Progressives had high expectations for this year’s legislative session, with a strong Democratic majority in both houses and advocates eager to lobby the legislature to build on progressive legislation passed last year.
These hopes crashed against the realities of party politics, a short 60-day session and a fear among incumbents that they might not be re-elected.
Unlike the U.S. Congress, Washington state lawmakers only work part-time, meaning that they have to cram all their legislation into 60-day and 105-day sessions in even and odd years, respectively. However, the state legislature still manages to be far more productive than Congress, passing 188 bills this session compared to the 25 bills passed by Congress this year.
Democrats in the legislature succeeded in passing a number of smaller progressive priorities as well as a flagship $16 billion transportation passage. However, many of the more transformative policy proposals failed to gain traction, and police accountability laws passed in 2021 were watered down.
The legislature succeeded in funding more affordable housing and rental assistance this year, but failed to advance more sweeping housing reform measures such as zoning reform and greater tenant protections.
Some housing advocates were particularly excited about the $829 million in new funding for affordable housing, with Low Income Housing Institute Executive Director Sharon Lee calling it “the most responsive and compassionate budget ever enacted.” The money is slated to build nearly 4,000 affordable homes as well as provide funding for homelessness services, rental assistance and foreclosure prevention.
However, experts believe that the new funding is not enough to bridge the massive affordable housing gap on its own. According to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Washington faces a deficit of nearly 200,000 affordable housing units. Another study by the nonprofit Up For Growth claims that Washington state needs to build 181,000 more affordable housing units to make up the gap.
Zoning reform could help close the gap, according to some housing advocates.
Across towns and cities in Washington, most residential neighborhoods are zoned for single family housing, making it illegal to build duplexes, triplexes or other denser types of housing. As housing shortages intensified across the country, some states made moves to allow different housing options. Oregon and California passed laws ending single family zoning in 2019 and 2021.
Housing activists were excited when Gov. Jay Inslee announced his support for eliminating single family zoning in December 2021. However, zoning reform faced bipartisan opposition from Republicans and some Democrats skeptical of denser development in suburban neighborhoods.
Initially, HB 1782 would have ended single family zoning for all cities with populations of more than 20,000. The bill was then watered down to address just residential areas near transit hubs before being killed entirely. Another bill, HB 1660, would have allowed developers to build additional cottages or small houses on a single plot of land. The bill failed in the Senate.
Legislators attempted to address climate change with HB 1099, which would have mandated cities to factor climate change into their comprehensive planning. It too failed to pass in the last days of the session. The bill could have paved the way for denser housing, which many environmentalists see as a necessity to reduce carbon emissions.
According to Ryan Packer, a senior editor at The Urbanist, the lack of action on denser housing shows that the legislature is dragging its feet on the climate crisis.
“It kind of shows you the lack of urgency or the perception that there’s not an urgency to correct these [issues],” Packer said. “Because if they pass [HB 1099] next session it’s probably too late … in terms of the timelines for the next large cities doing [comprehensive] plan updates.”
Comprehensive plans are the blueprints that are expected to “guide the day-to-day decisions of elected officials and local government staff,” according to the Municipal Research & Services Center.
The legislature passed HB 2064, which allows landlords and renters to participate in a payment plan instead of a security deposit, which could make renting more accessible to households that cannot afford to pay a month’s rent and security deposit all at once.
Families of community members killed by police were furious at the legislature’s decision to roll back police accountability laws. Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd, the legislature passed a number of police accountability bills in 2021. However, police officers put up major opposition to these efforts, lobbying for their repeal and even at times refusing to enforce the laws.
In an effort to appease police unions, the legislature considered a number of proposals to roll back police accountability legislation. While some of these bills failed, the legislature passed HB 2037, which allows police officers to use force against people they stop if they have “reasonable suspicion,” meaning they don’t need to have evidence of a crime being committed.
In response to Inslee’s decision to sign the law, the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability released a statement on Twitter saying, “This bill is not a clarification, but instead a massive roll back.”
