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What a Biden presidency might mean for Spokane and the Inland Northwest

By Orion Donovan-Smith, Jim Camden and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

Joe Biden was elected the 46th president of the United States through a campaign that sought to balance promises of a return to civility and bipartisanship with the ambitious proposals of a Democratic Party that has been champing at the bit to enact reforms after four years under President Donald Trump.

The Associated Press called the race Saturday after wins in Nevada and Pennsylvania gave Biden 290 electoral votes, above the 270 needed to reach the White House. For Biden, a former vice president and 36-year veteran of the U.S. Senate who will be the oldest president inaugurated, it marked a triumphant culmination to a long political career.

A Biden presidency will have major implications for the Inland Northwest, including policies affecting agriculture, natural resources and the environment, the armed forces, immigration and more. But while Biden’s win came on the back of historic voter turnout and he won the popular vote by an unprecedented 4 million votes, Democrats farther down the ballot fared worse, potentially leaving the Senate in the hands of Republicans, who also gained ground in the Democratic-majority House.

Control of the upper chamber may ultimately come down to an extraordinary runoff election Jan. 5 for two Senate seats in Georgia, where Democratic underdogs could bring the Senate to a 50-50 tie. In that case, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris could cast the tie-breaking vote, giving Democrats the slimmest of majorities.

“We’re going to have divided government again,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. “Unfortunately, I think it will leave them where they’ve been for most of the last 20 years, and that’s that we’ll have more gridlock.”

Barring a double upset by Democrats in the Peach State, Congress will remain divided between the two parties. That could allow Senate Republicans to block many of the new Biden administration’s policy goals.

“I don’t expect you’re going to see any major policy breakthroughs,” Clayton said. “You’re not going to see major immigration reform or major health care reform bills getting through a divided Congress.”

Assuming the president-elect and his allies succeed in implementing his policy priorities, here’s what a Biden presidency could mean for Spokane and the Inland Northwest:

Military matters

The largest government employer in the Spokane area is Fairchild Air Force Base, and Biden has proposed a series of changes to help military members and their families.

He wants to restructure the compensation system to guarantee members of the armed forces a living wage, and until those wages come up will support legislation to provide additional living allowances, especially for younger members.

He wants research into ways to have more time between moves, known as permanent changes of station, examining deployment schedules and force size calculations. He also wants the Defense Department to spend $500 million over three years to develop a pilot program to help military spouses to start or grow a small business, increase spending on existing programs for employment and scholarships for military spouses, and add military spouses to the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

He also promised more support for military members’ LGBTQ spouses, whom he contends were discriminated against by the Trump administration.

Biden also has proposed expanding programs that provide federal funds for schools on military bases and nearby local schools attended by children of service members.

Last December, he told Hearst Newspapers he would consider more base closures after a review by Congress but only if “surrounding communities are completely taken care of.”

He hasn’t called for defense cuts but has said there would be some rearranging of priorities.

“We need to focus more on unmanned capacity, cyber and IT in a very modern world that is rapidly changing,” he told Stars and Stripes in September. He promised better equipment for the National Guard.

Tribal nations

The first paragraph of the Biden-Harris plan for tribal nations, unveiled Oct. 8 when the running mates met with tribal leaders in Arizona, acknowledges that the promise of equality on which the country was founded “has been denied to Native Americans who have lived on this land since time immemorial.”

Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe, said that recognition sets the tone for what a Biden administration could mean for Native communities. The level of detail in the plan, Evans said, also suggests the Biden team has thought through how it would respect tribes’ sovereignty.

“When you go through the Biden-Harris plan,” Evans said, “if it talks about sovereignty, it says how they’re going to do it … they’re going to let the tribes decide how to do it, nation to nation.”

Brian Gunn, an attorney and federal lobbyist for the Colville Tribes, said a Biden presidency is likely to see a return to an agenda similar to the Obama White House after four years of the Trump administration saw lower budget requests for the Indian Health Service and the end of an annual gathering of tribal leaders at the White House.

The past four years have seen a slowdown in processing of fee-to-trust applications, an important mechanism for tribes to gain control of land for natural resource use, providing housing to their citizens and other purposes. Tribal leaders like Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Business Council, hope a Biden administration will reverse those delays.

Another change, Cawston said, could come with the restoration of some of the environmental protections tribes rely on to have a say in projects that affect water and other natural resources they rely on, which the Trump administration has rolled back.

Immigration and refugee resettlement

Trump came into office promising to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, stem an influx of migrants fleeing violence in Central America and crack down on immigrants living and working in the country without authorization.

Enforcement operations, including at Spokane’s Greyhound Bus station, sought out some of the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants who are a vital and in-demand part of the U.S. workforce but have been forced to live in the shadows as Congress has failed to pass significant immigration reform since 1986.

The Trump administration also brought the resettlement of refugees – an area where the U.S. had led the world for decades and a bipartisan point of pride – to a historic low. Refugee admissions fell more than 82% under Trump, leading to the closure of around 100 resettlement agency offices around the country, including in Idaho.

Biden’s immigration agenda is largely based on reversing those moves. The first point of the Biden-Harris immigration plan is to “take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage and reclaim America’s values.”

