Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee and legislators pass nation-leading legislation on climate change and prioritize historic funding for K-12 schools and behavioral health.
The 105-day legislative session ended on time with the governor and legislative leaders celebrating significant victories related to climate change and conservation, education, healthcare, jobs and safe communities.
During the final hours of the session, lawmakers approved new, two-year state operating, capital and transportation budgets.
The operating budget, which includes about $850 million in new tax revenue, would leave a projected $2.8 billion in total reserves at the end of the biennium. The two-year operating budget totals about $52.4 billion. The bulk of new spending goes to K-12 education, primarily to cover the ongoing costs to meet the state’s obligations to fully fund public schools.
“On nearly every front, legislators delivered important policies to move our state forward,” Gov. Jay Inslee said, after the Legislature adjourned. “Everyone here should feel really proud of the progress we made to put our people first, support our growing economy and help more people feel secure about their future.”
Climate action and clean energy
With a team of legislative partners, Inslee introduced a package of priority climate bills to reduce carbon emissions and create jobs. These successful bills now represent the greatest step Washington has ever taken toward addressing the challenge of climate change and meeting the state’s greenhouse gas emission reductions targets.
The centerpiece of Inslee’s climate action plan this session was a bill to transition to 100 percent clean energy. The legislation includes innovative provisions to cap costs and smooth the ability of utilities to transition, and could serve as a model for other states. It lays out a timeline to phase out all coal power by 2025, achieve a carbon-neutral electricity supply by 2030 and transition to a 100 percent clean electricity supply by 2045.
Also included in the package of bills is the following: a first-of-its-kind standard that will improve the energy performance of thousands of large Washington buildings, a bill to tackle the growing challenge of super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons and a bill that sets new energy efficiency standards for more than 17 product categories. It also lowers various home energy costs such as heating water to running a home computer. Legislators also approved a clean transportation bill that will aggressively incentivize electric and zero-emission vehicles in the state.
In the new transportation budget, lawmakers also included funds for a new hybrid-electric ferry and funds to convert two existing vessels to hybrid-electric. The state operates the country’s largest ferry fleet, which is a major contributor of transportation-sector emissions.
“This was a breakthrough year for Washington’s work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We passed landmark bills to reduce emissions from buildings, electricity, and refrigeration, although the Senate failed to act to reduce emissions from transportation fuels. We need to have many more sessions like this one in the years to come in order to reduce emissions to a safe level.” — Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle
Protecting Puget Sound orcas and salmon
To address the dwindling numbers of Southern Resident orcas, the legislature passed three crucial orca recovery bills that Inslee proposed that protect the safety and livelihood of these iconic creatures.
“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures,” Inslee said. “It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state and these bills help us do that. We will restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians.”
The bills focus on three main goals: protect orcas from vessel noise and disturbance, improve the safety of oil transportation through the Salish Sea and increase food for orcas by protecting forage fish habitat and Chinook salmon.
Transforming the state behavioral health system
Inslee requested several behavioral health bills that continue work that he and legislators put into motion over the last two years. They include integrating behavioral health with primary care, moving stable patients into community-based facilities in a timely manner and shoring up the behavioral health workforce. This means more community-based facilities for hundreds of patients and a first-in-the-nation teaching hospital at the University of Washington.
“Gov. Inslee laid out a comprehensive plan to help reshape our behavioral healthcare system. Thanks to his leadership, and the investments laid out by the Legislature, we have ensured that our state is investing in a continuum of care that builds robust programs to meet people’s needs. We can no longer be a crisis-focused state. It is time to build an infrastructure for early intervention and integration for complete healthcare.” Sen. Manka Dhingra
Protecting access to affordable healthcare
Washington has made tremendous progress in expanding coverage and bringing down costs in the state’s health care system. However, instability under the Trump administration has undermined that progress.
The governor rolled out a plan in January to ensure all Washingtonians have access to the medical care they need. The legislature passed the bill that will create the first-in-the nation public health care option.
The public option legislation, known as Cascade Care, will improve affordability through standardized plan designs that are easier to understand and consist of lower out-of-pocket costs for consumers. Reimbursement rates would be consistent with Medicare rates that help ensure fair payments for providers and affordable costs for patients. Cascade Care addresses the challenges of health insurance availability as well as affordability. It directs the state’s Health Care Authority to contract with health plans across the state to offer coverage on the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which guarantees coverage to anyone in the individual insurance market across the state.
