State lawmakers begin to drop bills ahead of upcoming session

Insulin, public defense funds, gift cards topics featured so far

  • By Jerry Cornfield and Laurel Demkovich Washington State Standard
  • Friday, December 8, 2023 1:30am
  • News

OLYMPIA — Providing striking workers with unemployment checks. Protecting unspent gift card balances for consumers. Keeping the old name for a new state building.

These are among the matters Washington lawmakers are teeing up for debate in the 2024 session.

Legislators on Monday could begin pre-filing bills for introduction on the session’s first day, Jan. 8. To succeed, legislators will have to push their ideas through the process pretty quickly because the coming session is scheduled to last just 60 days.

Here’s a look at a few bills that are now in the hopper.

Insulin, EpiPens

People with Type 1 diabetes must use insulin regularly, through daily injections or an insulin pump, to stay alive. Washington lawmakers have, since 2020, passed laws to address insulin expenses, including a cap on out-of-pocket costs at $35 for a 30-day supply.

Sen. Karen Keiser, who wrote that law, has a proposal to provide eligible individuals with an emergency 30-day supply once per 12-month period for no more than a $10 copay. It’s an idea the Total Cost of Insulin Work Group suggested in a July report.

“When people run out of money and when they run out of insulin, they need to have an option,” Keiser, a Democrat from Des Moines, said after the report’s release. “It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s not a totally new issue either. We have done work on it.”

Meanwhile, Keiser also dropped a bill to put a lid on the cost of epinephrine autoinjectors, more commonly known as EpiPens. Starting Jan. 1, 2025, health plans which provide coverage for prescription EpiPens can charge no more than $60 for a two-pack of the autoinjectors. The price of a two-pack has climbed in recent years to as much as $600, or more, in parts of the country.

Funding public defense

A bill from Sen. Nikki Torres, a Pasco Republican, would up funding for the public defense system, requiring the state to pay for at least 50 percent of public defense services by 2028 and beyond.

The Office of Public Defense would determine the cost of public defense services annually and which counties are eligible to receive the money.

The proposal comes after counties sued the state earlier this year for failing to provide them with enough funding to cover the costs of these services or the authority to raise the money with local taxes.

Torres also introduced bills to expand training for public defenders and establish a public defense program for law students geared toward serving rural areas.

Impound this

You’re not supposed to drive a car in Washington without proof of liability insurance. Many do. Sometimes they get caught doing so more than once. With House Bill 1865, repeat offenders could wind up losing their vehicle for a while.

The legislation gives law enforcement officers “discretion” to keep uninsured drivers off the road. They could impound a person’s car or detain the driver until a person with a valid driver’s license and proof of motor vehicle liability insurance shows up. It also seeks money for public education on the “potential consequences” of driving without insurance.

Striking worker safety net

Striking workers would be eligible to receive unemployment assistance beginning the second week after walking off the job, under legislation put forth by Keiser. It would apply to bargaining unit members participating in a “bonafide” strike, she said.

One union behind the effort is the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. It represents about 19,000 engineers, technical workers, scientists and pilots at Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems.

“This bill is intended to give Washington workers a fairer economic shot,” said Brandon Anderson, SPEEA’s legislative director. “Many of our members are just scraping by and do not have money to put away to live on during a strike.”

Cashing in

In Washington, gift cards don’t expire. However, if a person doesn’t use a gift card or funds on a mobile app from a Washington-based retailer after three years, the company can put the balance in its bank account as profit.

That loophole dates back to 2004. Sen. Yasmin Trudeau of Tacoma and Rep. Emily Alvarado of Seattle, both Democrats, announced Monday they’ll try to close it in 2024.

They’ve drawn up bills to send those dollars to the state’s unclaimed property account where people can find it later, sometimes many years later.

A lot of dough is potentially at stake. Back in 2004, Washington businesses reported just $3 million in unspent gift cards. Today, the state’s big retail names, like Starbucks, REI and Nordstrom, claim approximately $255 million in consumers’ gift cards and mobile app funds, according to backers of the bill.

Public records complaints

Washington’s complicated Sunshine Committee, which reviews exemptions to the state’s Public Records Act, would have a few more requirements under a bill proposed by Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview.

The bill would require the committee to present annual recommendations to committees in both the state House of Representatives and the Senate each year, following complaints from current Sunshine Committee members that lawmakers don’t often listen to their recommendations.

Frustrated by the Legislature mostly ignoring their work, Wilson, a Sunshine Committee member, said earlier this year that he would draft legislation to require the panel’s ideas to be aired in front of legislative committees.

The bill would add some flexibility to when the transparency committee meets, changing it from the current requirement of once a quarter to a more general four times a year.

New building, same name

Back in May, work crews demolished the aging edifice where many Senate Republicans had offices and began constructing a new building for them. The old structure was named the Irving R. Newhouse Building and the push is on to make sure the new one is too. Under state law, the Legislature is in charge of affixing names to buildings on the Capitol Campus.

A proposed resolution filed Monday by Republican Reps. Bryan Sandlin of Zillah and Bruce Chandler of Granger, says the House and Senate agree that the new office building replacing the old one should be named for Newhouse, a Republican who served in the Legislature for 34 years before retiring in 1998. Newhouse died in 2001.

Efforts are also underway to rename the state Natural Resources Building for Jennifer Belcher, the first woman to serve as Washington’s commissioner of public lands.

Fingerprinting for child care workers

As the child care sector faces labor shortages, lawmakers are looking at ways to increase the ranks of workers in the field. One way is by speeding up background checks, a process that requires the workers to be fingerprinted before they supervise children.

A bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, would direct the Department of Children, Youth and Families to make fingerprinting services available to the public at its early learning and child welfare offices across the state.

Many areas across the state lack convenient access to fingerprinting services, according to the bill. Allowing DCYF to offer the service at their facilities could reduce processing times for background checks and make it easier for employees to complete the requirement.

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Jerry Cornfield and Laurel Demkovich write for the Washington State Standard (https://washington statestandard.com), an independent, nonprofit news organization that produces original reporting on policy and politics.

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