The Biden-Harris platform also promises to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees” – suggesting that, at a minimum, the cap on refugee resettlement will return to a pre-Trump level – and modernize the country’s immigration system.

The economy of the Inland Northwest, like many other parts of the nation, relies to a significant extent on immigrant workers who, along with their employers, have limited legal pathways to live and work in the country. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican and third-generation farmer from Sunnyside, has spearheaded legislation that would give some 325,000 people a chance to earn legal status after working in agriculture for 10 years. That’s just a fraction of the estimated 10 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., but it would represent the most significant immigration reform in decades.

“I’m very optimistic that we will get that done. I haven’t given up total hope that we will get it done in the lame duck,” Newhouse said, “but if we can’t, I’m pretty sure – in fact I’m very confident – that we will be able to move that forward. The momentum was there.”

Newhouse’s bill passed the House last December with wide bipartisan support, including every Democrat and Republican from Washington, Idaho and Oregon. It is sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it is likely to sit until the end of the current “lame duck” session of Congress.

But Newhouse said he’s optimistic the bill will be one of the first priorities for the new Congress that starts working in January. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican on track to win a close race, is a key Senate advocate who could help push the bill across the finish line.

Criminal justice

Biden’s criminal justice plan emphasizes prevention over incarceration.

His plan includes allocating $20 billion toward a grant program that would allow state and local governments to promote crime prevention over incarceration. In order to receive the money, states would have to eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes, institute earned credit programs and take other steps to reduce incarcerations rates.

State Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said a change in federal statutes regarding sentencing and treatment response would have positive effects on statewide legislation. Dhingra is a prosecuting attorney and vice chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

When it comes to treatment, federal regulations often make it complicated for different departments, such as hospitals or law enforcement, to share information. Dhingra said she would like to see those codes cleaned up because they create barriers for treatment and reform at the state level.

Dhingra hopes Harris, also a former prosecutor, will have a large effect on criminal justice reform. Mass incarcerations and treatment options have to be thought about together, Dhingra said.

“As a prosecutor, she knows that,” Dhingra said.

Biden has also said he would push the Justice Department to address systemic misconduct of police departments and prosecutors’ offices.

The Washington Legislature has already begun looking at ways to address police misconduct, after Attorney General Bob Ferguson released a report in June urging the Legislature to adopt policy that would require law enforcement to report uses of deadly force.

Marijuana

When it comes to cannabis, Biden supports decriminalization as well as expunging prior cannabis-use convictions. He does not go as far as to call for federal legalization of recreational marijuana, instead leaving it up to the states.

Fifteen states have legalized recreational marijuana after this election.

While marijuana is legal in Washington, a federal legalization could still have benefits by creating a regulatory marketplace nationwide, said Justin Strekal, political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Strekal pointed to the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which he said would address the need for criminal justice reform through expungements and promote local ownership in emerging cannabis trades.

Aaron Pickus, spokesperson for the Washington CannaBusiness Association, said it is unclear what will happen to Washington’s cannabis industry under Biden, but any sort of federal regulations could help Washington’s marijuana market.

Agriculture

In a Biden presidency, not much is likely to change for the Inland Northwest agriculture sector, at least not immediately.

Most agricultural policy comes from Congress, which won’t be renegotiating the Farm Bill for at least two more years as it doesn’t expire until 2023, said Randy Fortenbery, Washington State University professor of economic sciences.

With Biden’s stances on trade, infrastructure investment, immigration and climate change, agriculture workers may still be worried.

“It doesn’t mean people aren’t concerned by changes coming at some point,” Fortenbery said.

Investing in infrastructure has a positive effect on agriculture, Fortenbery said, but whether Biden follows through on his promises to do so remains unseen.

Trade may be the biggest issue to watch when it comes to how agriculture is affected. Biden has said he supports a “pro-American worker tax and trade strategy.” He said he will take aggressive trade enforcement actions against China or other countries seeking to “undercut American manufacturing through unfair practices.”

Fortenbery doesn’t think Biden’s policies will have much effect, although it’s unclear what exactly Biden might do.

The agricultural industry saw a lot of disruption in late 2018 and early 2019 as Trump was renegotiating trade deals, Fortenbery said. Most of those are resolved as of now.

Fortenbery said he expects Biden to follow the current path the country is on when it comes to trade.

“It might be hard to ascribe any improvement over the next few months to Biden,” he said.

Toni Lynn Adams at the Washington Apple Commission said she was unclear exactly what would happen moving forward. The commission is just waiting to see, she said.

Many agricultural workers also are thinking about Biden’s climate change goals. For example, Biden’s plan includes achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050. Many are wondering if they will get paid for carbon sequestration or be taxed for carbon release, Fortenbery said.

Regardless of Biden’s policies, Fortenbery said the biggest impact will be what happens in Congress and who controls it.

Less litigation

The four years of the Trump administration have been marked with scores of lawsuits, which the state took on by itself or joined other states in challenging changes in policies or regulations.

