Rep. Steve Tharinger, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and Rep. Mike Chapman.

Rep. Steve Tharinger, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and Rep. Mike Chapman.

Lawmakers reaching midpoint

Bond passage, police reform, nurse-patient ratio debated

OLYMPIA — State legislation to lower the passage threshold for school district capital bond measures from 60 percent to a simple majority advanced last week toward today’s key deadline as the midpoint of the 10-week session gets underway.

Also highlighted last week was police reform and a bill to mandate the ratio of nurses to patients.

The last day for non-fiscal policy bills to pass committee muster was Thursday.

The state House Capital Budget Committee, chaired by 24th District Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend, will hold a public hearing today — the make-or-break deadline for fiscal measures — on House Bill 1226, which Tharinger said he supports. Members will go into executive session before deciding whether to advance it to the floor.

The measure, which passed out of the House Committee on Education on Tuesday, would have to be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate and by a majority of voters in the next general election. Washington is one of 11 states with the 60 percent requirement.

“A number of school bond votes in our district get 57, 58, 59 percent, but that’s not enough,” Tharinger said Friday.

“I think of Port Angeles High School and the ability to get a bond passed.

“I get elected by a simple majority, and yet we can’t make the decision to invest in our schools. A minority controls whether we are investing in our school districts.”

The measure passed 7-6 out of the Democrat-controlled House Education Committee, with the ranking minority and assistant ranking minority members voting no. No one testified against the bill.

Police reform

A bill that refines a 2021 police reform measure — widely criticized last year by law enforcement agencies — was approved 90-5 on Jan. 28 in the House.

Tharinger and fellow 24th District Rep. Mike Chapman, both Democrats, voted in favor. The district covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and about half of Grays Harbor County.

HB 1735, which expands peace officers’ authority for use of force, including for Involuntary Treatment Act detentions, has its first public hearing Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Law and Justice.

“That, to me, is the most important (legislation) by far” in the 60-day session, Chapman said Friday.

“That was leaving mental health professionals without the tools they needed if they were trying to deliver mental health services.”

Changing the 2021 police reform measures was at the top of 24th District Sen. Kevin Van De Wege’s to-do list, he said.

“My biggest thing is undoing police reform,” the Democrat said.

Van De Wege is the prime sponsor of SB 5919, which expands situations when peace officers can use force, including when there is probable cause to make an arrest and prevent an escape. It passed Thursday out of the Senate Committee on Law and Justice, making its way to the Rules Committee for a second reading.

“It didn’t do everything (law enforcement) wanted, but it goes in a good direction,” Van De Wege said.

Those testifying against the bill focused on instances of use of force against Black people and said its provisions were a step backward for policing (leg.wa.gov).

Nurse-patient ratios

Another House bill on the verge of advancing is HB 1868, which mandates nurse-patient ratios. The bill is opposed by Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend and Forks Community Hospital.

Scheduled for a hearing Saturday before the House Appropriations Committee and facing the same deadline today as other fiscal bills, it has nonetheless been getting positive reviews from Tharinger and Chapman.

“I think it will pass the House,” Chapman said Friday, adding he believes it has broad public support.

“I feel like it’s a bill that supports nurses. It definitely will cut services to hospitals that they can provide, but it supports nurses, so I feel like I have to support it.”

Tharinger agreed it will move forward and also favors passage.

The legislation is driven by pressure created by the COVID-19 pandemic on overwhelmed healthcare workers, legislators said.

Tharinger and Chapman cited the four-year window for it to take effect for hospitals in classifications that include Clallam and Jefferson counties’ three facilities.

“We have this period of time, four years, to make adjustments based on, this is what is happening in the world as far as access to health care in the district,” Tharinger said.

Chapman said lawmakers are working on addressing the housing shortage affecting hospitals’ ability to hire nurses — there are dozens of nurse openings at OMC — and which hospital officials say will only get worse if they are forced to hire more nurses beyond positions they cannot now fill.

“We are making large investments in affordable housing and infrastructure projects funded through Rep. Tharinger’s capital budget,” Chapman said in a later text.

“We are also working on legislation to make it easier for cities to approve in-fill housing projects. It’s not just hospitals who can’t find workforce housing. It’s the school(s), private employers, etc.”

But Van De Wege, a member of the Health and Long Term Care Committee, had his doubts about the legislation.

“My concerns are it can affect rural areas negatively, and we need to keep that in mind,” he said.

“I appreciate all the work the nurses are doing. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to put our hospitals in the position where they are not sure they will be able to survive.”

The bill will add costs to hospitals and make staffing more difficult, he predicted.

“I don’t know if this is the right solution,” Van De Wege said.

Hospitals respond

OMC released an issue brief on HB 1868 and its Senate companion, SB 5751, using a sample period of Jan. 22-27 to illustrate the present-day impact of the bill.

If the ratios were mandated under present staffing conditions, it would result in 11 closed beds, and 90 percent of emergency department beds would be unavailable — leaving two usable ER beds.

“The great impact the legislation will have is on the emergency department and Med/Surg unit,” Chief Nursing Officer Vickie Swanson said in an email.

She said the four-year delay in implementation would not make abiding by the law any easier.

“Based on the research I have done, the difference would be minimal to none,” Swanson said.

“The supply is not there to keep up with the demand.

“Part of that is due to the fact that there are not enough educators to produce nurses. More than 80,000 individuals interested in becoming nurses were turned away from nursing programs in 2021 due to the lack of educators.”

If the legislation is approved, hospitals would be prohibited from operating services if they are out of compliance.

Failure to submit a staffing plan would result in a civil penalty of $25,000. If staffing plans are not adopted by staffing committees, the prior plan would remain in effect and hospitals in the North Olympic Peninsula’s classifications could be fined $100 a day.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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