Big gains for workers in 2021 Washington state legislative session

“This is a moment, I do believe, where if you look at history things are static, static, static, and then boom, the conditions exist when big changes can take place.” 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, June 8, 2020

Washington’s state legislature completed its 105-day regular session on April 25 after passing a large number of measures that will benefit working-class Washingtonians. These items include police, labor and housing reform bills, as well a new capital gains tax and increased funding for human needs. 

After a historic year of protest and unprecedented levels of civic engagement, the Legislature passed a number of bills related to policing. These bills include a ban on choke-holds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants, limits on use of military equipment and tear gas, a requirement for officers to intervene if they see colleagues using excessive force or engaging in misconduct, and an overhaul of the process for decertifying police officers fired for misconduct or excessive force to prevent them from being re-hired in another jurisdiction. One of the bills establishes a new Office of Independent Investigations to investigate all police uses of deadly force in the state, starting July 2022, as well as prior killings if new evidence is brought forth.

“This is a great step forward on a long bus ride to police accountability,” said Fred Thomas, father of Leonard Thomas, who was killed by a SWAT team in 2013. Thomas and other family members of victims of police violence are part of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, which was instrumental in the passing of these measures. (News Tribune)

Other progressive bills include $465 million in relief for immigrant workers excluded from federal stimulus and unemployment insurance, an act allowing victims of wage theft to put a temporary hold on their employers’ assets, expanded access to free legal help to all Washington residents regardless of immigration status, restored voting rights of felons as soon as they are no longer physically behind bars, and overtime pay for farmworkers.

A first-in-the-nation law for tenants facing eviction guarantees them legal representation, stops landlords from evicting tenants without a legitimate reason and prohibits evictions for unpaid rent during the moratorium which is set to end June 30. A ban on private prisons will shut down the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, one of the largest private immigration detention centers in the country.

The capital gains bill creates a 7% tax on the sale of assets such as stocks and bonds above $250,000. Up until now, Washington has been one of only nine states with no capital gains tax at all, deriving most of its revenue from taxes on sales, property, and businesses. The new tax rate of 7% ties Washington with South Carolina behind 11 other states, such as California and Hawaii with capital gains taxes of 13.3% and 11%, respectively. Despite this modest ranking, state Republicans are expected to challenge the tax’s legality on the grounds it is a tax on income, which they say violates the state constitution.

The legislature also passed a $59 billion state budget, an increase of about $5 billion over the previous 2019-20 budget, after months of dire predictions of coming austerity cuts due to pandemic-related revenue shortfalls. However, an unexpected increase in state tax collections due to recent economic improvements, combined with an additional boost from the new capital gains tax, have put these concerns to rest. The budget allocates millions of dollars to child care programs, a tax exemption for low-income families, wildfire-fighting capabilities and public health.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) described the legislative session as “the end of incremental change and the beginning of a fundamental transformation to institutions that were always intended to work for people but too often fell short.” (Seattle Times)

Missing from the media analysis is a compelling explanation for the reasoning behind the sudden change. Reporting by the Seattle Times credits the shift to the ambitions of the legislature’s newly “diverse and progressive membership,” describing the policies as long-term Democratic goals that had previously proven elusive. But state Democrats have had unified control of the house, senate, and governorship in Olympia for 13 of the past 20 years. 

Gov. Jay Inslee’s comments nearly a year ago (about a week into the national uprising against racism that drew tens of thousands into the streets of Washington cities in militant struggle with  police) are instructive: “ … if you look at history, things are static, static, static, and then boom, the conditions exist when big changes can take place.” It seems no coincidence that this year’s Washington legislative session ended shortly before Pres. Joe Biden’s speech signaling a new program for the working class.  

The imperative for progressives is not only to understand the kinds of circumstances that make these kinds of gains possible, but also to recognize the urgency to mobilize and prevent them from becoming promises unfulfilled.

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