2023 Legislative Session Recap

How local representatives voted on key business issues

As someone who is busy running your business, it is not always easy to find time to track and then engage on issues that impact your company. That is where the Whatcom Business Alliance can be a helpful resource. Hopefully you were able to track some of the bills and maybe even weigh in on them during the 2023 legislative session to let your local legislators know your position on the many bills that could impact businesses in Whatcom County. Here is a recap of what took place during this session, which adjourned at the end of April, as well as how our six legislators in the 40th and 42nd districts voted.

One note for the bills that died: In some cases, our local legislators should be held accountable for not helping them move though the legislative process, so even though there might not be an official vote for or against, you should ask them for their position on each bill and if them not sponsoring a “good” bill is the same as being against it.
Most of these bills come from the list we presented in our Business Pulse column when the session started.

The overall summary from the session:
• No new general taxes were passed.
• The Democrat majority did pass (and the governor signed) several bills that will negatively impact businesses.
• The state budget continues to grow at an unsustainable level, with $4.7 billion in new spending in the overall $69 billion two-year general fund operating budget.
• Several key issues were partially addressed this session but will need additional work next year or via possible ballot measures.

Here is a list of the six Whatcom County legislators (all Democrats) whose votes are listed under each bill below:
40th District:
Sen. Liz Lovelett
Rep. Alex Ramel
Rep. Debra Lekanoff
42nd District:
Sen. Sharon Shewmake
Rep. Alicia Rule
Rep. Joe Timmons

SB 5352 / HB 1363
Concerning vehicular pursuits
Of all the issues the Legislature spent time debating, restoring the ability for police to pursue criminals in vehicles might have been the highest profile. Unfortunately, it was only partially addressed and will need to be revisited in the future. This could be in the form of a ballot measure to the Legislature in 2024 if enough signatures are collected later this year. A watered-down version of Senate Bill 5352/House Bill 1363 that will not significantly improve public safety passed. Nearly every police chief in Whatcom County has spoken about the need for this fix. House Bill 1363 was sponsored by Rep. Rule, who voted for the amended SB 5352 that passed and was signed by the governor. A “yes” vote is a step in the right direction and hopefully reflects their interest in fully restoring pursuits of dangerous criminals in the future. Some legislators voted against the bill because they do not want to restore pursuits in any way, while others voted against it to demonstrate that this bill will not do what is needed and is not worthy of support at this time. Lovelett voted “no,” while all the others voted “yes.”

SB 5536
Concerning controlled substances, counterfeit substances, and legend drug possession and treatment
The other major public safety bill was the so-called “Blake fix,” which addressed open drug use and possession. The Legislature held a one-day special session in mid-May to pass a bill that they could not find consensus on during the regular 105-day session. The bill is similar to what the city of Bellingham passed a few weeks ago to address drug use in the downtown area. SB 5536 passed and was signed by the governor and supported by all six Whatcom legislators.

SB 5476 / HB 1523
Authorizing agricultural employers to select 12 weeks a year to employ workers for up to 50 hours a week before overtime applies
Given how important agriculture is in Whatcom County, it would have been good to have SB 5476/HB 1523 pass the Legislature. Unfortunately, this bill — sponsored by Rep. Rule in the House — to authorize agricultural employers to select 12 weeks a year to employ workers for up to 50 hours a week before overtime applies only received a hearing in the Senate, with no vote taken. There were other agriculture-related bills, but space precludes us from including them in this column.

HB 1011
Concerning the state’s long-term-care program and tax proposal
The state’s new long-term care payroll tax takes effect in July, when it will impact every W2 employee in the state. HB 1011 would have repealed this unpopular program, which is funded by a new payroll tax of 58 cents for every $100 a worker earns. It did not receive a hearing, and none of the Whatcom House members sponsored the bill.

HB 1373
Funding the removal of illegal encampments near schools, child care centers, parks, and courthouses
One bill that was introduced to address the homeless crisis in our state and in particular its impact on local businesses and neighborhoods was HB 1373, but the bill did not receive a hearing and did not have any local district sponsors.

