Sen. Reuven Carlyle speaks during a January town hall. Photo by Joe Veyera
Sen. Reuven Carlyle speaks during a January town hall. Photo by Joe Veyera

With Democrats in control of all three chambers for the first time in five years, a whirlwind pace marked the 60-day legislative session that wrapped up on March 8.

More than 300 bills cleared both the House and the Senate, a figure that both Reps. Gael Tarleton and Noel Frame attribute in part to a backlog that had developed over the past several years.

“A lot of the legislation we passed, they were really well worked bills in the House,” Frame said. “Some had been passed four, five, six, seven times, many of them we had strong bipartisan support in the House, it’s just the Senate had put their thumb on it for a long time.”

The fast-paced session wasn’t without its challenges, and even though lawmakers finished up work on several long-term issues, there was still much left undone by sine die.

We sat down with all three state lawmakers from the 36th District — Reps. Tarleton and Frame, and Sen. Reuven Carlyle — to get their thoughts on the biggest achievements and disappointments from a busy two months in Olympia.

 

Voting rights

The expansion of voting access was a top priority for Democrats entering the session, with Gov. Jay Inslee signing a package of five “Access to Democracy” bills earlier this month.

At the forefront was the Voting Rights Act (SB 6002), which aims to foster more equitable election systems across the state, while legislators also passed bills enacting same-day (SB 6021) and automatic (HB 2595) voter registration, along with allowing 16-and-17-year olds to pre-register (HB 1513),

“For me personally, as somebody whose worked on the campaign side and worked on sort of that access to democracy work at my previous job, and through volunteer board service, it’s pretty cool,” Frame said.

The fifth of the five measures was the DISCLOSE Act (SSB 5991), which will require politically-active nonprofits making sizable election donations — more than $10,000 in a calendar year — to register and file a statement with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.

 

Gun control

A ban on bump stocks (ESB 5992) was the main piece of gun responsibility legislation to reach the governor’s desk, with sales of the modification banned starting in July, and ownership prohibited 12 months later. Current owners will able to sell their bump stocks back to the Washington State Patrol in the first year of the ban for $150.

Legislators also closed a loophole in gun ownership restrictions, adding harassment in a domestic violence setting as a disqualifying conviction (SB 6298), and passed a bill allowing those with suicidal ideations or are in mental distress to voluntarily waive their firearm rights for at least seven days (SB 5553)

But stronger gun control efforts ultimately fell short, including a late push by Sen. David Frockt in the wake of the Parkland shooting to raise the minimum age to purchase assault rifles from 18 to 21 and require buyers to undergo federal and state background checks (SSB 6620).

Carlyle believes the votes were there in the Senate for Frockt’s bill, and called it an, “incredible disappointment,” that it didn’t get through.

Frame said to some extent, lawmakers just ran out of time.

“I think the earth really shifted underneath our feet during the session,” Frame said. “ … I think it’s entirely possible we might have gotten there had we had a little bit longer. To have the Parkland massacre happen during a short legislative session, to have the Republican President of the United States say that he would support raising the age, to see the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature adopt it, I think those things were happening, it was just happening a little too late in our legislative process.”

Another issue at play, said Frame, was that not all members of the Democratic caucus were on the same page.

“The other thing I would say is we need to elected a few more pro-gun responsibility legislators to help us get that bill across the finish line next year,” she said.

 

Environment

Carlyle counts the failure to pass the carbon-pricing bill he sponsored (2SSB 6203) among his biggest disappointments of the session.

“We are seeing in this state hundreds of millions of dollars a biennium in costs in forest fires, and ocean acidification, and all kinds of impacts of climate change that are direct and tangible,” he said. “So, it’s not a question of whether we pay to mitigate the negative effects of carbon, it’s about how we pay, because we’re already paying.”

He was, however, proud the effort made it through both the Energy and Ways and Means Committees, and said it was a “big step forward,” even though it didn’t cross the finish line.

What did pass was a measure to expand the state’s oil barrel tax — which pays for spill response and prevention work — to pipelines (SB 6269), which Tarleton said was a four-year battle.

“That was all about protecting Puget Sound and our lands and our people from oil spills,” she said.

But beyond that effort, Tarleton felt like there was a substantial shift in the conversation about the state’s future in a, “climate risk environment.”

