New state laws take effect

Gun purchases, street racing, voting rights among issues

  • By Laurel Demkovich Washington State Standard
  • Thursday, January 4, 2024 1:30am
  • News

OLYMPIA — Restrictions on testing workers for marijuana use, a waiting period for firearm purchases, stronger voting rights for Washington residents and harsher penalties for street racing are among the new laws that have taken effect this year.

Washington’s Legislature passed more than 450 bills last session, which ended in April. Most took effect in July but a handful didn’t until Jan. 1.

Here’s a look at a few notable ones:

Marijuana testing

Although recreational marijuana has been legal for adults in Washington since 2012, some employers in the state still test job applicants for the substance.

Under a new law, employers are blocked from conducting drug tests for cannabis when making hiring decisions.

They can still test for other drugs before hiring, and they can test employees for cannabis in certain situations, such as after an accident, if they have suspicions a worker is impaired while on the clock, or to maintain a drug and alcohol-free workplace.

Employers who need to test to meet federal regulations, such as trucking companies, can still do so. Other workers, including police, firefighters, airline crews and corrections officers, may still have to test as well.

10-day gun waiting period

Beginning next year, those wishing to buy a firearm in Washington will need to complete a background check and then wait 10 business days before they are allowed to complete the purchase.

Supporters say the delay will help save lives, especially for those who may benefit from a “cooling off” period between wanting to purchase a gun and actually owning one.

The law also requires those wishing to purchase a firearm to take a safety training program within five years of purchasing it.

Hospital staffing

Hospitals in Washington need to establish staffing committees made up of nursing staff and administrators.

The committees must approve annual staffing plans, which include a certain number of nurses per patient, and submit them by 2025 to the state Department of Health.

Hospitals must then begin tracking how often they follow the plans and how often they are not complying with them because they have too few nurses working compared to patients. Beginning in 2027, hospitals can begin receiving fines if they are not following their approved plans at least 80 percent of the time.

The staffing committee requirement is part of a larger bill aimed at creating safe staffing standards, including staff-patient ratios, in hospitals.

Nurses have long said that they need new protections to ensure they are caring for a reasonable number of patients and can provide safe and high-quality care. Hospitals have resisted, saying they don’t have the staff to meet the kind of ratios the nurses are pushing for.

The law approved this year was a compromise between hospitals and nurse unions that supporters say gives more accountability to staffing committees.

Voting rights

Washington lawmakers approved a state Voting Rights Act in 2018. It is intended to address situations where there are signs of “polarized” voting among different groups in a community and where there are risks that some groups are having their votes diluted so that they don’t have a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

The law also allowed local governments to voluntarily reform their election systems to be more representative of their populations and for lawsuits to be filed if the locality refused to take such steps.

An issue with the law is that it can be costly for voters to challenge a local elections system for violations of the act. Changes to the state Voting Rights Act passed earlier this year aim to make it easier for an individual to challenge the system by allowing an organization or a tribe to challenge election systems on an individual member’s behalf. It also provides a pathway for people or organizations to recover costs they incur when researching the possible legal challenges.

Street racing

A new law imposes tougher penalties for street racing. Those caught can have their car impounded for 72 hours on the first offense and forfeited on the second one. Those who aiding and abetting street racers can also be charged.

Newspaper publisher tax exemption

Newspaper and digital publishers who fit certain criteria will get a business and occupation tax exemption.

Previously newspaper publishers had a 0.35 percent business and occupation tax rate, applied to any business activities conducted within the state.

The goal of the exemption is to help support local journalism in Washington and to help retain publishing jobs and news outlets.

________

Laurel Demkovich writes for the Washington State Standard

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