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Speaker Chopp outlines legislative priorities for 2019 session

Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp made himself available to media this morning, a day after announcing his decision to step down from his leadership post at the end of the 2019 session. Chopp has been serving as Speaker or co-Speaker since 1999.

He had been seriously considering the decision for a few years, Chopp said, “in part because I spent a lot of time working on campaigns and organizational work. And I really am in the legislature to get things done, in terms of policy. This actually is liberating for me, in a sense, that I’ll be able to continue working on those important issues.”

Looking ahead to his last session in the role, Chopp highlighted mental health, housing, and student financial aid as major policy priorities for himself and House Dems. He also responded to reporters’ questions on several other hot-button issues.

  • Mental health:

Broadly, Chopp said “We need to do a far better job there in terms of funding and programs.”

More specifically, though, he said there’s a need for restructuring, more funding in certain areas, and, possibly, different laws for implementation.

“We’ve passed a lot of mental health legislation, like Mental Health Parity,” Chopp said. “I always look to bring together coalitions of people led by people across the state … to pass great legislation. But that isn’t the end of it. We then had to implement Mental Health Parity. Same thing right now. We’ve passed other legislation for mental health, but they have to be implemented and funded. So there’s a lot of good work to be done there.”

  • Housing: The conversation was somewhat limited in scope, and housing is undeniably a complex issue. Here, reporters repeatedly tried to get Chopp to be more specific on actions the legislature might take to address homelessness and affordable housing across the state.

“I’ve actually been working on a project called Home and Hope that identifies public properties that are underutilized or surplus and turn that into affordable housing and early learning facilities and other community facilities,” Chopp said. “It’s going great, by the way, and we’ve passed several pieces of legislation to implement that. But we’ve got to do more in the future to carry that out. It will have a major impact.”

As for addressing homelessness, specifically, Chopp brought up the need for affordable housing, as well as possibly buying existing apartment complexes. He also said there’s a need for inexpensive housing that still provides basic utilities — in contrast to tiny homes being built without basic amenities, like a bathroom. (Last month, Senate Republicans announced a package of affordable-housing proposals that would allow for more tiny homes and tiny home villages in Washington.)

“[Small units with utilities] are far more conducive to solving homelessness because we’re treating people like human beings,” Chopp said.

  • Student financial aid: Chopp’s proud of the work the House has done in terms of providing financial aid for students, but he said there’s plenty of other work to be done. For one, he said the caucus wants to “make a commitment to fully fund the State Need Grant,” which provides need-based financial aid toward post-secondary education. Student loans, he said, are also a priority.

“We have a situation in the state, for example, where we buy down the interest rates on infrastructure projects, like local sewer projects, and we get it down to about 1 percent interest for local governments.” Chop said. “And yet, students are paying 8 percent interest. That’s wrong. That’s got to change.”

  • Tax reform: Chopp said to “expect some movement” on a capital-gains tax, and — similar to newly elected Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig in a recent interview — said tax reform could include a combination of strategies.

“There’s great interest in that because a lot of people are concerned about their property taxes,” Chopp said in response to a question from reporter Austin Jenkins. “Also there’s a proposal to fund the Working Families Tax Credit on the sales tax for lower-income people. I think a combination of those might be considered.”

  • Sexual harassment in the workplace: Chopp said he supports establishing an “independent ombudsperson” to handle sexual harassment complaints. 
  • Portable benefits: Chopp said he has a desire to “do right by” people who are working in portable or temporary offices by making progress on such benefits. 
  • Public records: Chopp said he has no plans to sponsor a public records bill like last year’s SB 6617.

“I think that people spoke pretty loudly about that issue, and I agree with the people,” Chopp said.

When pressed on other issues, like gun safety, efforts to repeal Washington’s death-penalty statute, and addressing climate change, Chopp said he’d like to consult and work with the caucus, community advocates, or community coalitions.

“I always like to look to coalitions of the community to get good things done,” Chopp said.

Contrary to some reports, Chopp clarified that the caucus will not choose a new Speaker until May, after session ends. Partly so the caucus doesn’t get distracted, and partly out of respect for new members.

“We have a lot of new members who need time to evaluate who they want as the next speaker,” Chopp said. “And that’s fair to them, because they’re very talented and very strong people. So it gives them time to do it. Also, it gives time for the institution and our caucus to adjust to this and to make the right decision.”

The new speaker won’t be approved by the whole chamber, then, until 2020. If a Speaker is needed in the interim, Chopp said, Speaker Pro Tempore John Lovick will fill in.

As for Frank Chopp, he doesn’t plan to endorse any particular candidate to take his place, nor does he plan on leaving the House anytime soon.

“I plan to run again,” Chopp said. “I’ve got a lot of energy, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m working on several issues that will take some time to make progress on.”

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