital gains tax bill, which passed this year, would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains of $250,000 or more, but conservatives are already champing at the bit to stop it from taking effect. Earlier this week, two conservative groups filed lawsuits against the bill, arguing that it constitutes an unconstitutional income tax.

Rejecting the measures, Washington State Director of Elections Lori Augino cited the bill’s necessity clause, an amendment added by Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), which says that the tax is “is necessary for the support of the state government and its existing public institutions.” This places it outside the scope of citizens’ referendum power, Augino wrote.

Eyman’s referendum method would have been the safest option for conservatives to stop the bill. The other options are a lawsuit or a voter initiative, which requires twice as many signatures—about 325,000, or 8 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

While the lawsuits could also upend the Democrats’ plans, they may also backfire on the conservatives. The Washington State Supreme Court could uphold the tax by ruling that it’s an excise tax, not an income tax. Or they could overturn a 1933 decision that defined income as property, which, under the state constitution, must be taxed at a 1 percent uniform tax rate. If the court overturns that ruling, Democratic lawmakers would finally have the opportunity to pass a graduated income tax in the state.

What Became of the Legislature’s Big Plans for Police Reform?

Washington State Capitol (Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

At the beginning of the legislative session in January, police accountability appeared to be front and center on many legislators’ agendas. By the time the session ended last Sunday, lawmakers had narrowed a broad array of police reform proposals to a core list of bills that expands the state’s role in police oversight and tactics, although some efforts to address gaps in police oversight—particularly police union contracts—fell short.

The agency that will play an enforcement role in the legislature’s police reform efforts is the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC), a group of civilians and law enforcement officers appointed by the governor that has the power to issue—and revoke—licenses to work as a law enforcement officer in Washington. On Sunday, the legislature sent a bill to Gov. Jay Inslee that will expand the CJTC’s authority to investigate officers for misconduct and suspend or revoke their licenses, a process known as decertification.

The legislation, originally sponsored by Senators Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) and Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), empowers the commission to discipline officers at their own discretion; under prior state law, the CJTC had to wait until a law enforcement agency fired an officer before considering whether to revoke the officer’s license, which allowed problematic officers to transfer to new agencies to escape consequences for misconduct.

Lawmakers passed new restrictions barring police officers from firing at moving vehicles, prohibiting judges from issuing so-called “no-knock warrants,” and limiting the contexts in which officers can initiate car chases or use off-leash police dogs.

The law will also require law enforcement agencies to report any serious use-of-force incidents to the commission, as well as any misconduct allegations or criminal charges of which their officers are found guilty. The commission would use that information to identify officers whose misconduct is serious enough to merit disciplinary action, including decertification.

Notably, the bill will alter the CJTC’s makeup, reducing the number of law enforcement representatives on the commission from ten to six and increasing the number of community representatives from two to seven. In total, the commission will grow from 16 to 21 members; other additions include a civilian police oversight expert. Members of the public will also be able to search a new CJTC database to track officers’ disciplinary and employment history. Continue reading “What Became of the Legislature’s Big Plans for Police Reform?”

State Wealth Tax Proposal Derailed in Olympia

State Rep. Noel Frame
State Rep. Noel Frame

by Leo Brine

With Democrats firmly in control of all three branches of state government, lefty tax reform advocates hoped for bold legislation this year. Indeed, with newly-elected President Joe Biden—and the crushing COVID-19 recession—making old-fashioned liberal tax policy viable for the first time in a generation, progressive taxation is in vogue in the state legislature.

Kinda. While both the House and Senate included the capital gains tax (SB 5096), a longstanding progressive goal, in their operating budget proposals, a proposed wealth tax (HB 1406), the first of its kind in the nation, is not on track to pass this session.

The wealth tax would require any state resident with more than $1 billion in intangible financial assets, such as stocks and bonds, to pay a one percent tax on their worldwide wealth. The Department of Revenue estimates only 100 Washington taxpayers would pay the tax, which would generate $2.5 billion annually.

Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), the wealth tax’s prime sponsor and chair of the house finance committee, said if Republicans don’t agree to move the bill, she doesn’t want to waste the committee’s time with political theater on a bill that still has a long way to go. 

House Democrats passed the bill out of the Finance Committee on March 31 and sent it to the Appropriations Committee.

Republicans have made it clear they do not support the tax and some Democrats have shown opposition to the bill –two Democratic representatives voted against the bill in House Finance Committee on March 31. While Democrats may still have the votes to move the bill out of Appropriations committee, they’re not sure they’ve got the time, given that it’s this far behind in the process and the committee has Senate bills to consider.

Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), the wealth tax’s prime sponsor and chair of the house finance committee, said if Republicans don’t agree to move the bill, she doesn’t want to waste the committee’s time with political theater on a bill that still has a long way to go.  “We’ve asked a lot of our staff, and I’m not inclined to ask them to do more in service of a bill that I don’t, at this moment in time, with 13 days left, see getting across the finish line this session,” Rep. Frame said.

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Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said that at this point, bills “are going to need to be agreed to by both sides in order to make it through the process, so we don’t have a show hearing, as opposed to using our time most efficiently for bills that will pass.”

Misha Werschkul, the executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said the legislature likely prioritized the capital gains tax because the bill was “developed over several years to have that strong support to move forward.” Continue reading “State Wealth Tax Proposal Derailed in Olympia”