Wash. voters sound off on biggest priorities for new legislative session

Jan 8, 2024, 11:45 AM | Updated: 12:00 pm

The Washington State Capitol Campus in Olympia....

The Washington State Capitol Campus in Olympia. (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

State lawmakers are gearing up for a return to Olympia on Monday, as the new legislative session is set to kick off.

Washington voters have made it clear: they expect action on the major issues facing the state.

A new Crosscut-Elway poll, conducted the week after Christmas among just over 400 voters, listed the topics that voters believe the legislature should focus on this session.

At the top of the list: The economy for the third straight year. Nearly one-third of those polled chose an economic issue they believe should be a top priority.

Following that was public safety (22%) and homelessness (22%) and then taxes (17%). Government, environment, healthcare and education were also named.

Lawmakers’ say their priorities align with voters

At a briefing Thursday, leaders from the House and Senate Transportation, Budget and Leadership committees outlined their priorities — and they mostly align with those of voters.

Lawmakers will have 60 days to tackle a wide range of issues — including a major shortfall in the transportation budget, funding for the aging ferry system, and discussions of changes to laws already on the books.

For the House and Senate Transportation Committee members, paying the bills will be essential as contract prices to build roads, remove culverts, and overhaul ferries continue to soar.

In 2023, the lowest bid to build a new Highway 520 viaduct over Portage Bay in Seattle came in $562 million over state estimates, and a project to extend toll lanes on Interstate 405 will be $230 million more than what the Legislature budgeted. In addition, an up to $4 billion increase in the cost of complying with a court order to improve salmon passage under state highways.

“We have some challenges, needless to say,” Republican state Sen. Curtis King said.

His colleague, Senate Transportation committee chair Marko Liias, D-Everett, agreed.

“We’re seeing workforce challenges, finding workers to complete our transportation projects, the supply chain disruptions made some of the core components like concrete and steel more expensive.”

The ferry system is another top concern, and King says there is no argument that a new fleet is needed.

“We have people that are dependent upon these ferries. And in my opinion, we’ve let them down,” he said.

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“We’re working as hard as we can to get the staffing to restore service as well as the new boats,” Liias added.

But Liias also said lawmakers need to set realistic expectations that the revitalization of the ferry system will be a long process.

“(The year) 2027, unfortunately, appears to be as quickly as we can get those boats.”

Lawmakers get ready for the upcoming session

Lawmakers have been pre-filing bills for consideration in front of the House and Senate since early December in hopes of pushing them through to a full vote before the last day of the regular session on March 7. And behind the scenes, six citizen-led initiatives are set to be sent to Olympia, spearheaded by conservative hedge fund manager Brian Heywood and his group “Let’s Go Washington.”

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The initiatives hope to roll back laws previously passed in the Democratic-controlled legislature, including the Climate Commitment Act, capital gains tax, long-term care tax, and police pursuit restrictions. Those four have already been filed after gaining enough signatures to appear on next November’s ballot, according to Let’s Go Washington. Secretary of State Steve Hobbs’ office must verify the signature count, at which point the measures will be forwarded to the legislature.

Democratic Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins told KIRO Newsradio she looks forward to a conversation with Washington voters on the future of these policies.

But of Heywood, she said, “What we have is an ultra-wealthy multimillionaire, buying his way onto the ballot and putting initiatives on the ballot that are going to benefit his is ultra wealthy status.”

Her colleague, Republican House Leader Drew Stokesbary, disagreed.

“Four-hundred-thousand ordinary Washingtonians designed each one of them, a very small number of whom have any meaningful financial gain,” Stokesbary said. “They just want to do what they think is best for the people of Washington and want more choices and feel like they’re dissatisfied with some of the policies that have come out of Olympia.”

Rep. Stokesbary also pointed to the Crosscut-Elway poll results as proof of a need to, in his words, change what’s broken.

“(The poll says) 57% of Washingtonians want to repeal the capital gains tax, about 60% want to repeal the police pursuit law,” Stokesbary said during Thursday’s briefing. “So, clearly, there is some appetite by Washingtonians for change.”

As for the police pursuit law, Jinkins said she had not heard very much about it leading up to the new session. Jinkins, who represents a district that includes North Tacoma, said her focus is on getting more law enforcement out into the communities.

“When I talked to (Tacoma Police) Chief Avery Moore, he indicated that he had the slots that he needed to get officers trained, and that they were working on how to speed up their processes,” Jinkins said. “They don’t have necessarily a shortage of applicants, or folks who qualify, it’s just a long process to move people through.”

Stokesbary, by contrast, thinks the police pursuit restrictions should be revisited.

“In my district, which has several cities in South King County and East Pierce County, every police chief and mayor I’ve talked to has asked for the rollback and a return to the status quo,” he said. “There is pretty broad bipartisan consensus. I haven’t done an official vote count, but I think if that bill hit the House floor, it would pass pretty easily.”

The Climate Commitment Act’s future

Also in question is the future of the state’s controversial Climate Commitment Act (CCA), which took effect in January 2023. The law, which taxes the state’s biggest polluters and forces them to decarbonize over time, has generated $1.8 billion for the state, but has also been blamed for high gas and energy prices by critics.

A group of Republican lawmakers have taken aim at the CCA, introducing a slate of bills designed to provide more transparency for customers on the costs of complying with the law. Democratic state Sen. Mark Mullet has previously proposed changes, including rebates and loosening the compliance schedule for decarbonization.

Looking at the CCA: State officials spar over impact of climate act on gas prices as drivers pay up

Republican House Reps. April Connors and Mary Dye argue the cap-and-trade program made three times more revenue than expected; an excess of an estimated $1.3 billion. They have introduced a bill that would give some of that money back to vehicle owners in the form of a one-time rebate.

Meanawhile, the Let’s Go Washington citizen initiative would repeal the CCA entirely, if passed by lawmakers or voters. That would throw a wrench in lawmakers’ plans to invest revenue from the Climate Commitment Act in electric buses, ferries and more clean-energy projects around the state. The legislative package, collectively known as “Move Ahead Washington” is wholly dependent on funds generated by the CCA.

“If the Climate Commitment Act is disrupted, it puts that $3 billion that we had committed to (bridge and ferry) maintenance and preservation in jeopardy, as we’d have to completely rewrite things, Liias said. “So, I think we are in a period of uncertainty.”

For Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who also spoke at the briefing Thursday, there is no uncertainty about Washington’s climate future.

“We should be warriors against pollution, not supplicants,” he said.

Inslee said he remains focused on getting his proposed supplemental budget passed by the House and Senate. The budget relies heavily on revenue from the capital gains tax and the CCA to fund new spending.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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