So far, 36 were resolved with the state prevailing on 35. Of the remaining 51, about 44 are still active in trial or are on appeal. A team at the state attorney general’s office is studying the remaining cases to see how the state should proceed in each one under a Biden administration.

The cases are so different there’s no one answer, Attorney General Ferguson said. If the federal government has changed a policy or regulation, a new president or a new administration might have to change that policy or regulation before the lawsuit is dismissed.

Even cases involving executive orders might not be immediately resolved.

President Barack Obama created the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrival policy through executive order, which gave so-called Dreamers certain legal rights. Washington was among the states that sued to block changes to DACA through a Trump executive order. As president, Biden would have the authority to undo those changes with his own executive order.

Until that happens, the lawsuit protecting the state’s 18,000 Dreamers wouldn’t be dismissed.

Most of the state’s lawsuits against the Trump administration alleged violations of the federal Administrative Procedures Act or constitutional protections.

“I don’t think a Biden administration will be violating federal law and the Constitution as much,” he said.

Hanford

One long-running legal battle between the state and federal government that predates the Trump administration involves cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the protection of workers there. Ferguson sued the Obama administration over failures to live up to agreements over Hanford cleanup, and his predecessors sued previous administrations.

“I hope that the Biden administration will take a more aggressive position at cleaning up Hanford and protecting the workers,” he said.

The Trump administration sued the state over a 2018 law passed by the Legislature to extend certain benefits to injured Hanford workers. The state successfully defended the law at the trial and appeals court level, but the federal government said it would appeal. Ferguson said he hopes the new administration will drop the appeal, which happens to some lawsuits when the nation gets a new president and a new attorney general.

Newhouse, a Republican whose Central Washington district includes Hanford, said that could be “one of the biggest areas of education” where Northwest lawmakers will have to make sure leaders at the U.S. Department of Energy know the federal government’s obligation to clean decades of nuclear waste.

He plans to be a strong voice on that topic as a member of the House energy and water subcommittee. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat, sits on the corresponding committee in the Senate.

“And so I think the two of us will definitely be able to be successful at making sure people are very familiar with the challenges that we have,” Newhouse said.

Easing environmental arguments

A Biden administration would represent a significant change from the Trump administration in regard to environmental issues like endangered species, land management and controlling wildfires, Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said. Biden believes in climate change and wants to do something about it, she said.

He has proposed forming a Civilian Climate Corps to help preserve public lands, which would help manage national forests and make them more resilient to wildfires, using science-based techniques to thin forests and plant millions of trees in urban areas. It would be similar to the Washington Conservation Corps, but with the ability to move from state to state as the need arises, Franz said.

The federal government is the largest landowner in the state and federal land often borders state lands, she said. But federal land is some of the worst-managed and most underfunded. Biden’s environmental plan calls for significant investments in federal lands.

One of the biggest shifts with the new administration will be an acknowledgment of climate change and its effects on the region, including ocean acidification, annual wildfires, recurring floods and degradation of streams that produce salmon.

“Salmon and the orcas have not been a priority under the existing administration,” Franz said. “I think we’re going to see a clearer understanding of the importance of our environment and the economy.”

Solving the salmon problem isn’t just about dams, she added.

It involves understanding the cultural significance, replacing culverts, reducing urban runoff, restoring stream beds and riparian areas, and lowering the temperature in rivers and streams.

“We’ve had four years of divisive grandstanding. … That’s got us nothing but more fights and no action,” she said. “Biden understands in his environmental policy the opportunities in making investments and job creation.”

Transit

It should sound familiar: a newly elected president with a $1 trillion transportation infrastructure plan.

Then-president elect Trump had one in 2016 to fund improvements to the nation’s ailing roads, bridges and airports. But the Trump administration could never get it moving forward.

So can Biden do any better?

His campaign released a plan that includes $1.3 trillion for infrastructure improvements. Not all of that money would be invested in transit. Some would go to initiatives like creating incentives for homeowners to retrofit their homes to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprints. But the plan does call for major infusions of funding to improve the country’s road, rail and public transit networks while also pursuing a goal “to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.”

The plan outlines a number of ways his administration would attempt to pull off that difficult balancing act.

For example, while the plan pledges Biden would spend $50 billion in his first year in office to improve the country’s ailing highway network, the plan also indicates his administration would spend $5 billion over five years to improve “battery and energy storage technology, to spur breakthroughs that can boost the range and slash the price of electric cars.”

The money would be welcome in the Inland Northwest, where both Eastern Washington and North Idaho transit officials have been expressing the need for more funding to deal with a backlog of work, maintain existing roads and plan for expected growth.

Biden’s plan also calls for boosting passenger rail, including by creating a high-speed rail network in the West, and for increasing the rail system’s electrification to reduce diesel emissions.

But before a Biden administration can think about improving Amtrak, it will first have to work to restore cuts to the system that recently ended daily service on many routes, including the Empire Builder that now only passes through Spokane three times a week in each direction.

The most recent version of stalled pandemic-relief legislation included $32 billion for transit, including $2.4 billion for Amtrak.

Biden will likely have to get that money on track to be delivered before he can think about hauling in even more funding for America’s transit network.

Spokesman-Review reporter Ted McDermott contributed to this story.

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