Markovich: What I learned this legislative session is citizens can break a 1-party rule

Mar 12, 2024, 6:45 AM | Updated: 7:55 am

The following is an aerial view from a drone, the Washington State Capitol...

The following is an aerial view from a drone, the Washington State Capitol (Photo: David Ryder, Getty Images)

(Photo: David Ryder, Getty Images)

Lawmakers in the Washington State Legislature often refer to a 60-day short legislative session as a sprint and the longer 105-day session starting in January 2025 as a slog.

Thousands of ideas are discussed; hundreds of them are written up as bills, but most of them die at the committee level.

Those that make it to the floor of either the House or Senate are considered the cream of the crop with the best chance of passage.

Washington is currently under one party rule – with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and a Democrat in the governor’s mansion.

The same argument holds true if Republicans are in power.

So does the cream of the crop really become law?

The discussion of party-line votes

The question I was asked the most while covering this year’s sessions was, “Why do you always talk about party-line votes?”

In the state Senate, there are 29 Democrats, 20 Republicans. In the House, 58 Democrats, 40 Republicans.

That’s a substantial difference of nine more Democrats in the Senate and 18 more Democrats in the House than Republicans.

Those are good margins if some in the majority decided not to vote the party line.

And with Gov. Jay Inslee serving his final term, there’s no guarantee a Democrat will be in the mansion when the next legislative session begins in January.

After the Aug. 6 gubernatorial primary, the top two candidates will head into the general election on Nov. 5. The are expected to be Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Republican Dave Reichert, a former congressman.

There’s no guarantee Ferguson will be the next governor and inherit a Democratically led House and Senate.

The Democrats can pass bills without Republicans in legislative sessions

On paper, Democrats can pass any bill they want if they vote as a united unit, no Republican help needed.

It’s the job of House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, to count votes in their caucuses and get caucus members lined up to vote for a Democratically sponsored bill Gov. Inslee will sign without hesitation.

Billig was asked during a press conference minutes after Sine Die, the conclusion of the session, about discussions within his caucus that led to bill’s life or death.

Strippers, book bans, guns: Examples of partisan divide persist in Olympia

He said his caucus is filled with diverse opinions and didn’t really go beyond that.

He acknowledged that some bad bills get through.

“Sometimes it means that bills that aren’t ready and ‘shouldn’t pass’ die. And that means sometimes the bills that ‘should’ pass might also die, with the idea that we’d rather kill a few good bills to make sure the bad bills die,” Billig said.

He went on to add, “We’ve let a few bad bills through, of course.” He snickered after he said that.

Citizen initiatives changed Democrats’ approach

With all that lead up, the most remarkable thing for me covering this legislative session were the final votes taken on three of the six citizen initiatives and the break that represented on one party rule.

When Democrats were faced with more than 400,000 people who signed initiatives that lift restrictions on police vehicle pursuits, prohibit personal income taxes, and create a “parents’ bill of rights,” they backpedaled.

For example, the initial police pursuit bill HB 1054 that led to complaints by police that criminals were getting away because they couldn’t be chased, passed the House and Senate in 2021 along party-line votes.

I-2113, which essentially repeals the pursuit laws back to a pre-2021 standard, passed the House 77-20 and the Senate 36-13. The vote means 38 Democrats in the House and 16 Democrats in the Senate joined all Republicans in the rollback.

More on I-2113: Lawmakers grant police more leeway in pursuing criminals

The passion to institute police reforms in 2021 following the 2020 death of George Floyd was met by hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Most of those Democrats that cast votes for the initiative – voted as a block to pass the initial pursuit bill three years earlier.

Why the turnaround?

One man, a wealthy hedge fund owner named Brian Heywood, paid for the signature gathering for all six initiatives via Let’s Go Washington and forced the Democrats’ hand to put three initiatives to a floor vote.

It says citizen action can break any majority’s one-party rule anytime and possibly at any level – city, county, state – and that’s the way it should be.

‘Doesn’t enhance public safety’: Bill allows speed cameras to ticket responding police

Matt Markovich is an analyst and reporter who often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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Markovich: What I learned this legislative session is citizens can break a 1-party rule