Democrats threw themselves a curveball a few hours before the 105-day legislative session ended at midnight Sunday.
They hope they don’t strike out by July 1, but avoiding it will require a special session, which Tuesday looked more likely than not.
“I would expect you would see a special session sometime toward the end of May,” predicted Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend.
Lawmakers would address House Bill 5536, the last piece of legislation to reach the House floor, which failed, in itself a rarity for a Democrat-sponsored bill in a Democrat-dominated chamber.
Tharinger said that, by Monday, party leaders were discussing potential changes to the legislation, known as a “Blake fix.” Gov. Jay Inslee would have to call the special session, which he said he would do if he has legislation that will pass — and is similar to the bill that failed.
It was intended to address the 2021 state Supreme Court decision, State v. Blake, which struck down a drug possession law that lawmakers replaced with a new law that made drug possession a misdemeanor and expires July 1. HB 5536, its successor, would have made possession a gross misdemeanor and included treatment and diversion options.
“The present situation, where everything will be decriminalized July 1, is not a good position for the state to be in,” Tharinger said.
That would leave cities and counties to create their own individual laws.
Tharinger, the Capital Budget Committee chair, was confident a modified, tougher version of 5536 will be put forward, with proposed changes already submitted by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“It will lean toward a stricter bill,” Tharinger predicted, adding it may even be bipartisan.
“The debate is how big a hammer, how big a criminal hammer, we need to get people into treatment,” Tharinger said. “I don’t think the votes exist for decriminalization or [being] lenient.”
HB 5536 lost Sunday 55-43, with all yes votes Democrats, including Tharinger and Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles.
Lawmakers’ sentiments are aired out at party caucus meetings, which are closed to the public and whose proceedings lawmakers will not discuss. Party leaders count votes before feeling comfortable putting legislation on the floor, where lawmakers present their arguments according to predetermined lists.
“It’s very unusual to put a bill out there unless they know the count,” Tharinger said. “Leadership thought it might be closer. It was very fluid.”
Chapman had a hard time believing his eyes when he saw the final tally on the chamber’s big screen.
“My mind was not accepting it,” he said, describing the prospect of people doing drugs in the open, without consequence.
“We failed in our job. We failed in our key moment,” Chapman said.
“That you have 40 odd Republicans and 15 Democrats voting to legalize drugs in the state of Washington is shocking to me. It you’re a Republican, I’m not sure what that’s all about,” the former Republican said.
New bills don’t really die.
They live to see another session.
Such was the case with Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1789, a novel carbon credits bill that expired despite its 82-13 approval in the House.
It allowed the state Department of Natural Resources to cash in on what some consider a lucrative carbon credits market by utilizing selected state land, including aquatic areas on which blue carbon credits would be sold.
A slimmed-down version of the original bill never made it past the Senate Ways and Means Committee after stiff opposition from environmentalists, who turned sour claiming it had been weakened. And some in the timber industry were nervous about not using DNR land for timber production.
Like all new bills that fail, it will return to its policy panel during next year’s session, its first stop the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, chaired by Chapman, a cosponsor of 1789.
“I expect to have a hearing the first week of the next session and move it out as quickly as possible to give the other body more time to look at it,” he said Tuesday.
DNR Commissioner Hilary Franz’s spokesperson, Michael Kelly, said Tuesday in an email that the bill has “a strong base of support.”
Under a $1.5 million proviso included in the 2023-25 DNR operating budget, a state ecosystem services inventory will be conducted and a state lands ecosystem services asset plan put together.
Ecosystem projects on public lands under 1789 were afforestation, reforestation, biochar, urban forestry and aquatic projects. Goals were carbon sequestration and storage, air and water filtration, climate stabilization and disturbance mitigation.
Port Townsend residents won’t be riding on brand new ferries any time soon.
But Washington State Ferries’ acquisition of up to five hybrid diesel-electric vessels will protect the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry run by making the vessel less available as an emergency fill-in when other ferries break down, officials said.
Engrossed House Bill 1846, as of Tuesday morning awaiting Inslee’s signature, requires the state Department of Transportation to contract for construction of two to five vessels and allows shipyards nationally to bid on construction contracts.
“For Port Townsend and Coupeville, these boats will not have a huge impact,” State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said Tuesday in an email.
“If a vessel has to be removed from service for whatever reason, we’ll have a bigger bench to ensure we won’t need to press one of the PT/Coupeville boats into use to maintain service on a different route,” Sterling added.
The fleet has shrunk in recent years from 24 to 21 vessels due to age and lack of permanent replacements, he said.
Two places at once
Lawmakers are streaming out of Olympia this week, many leaving their homes away from home and departing a life of shuttling back and forth weekly to the capital.
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman live in the I-5 city of 56,000 part time during the legislative session.
Legislators, who make $57,876, get a raise to $60,191 effective July 1. Their travel budget is $9,000 and daily stipend is $190.
The 24th District lawmakers, who represent Clallam and Jefferson counties and the northern half of Grays Harbor County, have varying degrees of permanence in the state’s 24th largest city.
Van De Wege and his wife, Jennifer, principal at Roosevelt Elementary School in Port Angeles, live at Lake Sutherland and have a second home in Olympia purchased in 2020.
“There are others who have done it,” Van De Wege said. “It’s an investment.”
Van De Wege, a captain with Sequim-area Fire District 3, uses time off, works weekends and trades shifts with other firefighters during the session to do both jobs.
Chapman stays at a hotel, getting the best deal he can on Expedia and working out long-stay agreements. He looks for places with kitchenettes.
Tharinger rents an apartment that’s an eight-minute walk to the Capitol.
Some legislators team up to rent houses, he said.
The Thurston County Economic Development Council is developing a report on the impact of the state Legislature on Olympia’s economy, an EDC business resource specialist said.
Legislative Reporter Paul Gottlieb, a former senior reporter at Peninsula Daily News, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.