Long-term care security act
Another first-in-the nation bill creates a long-term care benefit, which is similar to a small Social Security or Medicare benefit. Washington workers would pay this into a trust through a payroll assessment and, eventually, become eligible to receive benefits if they struggle to complete tasks of daily life. The funds will be crucial for workers and families since a vast majority of people do not have long-term care insurance, and Medicare doesn’t cover long-term care.
With the opioid epidemic ravaging communities nationwide, research, medical professionals, experts and evidence offer evidence that treatment is the very best countermeasure to fight opioid abuse. Legislation passed this year provides comprehensive prevention and treatment options. This includes innovative approaches such as electronic prescribing and expanded treatment options, with a focus on pregnant and parenting programs.
In other healthcare-related legislation, the legislature raised the smoking age from 18 to 21. The governor and First Lady Trudi Inslee have long supported this measure. After a measles outbreak in the state, legislators approved a bill to remove the philosophical exemptions to vaccines for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella). The governor supported the bill and plans to sign it into law.
Prioritizing historic investments in education
The bulk of the new spending is going to K-12 education, primarily to cover the ongoing costs to meet the state’s obligation to fully fund public schools. The new capital budget includes a record $1 billion for K-12 school construction.
Lawmakers also approved legislation that protects the ability of local communities to invest more local levy funding. The funding would enhance K-12 programs and services, with voter approval.
The budgets boost the state’s early learning system and provide more funding for special education in K-12 schools.
Education bills addressed major policy issues. One removes the requirement that students must pass the statewide assessments in math and English language art to graduate, and replaces it with a graduation requirement for students to choose one of eight post-high school pathways to pursue college and careers. Other bills support the expansion of the state’s educator workforce with incentives to increase it.
Workforce and higher education
Washington leads on college affordability, with dedicated funding to promise financial aid and create new career training pathways for thousands of students. With the passage of an omnibus bill, the legislature created a new workforce education investment revenue stream to fund postsecondary programs.
One of the major policy changes in the bill is the creation of the Washington College Grant (formerly called the State Need Grant). This grant will guarantee financial aid for eligible students and provide support for an estimated 90,000 students per year. The policy is similar to what the governor proposed in January.
The new account provides grant funds to expand the Career Connect Washington Initiative launched by the governor last year. The goal of this public-private partnership is to connect 100,000 of Washington’s young people with employer internships, registered apprenticeships, career exploration programs and other learning opportunities.
The account also increases capacity for high-demand degrees such as computer science, engineering and nursing. It also funds the Guided Pathways program at community and technical colleges that redesign program delivery to increase student completions and connection to careers.
The legislature passed a bill that puts in place the system architecture that unites government, education, employers, labor and regional networks. It also creates common language and strong quality metrics around “career launch,” the most rigorous experience in the career connected learning continuum.
“Rapid technological innovation is transforming every school, every hospital, every company and every industry in Washington,” Inslee said. “Broadband service that allows citizens to connect to this innovation has become the critical infrastructure need of the 21st century.”
After a statewide tour last year, Inslee proposed a bill to provide broadband internet service to communities throughout Washington. The bill, passed by the legislature, creates a new Statewide Broadband Office to serve as the central planning and coordinating body for public and private efforts to ensure broadband is available in every community. Federal data grossly overestimates how much of Washington is currently served by broadband, which is increasingly crucial to support businesses and jobs and provide education and health care opportunities for people in rural communities.
In addition to the governor’s priority legislation, the legislature also passed a number of crucial bills that address homelessness, provide funding to eliminate the backlog of more than 10,000 untested sexual assault kits, create a new commission for LGBTQ people in the state and remove the statute of limitations on assault cases. Legislation addressed crucial criminal justice reforms, which is a bill to change state law on the use of deadly force by police officers. Another bill will help find the tragic and untold numbers of missing women of Native American heritage.
Building on Inslee’s Marijuana Justice Initiative, the legislature passed a bill that requires courts to vacate misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions if the person was 21 or older at the time of the offense. This bill will help relieve the burden of misdemeanors for marijuana possession and allow people to move on with their lives.
The legislature also approved Initiative 1000 which will allow the use of affirmative action policies in education, government employment and contracting.
“This has been a legislative session of tremendous accomplishments,” Inslee said. “The unprecedented productivity across the board has been profound and will change the lives of all Washingtonians.”