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News >  Washington

Legislature tackled other issues along with COVID-19

The state of Washington has announced a public-private partnership to install more than 300 new drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots to improve internet access in rural areas across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP)
The state of Washington has announced a public-private partnership to install more than 300 new drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots to improve internet access in rural areas across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP)

Washington’s 2020 legislative session can be divided into two distinct parts: before cases of COVID-19 were discovered in the state, and after.

In that first half – which by the time the Legislature adjourned Thursday evening seemed months, not weeks, ago – there were big concerns like growing numbers of homeless residents in urban and rural areas, a delay in transportation projects and worries about what was being done with personal data on the internet.

Those concerns didn’t end with the arrival of the novel coronavirus cases. The partisan divide over some thorny issues like comprehensive sexual health education, gun control or the operating budget didn’t magically disappear.

But spread over daily debates and hearings was a growing layer of concern over Washington being “the point of the spear,” as state and federal officials put it, of the nation’s COVID-19 outbreak. Some small things that got passing attention in January and February, like naming a state dinosaur, fell off the radar by March.

When it came to the outbreak, the only debate was how much money was enough. The first proposal was $5 million. Then $10 million. Then $100 million. By the final day – when large gatherings had been banned and schools ordered closed in the state’s three most populous counties – there were some who thought that should be $400 million.

Lawmakers arrived at a compromise position of $200 million – $175 million for state and local health and disaster services, $25 million for aid to businesses hit by economic slowdowns and closures – on the final day and passed it unanimously. They left town unsure whether that was enough.

Beyond the state’s response to the outbreak, here are some key issues in the 2020 session:

Climate

A statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, along with fees that retailers must collect for paper bags, got bipartisan support, in part because the higher demand for paper bags could help struggling timber and paper mill communities.

The state will adopt regulations to increase the use of zero-emission vehicles, expanding the requirement to include larger vehicles.

Greenhouse gas emissions overall, and by state agencies, would be dropped in 10-year steps through 2050, to reach a level known as “net zero” – a point at which any emissions are offset by programs that capture carbon and remove the gases from the atmosphere.

The state also will expand access for community solar projects, and the operating budget sets aside $50 million for climate resiliency projects.

But two major initiatives did not clear the Legislature: the Clean Fuel Standard, which would have required fuel producers and importers to reduce pollution from transportation fuels and boost vehicles powered by electricity or biofuels; and the authority for the state to regulate “indirect” emissions from vehicles and buildings by placing requirements on fuel producers or gas utilities.

Data privacy

A last-minute compromise saved legislation to regulate the use of facial recognition technology, which would give the state one of the first such laws in the country.

It requires public agencies to report on their use of the technology, tests to determine whether it shows biases against women and minorities, and requires law enforcement to get a court order or warrant before using it, except in emergencies. The House had proposed tougher measures, including a three-year moratorium on the use of the technology.

The House and Senate were not able to reach an agreement on a bill to enhance consumer protections for personal data that would have provided access, correction, deletion and an opt-out requirement for certain data collection.

Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who was part of the conference committee looking for a compromise, said both sides wanted strong enforcement by the state attorney general, but the role for consumers couldn’t be reconciled.

Gun control

The state will get a new agency to monitor gun violence. The Office of Firearms Safety and Violence Prevention will gather data on that violence, make it available for health research and provide money for local prevention programs. Republicans argued unsuccessfully it should focus on gun suicides and be prohibited from any action involving the actual reduction of gun ownership.

A new state background check unit managed by the Washington State Patrol will be set up to process checks for all firearm transfers and purchases.

But two major items on gun control groups’ wish list and on gun rights groups’ “don’t” list – restrictions on the number of rounds in a magazine and a ban on semi-automatic military style rifles – didn’t pass.

Sex ed

Possibly the most controversial bill of the session was one calling for comprehensive sexual health education in public schools. Starting in the 2021-22 school year, schools must offer one course at some point between kindergarten and grade 3, once in grades 4 or 5, twice in grades 6 through 8, and twice in grades 9 through 12.

The schools would select the curriculum from an approved list, and parents would have to have access to the materials being used and could have their children opt out. But critics argued the materials are too graphic and that younger children should not be included in the requirements.

House Republicans tried to kill the bill by introducing more than 200 amendments. They managed to delay the vote until after midnight, but it still passed. Now they’re asking Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill.

Boeing vs. WTO

In an unusual move, The Boeing Co. asked the Legislature to raise its taxes in an effort to fight tariffs from the World Trade Organization that could consider the preferential business and occupational tax rate for aerospace companies an illegal trade subsidy. The state granted those tax preferences in 2003 and 2013, at Boeing’s urging, as a way of keeping key parts of airliner construction in-state.

Some of the tax break would be resolved if Boeing and the WTO resolve the dispute, but the company would have to do certain things to get the break back, including expanding apprentices in its workforce for the five years after the rate is reinstated.

The final version of the bill received bipartisan support to help the state’s largest employer, though some Republicans said the state should just lower the business and occupation tax rate for all manufacturers in the state to the Boeing level to resolve the WTO dispute.

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2020 has been a stressful year for myriad reasons.