Homelessness among issues to watch in Washington Legislature

Homeless camp

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The 60-day legislative session in Washington state begins Monday, with lawmakers set to adjust the state budget and tackle several policy issues, including how to address homelessness in the state.

About 10,000 people in the state are without shelter, and more than 11,000 live in temporary homeless housing, according to the most recent annual report from the state Department of Commerce. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed spending more than $300 million from Washington’s emergency budget reserve over the next three years to add 2,100 shelter beds and provide other help to combat homelessness.

However, legislative leaders at the AP Legislative Preview said Thursday they likely lack the votes to tap the emergency reserve. It requires a two-thirds vote, and Republicans argue it’s not sustainable to take money from the fund for an issue that will require ongoing funding. The state has about $2.5 billion in its emergency fund.

The Democratic governor said he was open to other ideas but noted the state must do more to find housing for people.

A new Crosscut/Elway poll showed people in the state named homelessness as the top priority for state legislators. The Dec. 26-29 survey of 405 registered voters found 31% of people naming the issue as the main one before lawmakers, more than any other subject.

Democrats hold a 28-21 majority in the Senate and a 57-41 edge in the House.

Leaders in the House and Senate will release their budget plans in the coming months and will work to negotiate a final budget before the session concludes mid-March.

Here are few other things of note about the upcoming session:

NEW SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Democratic Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma will be sworn in as the state’s first female speaker of the House in Washington state. When she takes the gavel Monday, Washington becomes the eighth state to have a woman in the top spot in the House and the second state to have a gay speaker of the House, joining Oregon. She succeeds Frank Chopp, the state’s longest-serving speaker and the second longest serving speaker in the nation. Chopp, who is still a member of the Legislature, announced he was stepping down from his leadership position last year after serving in the role for two decades.

TRANSPORTATION FUNDING: In November, voters approved Initiative 976, which lowered annual vehicle registration to $30 and largely revoked the authority of state and local governments to add taxes and fees without voter approval. The measure is on hold because of a legal challenge, but transportation budget writers have said they will have to make cuts to the budget regardless, and the governor has already paused a number of transportation projects across the state. If the measure is upheld in the courts, it is projected to reduce state transportation funding by about $454 million in the current two year budget. Republicans have already introduced a measure to cap car tabs at $30 and change the method of vehicle valuation.

POTENTIAL HOUSE ACTION AGAINST REP. MATT SHEA FOLLOWING INVESTIGATION: Democrats and some Republicans have called for state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, to resign in the wake of a December report that found he was involved in anti-government activities. Shea has refused to resign and issued a statement Friday saying he will be in the chamber when the state House convenes Monday. Shea has been suspended from the state House Republican Caucus and has been removed from his House committee assignments. He also can’t use House Republican staff and his office was moved. Jinkins, the incoming speaker, has said that Shea should be expelled by the House if he does not resign but noted that Democrats alone cannot expel Shea and would need the votes of nine Republicans to reach a two-thirds majority. Wilcox, the Republican leader, said he believes it is up to the voters of Shea’s Spokane Valley district to decide whether to kick him out.

GUN LEGISLATION: Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has proposed three gun measures limiting high capacity magazine rounds, banning assault-style weapons and banning ammunition sales to people barred from owning guns. The first two have been considered in previous years but didn’t advance. Both Jinkins and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig have said that while the bills will be discussed within their caucuses, that it’s too early to know whether they will advance this session.

PUBLIC RECORDS: Last month, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers were fully subject to the state’s public records act, something officials at the Legislature had long insisted was not the case. The ruling was the result of a September 2017 lawsuit filed by a media coalition led by The Associated Press. The media coalition had sought sexual harassment reports, calendar entries and other documents. Legislative leaders said last week they have no plans to try and circumvent the ruling and will comply with records requests, but noted that it may take some time since they have received an influx of requests since the ruling.