March 4, 2009 in City

Politics gets personal with flurry of bills

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – In the first of several days of marathon debate, Washington lawmakers Tuesday passed bills to protect breastfeeding mothers, help churches shelter the homeless, and provide emergency access to restrooms in stores.

The House also passed a bill sparked by the case of a Spokane man, Fred Watley, who was stuck in a nearly fatal waiting period for a liver transplant after his employer switched to a new health insurer.

“This man did all the right things, followed all his doctor’s orders,” state Rep. John Driscoll, D-Spokane, told lawmakers. “He paid all his medical premiums.”

House Bill 1308 would reduce the allowable waiting period in such cases. In Watley’s case, his insurer decided to waive the waiting period after his case captured widespread attention. He got a new liver and is recovering. The bill passed the House unanimously, and the Senate is slated to vote on a similar bill, perhaps as early as today.

Among the bills approved Tuesday:

House Bill 1596: Declares that a mother’s right to breastfeed in public places is protected by the state’s anti-discrimination law. Mothers would be free to breastfeed in any public place, including restaurants, stores, malls, parks, libraries and government offices.

There is already a law on the books protecting the mothers from being charged with indecent exposure. HB 1596 would allow anyone discriminated against to file a complaint with the state’s Human Rights Commission.

“I really think that we will jump-start a culture change,” said prime sponsor Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood. She said she hopes people see breastfeeding as healthy and natural, not sexual.

“A mom should really feel as comfortable sitting down to breastfeed as she would sitting down and pulling a bottle out of her diaper bag,” Green said.

Study after study has demonstrated the benefits to babies and mothers of breastfeeding, said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee.

The bill passed unanimously.

HB 1956: Would give churches and other religious organizations broad authority to shelter homeless people. Local governments couldn’t “unreasonably interfere” with tent cities or other homeless housing at churches.

Prime sponsor Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, said a few cities are imposing too many conditions to prevent faith-based groups from helping the homeless.

“I don’t need Big Brother dictating to the members of my congregation how we respond to urgent societal needs,” he said. And churches shouldn’t have to tap the collection plate “to challenge the tyranny of those local governments” in court, he said.

Cities and counties oppose the bill, saying it’s heavy-handed and ignores the health and safety issues created by homeless camps set up in neighborhoods.

“From the big brothers here in Olympia, this is an interesting piece of legislation,” said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Bellingham. “This is an issue for city councils. The people who are closest to this particular issue are the ones who should be making the decision.”

The bill passed 56-41.

HB 1138: Would require retailers to let customers with certain medical conditions use store restrooms even if they’re not considered public restrooms.

Patterned after an Illinois law, the bill is aimed at people with inflammatory bowel disorders such as Crohn’s disease. The conditions – which are incurable – can cause crippling pain and a very urgent need to use the bathroom.

“Oftentimes, you have no warning or little warning,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, the bill’s prime sponsor.

Patients would need a statement from their doctor. The bill, which includes some safety provisions for store workers and merchandise, passed 90-7.

Tuesday’s flurry of legislation wasn’t the final stop for these proposals. To become law, each must also be approved by the Legislature’s other chamber and signed into law by the governor.

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email