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Citizen initiatives score public hearings. Will Democrats make them law?

Brian Heywood, sponsor of Let’s Go Washington, on Thursday shared the number of signatures gathered for the six initiatives delivered in recent weeks to the Washington Secretary of State. If certified, they are expected to be on the November 2024 ballot.
Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
Brian Heywood, sponsor of Let’s Go Washington, on Thursday shared the number of signatures gathered for the six initiatives delivered in recent weeks to the Washington Secretary of State. If certified, they are expected to be on the November 2024 ballot.

The fate of initiatives to repeal the state’s new capital gains tax, erase its carbon market program and make it easier for workers to opt out of Washington’s new long-term care insurance program will be decided by Washington voters this fall.

But the future of citizen initiatives concerning police vehicle pursuits, taxes and parents’ voice in the education of their children in public schools could be settled by state lawmakers before the session ends March 7.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said Fridaythere will be public hearings on Initiative 2113 to remove most restrictions on police engaging in vehicle pursuits, I-2111 to make it harder for the state and local governments to impose an income tax, and I-2081 to create a “bill of rights” for parents of public school students.

The hearings will take place Feb. 27 and 28, and will be conducted jointly by House and Senate committees. This is a first step toward lawmakers potentially adopting each measure into law.

“I’m glad they’re giving three a hearing because they need to and because it’s their constitutional duty to do so,” said Brian Heywood, founder of Let’s Go Washington and primary funder of the signature-gathering effort for all six initiatives.

“I’m not going to say it’s in the bag. It would be a beautiful thing if they go on to adopt them,” he said. “I fully expect they will pull some shenanigans.”

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, author of the six initiatives to the Legislature, said Friday he knew there had been a lot of conversations going on about Democrats’ next steps.

“I don’t want to tilt the equation too much,” said Walsh, who is also chair of the Washington State Republican Party. “If we can get these into law sooner, that’s better. I believe in these policies. I’ll take the win.”

In a statement, Jinkins and Billig focused mostly on the ballot-bound measures, which target three significant social and environmental policies passed by Democrats in recent years.

The capital gains tax has already raised nearly $900 million for education and child care spending and the cap-and-trade program around $1.8 billion for climate and environment programs.

Democrats worry that making it easier for workers to stop having the 0.58% long-term care tax taken out of their paychecks could undermine the program, which promises a $36,500 benefit to help people cover expenses that arise when they are older or become disabled. Democrats have touted this program as an important strengthening of the state’s safety net.

“The three initiatives we are not taking action on would have a dire effect on the day-to-day lives of every single Washingtonian. These initiatives would dramatically decrease quality of life and devastate progress on K-12 education, childcare, clean air, clean water, climate action, and aging with dignity – matters that are important to people across the state,” Jinkins and Billig said.

“The effect of the remaining three initiatives is less obvious,” they added. “Hearings will allow us to gather more information and hear from the public and others so that we can make informed decisions.”

Each must be passed out of a committee and off the floor in both chambers to be adopted. If not, they will wind up on the ballot. Legislators can put an alternative to any or all of the initiatives on the ballot as well.

“If they do public hearings, I think they’ll realize the votes are there to pass them,” said Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, a moderate Democrat and candidate for governor, who has expressed support for some of the initiatives.

Challenging calculus

Friday’s announcement capped weeks of discussions involving Democratic lawmakers, party strategists and leaders of statewide labor, environmental, and progressive organizations.

They know defeating all six measures in November will require a Herculean effort. They’ve seen data from polling and focus groups showing immense popular support for the three initiatives getting hearings. Beating them could be tough, lawmakers and political strategists acknowledged privately.

The schools initiative might not change much anyway. For example, the initiative would guarantee parents access to materials their children are taught in K-12 classrooms and information about medical services public schools provide. Legislators and state education officials say most, if not all, the provisions already exist in law.

While Democratic lawmakers may dislike these measures, it may prove better politics to enact them. Doing so would declutter the ballot and free up resources for Democrats, including Gov. Jay Inslee, and party allies to focus attention on preserving their signature policies.

Shasti Conrad, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, confirmed Thursday she was part of the “active discussions” but declined to share advice she’s offered legislative leaders.

“We’ll be ready to answer the call whatever the call will be,” she said.

A spokesperson for a newly formed political group fighting the initiatives demurred on whether they want the measures adopted.

“While Defend Washington opposes these measures, we appreciate that legislative leaders are giving careful and thoughtful consideration to how best to respond to each of them. Today’s announcement shows that they are being serious and deliberative in that assessment,” said Sandeep Kaushik, spokesperson for the coalition, which includes SEIU 775, Washington Conservation Action, Planned Parenthood, Washington Education Association, Civic Ventures, and the Progress Alliance of Washington.

Most Democratic legislators oppose the measures. Not all would have to vote for them presuming every Republican does.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 58-40 in the House and 29-20 in the Senate. Only a simple majority is required for passage in each chamber. If passed, an initiative, like a bill, would take effect 90 days after adjournment of the session.

Unlike a bill, it would not go to the governor. Instead, it would go to the Secretary of State’s Office. The last time the Legislature adopted a citizen initiative was 2019 with Initiative 1000dealing with affirmative action.

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This story was originally published by Washington State Standard.