“This was the first year I really felt we had a convergence zone where a diverse group of people from diverse parts of the state finally realized we have to get to 100 percent carbon-free,” she said.

 

Fish farming

Atlantic salmon and other non-native net-pen fish farming in state waters will be phased out by 2025 (EHB 2957), as legislators looked to prevent a future repeat of a net-pen collapse last August that sent more than a quarter-million non-native salmon into Puget Sound.

“It showed that we were not just talking about saving salmon and ensuring the fish species — the wild species — could still have a strong genetic pool in our state, but that we were honoring the sustainability of the fishery for all of our fishers, not just in my district but up and down the Washington coast,” Tarleton said.

 

Death Penalty

An issue Carlyle has championed since he was first elected to the legislature nearly a decade ago, a bill to abolish the death penalty (SB 6052) passed the senate with the support of five Republicans, but failed to get a vote in the House.

“I was very disappointed that the House leadership chose not to make it a priority,” he said. “I believe the votes were there.”

Carlyle said he’s “convinced,” the bill will get through next year.

 

Transportation

Despite much debate surrounding the car-tab formula used by Sound Transit to calculate motor vehicle excise taxes, and that agency’s governance model, the session came and went without any major changes.

Though he’s “incredibly grumpy,” with a valuation schedule he finds categorically unfair, Carlyle said the structural damage a funding hit would do to the agency’s ability to build the projects voters approved was too much.

“I think the fiduciary duty is to protect the financial integrity of Sound Transit’s ability, because if we slow down, if we lose five years between West Seattle and Ballard, the economic, social, environmental impact of that is shocking,” he said.

Frame said she was open to a car-tab change, but there was no solution proposed this session that both adjusted the valuation schedule and kept Sound Transit whole.

“I hear essentially zero complaints about car tab fees from my constituents, almost none,” Frame said. “I hear a lot of, ‘Don’t touch my light rail. Do not touch the car tabs. If you’re going to touch the car tabs, you have to back fill the funding.’”

And though the rail plans are only to connect Snohomish, King, and Pierce Counties, Tarleton said the impact goes well beyond the Puget Sound.

“The more people we put on rail, the more people will be out of their car and freight will be able to move,” Tarleton said. “As this state grows and this region grows faster than any other region in the state, we are not going to be able to sustain the movement of people and goods if we don’t have more people on rail. It’s just not going to happen.”

 

Public records

Legislators faced strong backlash to their rapid push to respond to a superior court ruling that the legislature was subject to state public disclosure laws.

But after the effort to remove themselves from the Public Records Act retroactively (SB 6617) and make some records public after July 1 passed by wide margins in both the House and Senate, an outpouring of opposition from constituents, open records advocates, and the media led Gov. Inslee to veto the measure.

Both Tarleton and Frame voted for the bill in the House, but were among those to request the governor’s veto.

“The process by which we did it was so terrible we literally undermined people’s confidence in their democratic institutions,” Frame said.

In voting for the bill, Frame said she had concerns around protecting constituents’ privacy, in addition to that of legislators themselves, in the sense that there weren’t the systems in place to do so (like separate personal and government cellphones, for example).

“I use my own personal cellphone for legislative business, and the concern I expressed initially was I understand that I have to disclose legislative business and I will do that, and text messages are a great example, where I can disclose what I say is legislative business, but if the judge says, ‘I don’t think that’s everything, turn it all over,’ I’m turning over my personal device,” she said.

For Tarleton — who had been subject to the Public Records Act as a Port of Seattle Commissioner — the process (or lack thereof) was, “the one part about this session that I would just say I wish I could do a do over.”

“I would say my biggest mistake was not saying, ‘If we’re going to have a public disclosure law, that law needs to be subjected to the same public process that all of our legislation is,’” she said. “We have a hearing, we get testimony, we take votes — in public — we allow the public to participate, we allow supporters and opponents to have their say, and then we figure out if it’s the right piece of legislation, and rarely does a piece of legislation get through that whole tripwire without some serious changes. We amend it, we change it, we rewrite it, and we didn’t allow that to happen, and that’s where we failed.”

Carlyle was one of seven to vote against the bill in the Senate, saying that in spite of the technical problem with the court ruling — that each of the 147 legislators is a separate agency of government subjected to agency rules — the lack of public vetting put it outside his comfort zone.