“We are positive that HB 2037 will disproportionately harm communities of color and those most vulnerable,” they said.
Gun safety measures including HB 1630, which bans guns from public school board meetings, and SB 5078, which bans large capacity magazines with more than 10 bullets, also made it to the governor’s desk. These measures aim to curb gun violence, which took the lives of 235 Washingtonians in 2021, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an organization that collects gun violence data throughout the country.
Smaller but significant bills which aim to address gaps in racial and gender justice will also become law this session. HB 1851 guarantees pregnant people’s right to an abortion and allows other medical professionals to carry out the procedure. The bill was hailed as an important safeguard in light of Republican efforts to re-criminalize abortion in Texas and other states.
Birth justice organizers successfully passed HB 1881, which creates a credentialing pathway to allow for doulas to be reimbursed by Medicaid. The bill could help address racial health disparities.
Progressives also pushed for digital equity, passing HB 1723 which directs the State Broadband Office to promote the adoption of broadband to all households. Advocates hope that the bill will help close gaps in high-speed internet access for poor communities and communities of color.
Many activists also supported SB 5583, which abolished prison gerrymandering in cities. Prison gerrymandering is when states include incarcerated people as constituents while redistricting, despite the fact that they cannot vote. In 2019, the legislature banned prison gerrymandering for state and federal redistricting. Starting in June, municipalities will have to redistrict based on incarcerated people’s home addresses instead of the location in which they are imprisoned.
Other voting reform efforts failed, including SB 5597, which would have strengthened voting rights provisions for historically underrepresented communities. Efforts to increase voter participation such as HB 1156, which would allow cities to implement ranked-choice voting, and HB 1727, which would eliminate low-turnout odd-year elections, also failed.
One of the legislature’s biggest focuses was passing the $16 billion transportation funding package. The new budget authorizes money for a bunch of transportation policies, including new infrastructure like roads and bridges as well as better transit service. The package is a result of months of negotiation between Democrats in both houses and the governor.
While the compromise package doesn’t hit everything that transit activists wanted, it’s going to have to do, Packer said.
“It’s probably not the best transportation package we have, but it might be the best one that could pass this session,” they said.
Front and Centered, an environmental justice coalition, celebrated investments in transit and multimodal transportation, but criticized the inclusion of funding for highways. “Lawmakers are investing $11 billion in roads, negatively impacting 37 of the most vulnerable communities in the state,” the group said in a press release. They also claimed that the 13 biggest highway projects funded in the package could lead to the release of an additional 8.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050.
In addition to highway projects, the transportation package gives $1.5 billion to local transit agencies, which could favor rural communities. These local grants will also make transit free for kids under 18.
“It’s gonna be way more than the state’s ever — in decades — put into transit,” Packer said.
As the labor movement gained momentum with organizing efforts such as those of unionizing Starbucks baristas across the country, some in Washington looked to the legislature to increase worker protections. However, labor rights advocates had relatively limited successes in the 2022 legislative session.
In a compromise between gig ridesharing companies — including Uber and Lyft — and the Teamsters Union, the legislature passed HB 2076, mandating minimum rates for gig drivers. However, the bill also classifies gig drivers as independent contractors, preventing them from unionizing to fight for better benefits and pay.
Lawmakers were initially unreceptive to a bill allowing legislative workers to unionize, despite its popularity among community members. However, following a one-day strike by legislative workers, legislators revived the proposal, passing HB 2124. The bill creates a legal pathway for legislative workers to unionize.
Mehar Singh, an intern at the nonprofit organization Washington Bus, said she was really excited about the prospect of legislative workers unionizing. As a campaign worker, Singh relied on health benefits she was able to receive because of her union.
“I really believe that all workers deserve the right to unionize,” she said.
Other bills to advance progressive taxation, provide a universal basic income and reduce the cost of college tuition did not pass. Despite the disappointments, some progressives are hopeful and determined to continue their advocacy.
“I’m excited to see some of the bills that we were disappointed about coming back next year,” Singh said.
Read more of the Mar. 30-Apr. 5, 2022 issue.