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ICYMI: Recapping the 2021 Session with Legislative Democrats

The Wire hosted a virtual conversation this week with Sen. Manka Dhigra, Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, Rep. Marcus Riccelli and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon on the 2021 legislative session.

The Democrats recapped what was a packed and progressive session – from the capital gains tax to the Climate Commitment Act to police reform to the Blake decision. They also looked ahead to the work they will be focused on during the interim, such as crafting a transportation package with a new revenue option, and continuing work on police reform ahead of next session.

Here are some highlights.

Dhingra says all that occurred during the interim, and the build up that followed, propelled legislators to enact a more ambitious agenda than in years past. “The expectations from our communities were very high … because the year 2020 gave us perfect vision. It clearly made us see the inequities that exists in our society. All the way from access to education, broadband, health, criminal justice, equity, you name it. COVID clearly articulated that for us and I think in the session we simply delivered on what Washingtonians expected us to do,” she said.

Fitzgibbon says Democrats began to see more of their major agenda pass during the 2019 session. A long session with a reasonably sized majority seems to be a recipe for success.

Looking ahead to this interim, Saldaña says Democrats will be focused on restructuring institutions for “restorative justice” and getting to the root causes of homelessness and addiction.

Why was the capital gains tax able to get across the finish line this session after several forlorn attempts? Riccelli says the Democratic caucuses came into session ready to help people hit hardest by the pandemic, and the reforms brought forth with the capital gains tax aligned with that effort. Change was galvanized by “putting trust in community organizations at the center” of the Legislature’s work, said Riccelli. From his standpoint as Majority Whip, he says legislators embraced these priorities in an unprecedented way and made it easier to unify on key votes.

As for big ticket environmental policies like the low carbon fuel standard and cap-and-invest, Fitzgibbon says Democrats learned from consecutive defeats on carbon pricing to come up with legislation that had could withstand pushback. “I think every time we’ve had an economy-wide carbon price debate in this state, whether at the Legislature or at the ballot, we’ve learned more about what mattered to voters, what mattered to legislators, what mattered to stakeholders, and what was going to be the most successful policy.” In the context of COVID and the historic 2020 wildfire season, “saying no wasn’t an ok answer.” That sentiment spanned the Democratic caucuses’ ideological poles, said Fitzgibbon.

While bipartisanship on police reform legislation was a mixed bag this session, Dhingra pointed out that some of the bills were supported by law enforcement. “We have some excellent officers and they too are appalled by what they saw. They expect better and they want better,” she said. While a qualified immunity bill from Rep. My Linh Thai did not pass this session, Dhingra expects that issue to be a focus during the interim.

Saldaña says the virtual nature of the session leveled the playing field for access to legislators. Hallway conversations with lobbyists didn’t have much of a virtual analogue. Dhingra said that 67,700 people registered for public hearings without testifying, compared to 18,700 during the last odd-year session.

Fitzgibbon says Speaker Laurie Jinkins deserves a lot of credit for the successes of the session. One of the distinguishing aspects of her speakership is that before she was elected, she made it clear that she was going to trust committee chairs to lead in their policy areas. “I think that she operated as a problem solver for committee chairs in a way that was empowering. That was something that Frank [Chopp] did too, but I think it’s more central to Laurie’s style.”

Saldaña says the transportation package proposals, from Sen. Steve Hobbs and Rep. Hobbs, “need a little reset” following the passage of the Climate Commitment Act. She says legislators have gotten used to a gas tax that has been easy to build into the state’s revenue stream, but with revenues from that tax decreasing, the challenge will be crafting a revenue option that ensures people pay their fair share regardless of their mode of transportation. Revenue options on the table include a gas tax tied to inflation, a road usage charge, and an air quality surcharge.

To watch the full conversation, click this link.

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