“There was a legitimate policy question about how to comply with the spirit of it in a way that’s technically responsible, so I have no problem with a thoughtful exercise,” Carlyle said. “I voted against it because I felt like in this era of deep questioning of major institutions like government and media and elected officials and business, we have to have the courage to err on the side of openness.”

 

Education

After entering the session still needing to close the gap to reach full compliance with the McCleary decision by the state Supreme Court, lawmakers added the final installment of funding, with nearly $800 million for teacher salaries. It’s something Tarleton said she didn’t expect would get done during the session, but she’s happy that the baseline is now in place to address inequities in the following years.

“We can address the problems that are emerging, the gaps that we see in different school districts,” she said. “We still, in our view — the courts might not agree — still don’t have enough for special education, we don’t have enough for school counselors, we don’t really have a good handle on the different compensation schedules that are going to have to be adopted in different jurisdictions around the state so those are the kinds of work that will continue.”

The supplemental budget also included funding to reduce the wait-list for the State Need Grant for low-income students, which Carlyle referred to as the, "biggest move in higher education in a decade."

Also passed this session was Breakfast after the Bell (HB 1508), which will allow students in “high-need” schools — where at least 70 percent of attendees are eligible for free-or-reduced-cost meals — to move the first meal to after the start of the day.

“When kids are low income and their parents have real challenges around transit for instance — maybe they don’t have a car, maybe they miss the bus — kids shouldn’t be suffering and missing their first meal of the day because they get there five minutes late,” Frame said.

 

Criminal and juvenile justice reform

Lawmakers passed what Frame called, “perhaps the biggest reform to the criminal justice system in the juvenile side in 20 years,” surrounding auto-decline laws, which requires 16-and-17-year-olds charged with certain offenses to be tried as adults.

That’s now under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system (SB 6160), in the case of first-degree robbery, first-degree burglary (with a prior offense), drive-by shooting, or a set of crimes committed with a firearm.

“It gives kids a second chance, when we know from science that they’re impulsive and make bad choices as teenagers, and it’s good for public safety because it actually reduces the likelihood of them committing crimes afterwards,” Frame said.

The legal financial obligation system will also see changes (HB 1783), eliminating the accrual of interest on non-restitution fees, fines, and other costs, and prohibiting courts from imposing costs on indigent defendants.

“It is a function of our tax structure being upside down, and our counties not having sufficient funding for a whole host of things including the courts, and so they use this weird fee-based structure that charges the people are incarcerated, fees with interest when they don’t have the ability to earn a wage,” Frame said. “It was just bizarre.”

Unfinished at session’s end was an effort to decriminalize sexting for youth (SB 6566); under current law juveniles can be charged with a class B felony sex offense for sending a picture of themselves.

“The law just did not contemplate in 1982 that children would have cameras connected to the internet at the ready at all times,” Frame said.

That push will be revisited next session, Frame said.

 

Tax structure

A push for a capital gains tax (HB 2967) made little headway, with no vote on a plan to use the revenue of what would be a seven percent tax to expand the senior property tax exemption (which also goes to veterans and those with disabilities) and provide broader property tax relief.

Also falling short was an attempt to add a 40-cent tax on the retail sale of phones and internet connected devices to fund the Washington Internet Crimes Against Children Account (HB 2389), and efforts to tax vapor products.

“I think that taxing tobacco companies that are selling and marketing vape pens to teenagers with bubble gum flavored vaping liquid, that it was to me definitely worthy of a tax that would have made it less attractive to teenagers who are very price sensitive,” Frame said.

Tarleton said a broader discussion is needed about how to pay for a “modern state,” with the understanding that current revenue structure can’t do it.

“It’s not about adding this tax or taking away that tax, it’s really thinking about what are you trying to do with revenue,” Tarleton said.

The legislature did provide some property tax relief to homeowners, after it did most of the heavy lifting in last year’s education funding plan. By using some of the proceeds from increased revenue in the state, lawmakers passed a one-time cut in 2019 of 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

“I’ve been a strong opponent of the property tax as the only crutch, and as we’ve seen in the increased costs, it’s been just jolting to the core for the middle class, and our district is feeling it top to bottom,” Carlyle said. “You have people who are house-rich and cash-poor.“