HB 1401 / HB 1293
SB 5058 / SB 5290
Addressing affordable housing and building more homes
One of the major goals from the governor and legislators from both parties was to address affordable housing and to build more homes across the state. There were several “good” bills that were introduced, with a few positive and also negative ones that finally passed:
HB 1401 to streamline the permit process received only a hearing and committee vote, with no Whatcom legislators serving on the particular committee that heard the bill. While HB 1293 will streamline some development regulations, SB 5058 exempts some buildings from the definition of “multiunit residential,” and SB 5290 consolidated the local permit review process. All of these passed, and I am pleased to report that all six of the Whatcom legislators voted for all three. All were signed by the governor.

HB 1110
Concerning removing single-family zones in cities across the state
One housing bill, HB 1110, was controversial and received support (from all Whatcom legislators) and opposition from legislators of both parties, as it allows more housing units to be built on single-family-zoned lots, which will increase the supply of housing but also density. Furthermore, it overrides city and county current zoning. Ramel and Lekanoff sponsored this bill.

HB 1181
Improving the state’s response to climate change by updating the state’s planning framework
On the other hand, HB 1181 adds “climate change” as a specific element to the Growth Management Act and adds a goal to reduce vehicle miles driven, which would increase housing costs with yet another regulatory element. When affordable housing is one of the biggest issues locally and across the state, we should be reducing unnecessary regulations to bring down housing costs; this adds another burden to counties, cities and builders. Lovelett voted “yes” and sponsored its companion, SB 5203. Ramel and Lekanoff voted “yes” and sponsored the bill. Shewmake and Timmons also voted “yes,” with Rule the only local “no” vote.

SB 5133
Concerning responsible bidder criteria for public works projects
SB 5133 was one of several bills related to the construction industry, especially small businesses, that might have ended up increasing costs and adding to workforce shortages. The bill died, thankfully, after passing out of committee. None of the Whatcom legislators were sponsors of this bill, which would have required all contractors looking to engage in public/government work to have a “registered training agent,” something many small contractors can’t afford.

HB 1106
Concerning qualifications for unemployment insurance when an individual voluntarily leaves work
HB 1106 unfortunately passed and was signed by the governor. It will make it easier for individuals to gain unemployment benefits by expanding the standards for “voluntarily leaving work.” Employers in Whatcom County and across the state are already struggling to hire employees; this will make it easier to be unemployed.
Shewmake voted “no.” Lovelett, Ramel and Lekanoff voted “yes.” Rule and Timmons voted “yes” on final passage.

SB 5217
Known as the Ergonomics Bill
WBA members might recall the debate over ergonomics several years ago, as a ballot measure repealed the regulations that were passed by state government. SB 5217 now removes the restriction passed by voters on the regulation of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (“ergonomics”), except for home offices. This new law will increase the power of the state Department of Labor and Industries to fine small businesses even when the state doesn’t have any scientific consensus on musculoskeletal injuries. The bill passed even though workplace safety is improving, worker injuries are decreasing and employers are struggling to come back from a pandemic. We should be making it easier, rather than harder, for our businesses. Lovelett sponsored the bill, and all local legislators voted for it.

Stay informed — bills we’re watching
We mentioned three other bills that were good to keep an eye on: SB 5482 would replace the state’s business and occupation tax with a margins tax.

HB 1795 would make the estate/death tax “more progressive.” HB 1484 addresses who qualifies to pay the estate tax by restoring a working inflation index, as the number of people paying the tax is much higher than originally envisioned since there is no functional “death tax index” for inflation. None of these bills either passed or moved out of committee.

WBA encourages you to stay engaged and to continue to let your state legislators know where you stand on these and other important issues, even when they are not in session in Olympia. It’s a good time to ask them where they stand on all of these issues.
You can access more information on these bills and contact your
legislator via https://leg.wa.gov and https://future42.org. ■

Dann Mead Smith, president/CEO of the Mead Smith Group, works with groups such as Project 42, a nonprofit organization created to change the course of Washington state. Prior to starting his own firm, Dann was president and CEO of the Washington Policy Center. He also served on the Advisory Group of the Washington State Tax Structure Study Committee and the Citizen Performance Audit Oversight Board. Dann is a graduate of Western Washington University and lives part-time in Birch Bay.