The 2023 Washington State legislative session welcomed in-person politics back to Olympia for the first time since 2020, when the legislature adjourned days before statewide COVID-19 restrictions went into full effect. For Sen. Emily Randall (D-Bremerton), starting her new role as deputy majority leader demanded something of a balancing act, she said. She introduced less legislation than usual to focus on performing well in her new job — seeing caucus priorities move forward, new members being successful, and facilitating negotiations between chambers in her caucus as well as between Senate Democrats and Republicans.
“It was a really exciting session,” Randall said. “We got a lot of our big priorities across the finish line. We made huge strides in housing — almost a billion dollars between the operating and capital budget. It’s big. Really big.”
It was also a very productive session, she said. “I think a lot of us were really excited to be back and negotiating with each other in person.”
Randall said she can’t say enough about the impact of those casual hallway conversations —when you pass someone and talk through a problem or remember that you’re supposed to work on something together. It was exciting to have neighbors back on campus, visitors from districts or advocates who hadn’t been there over the last two years.
Rep. Spencer Hutchins (R-Gig Harbor), likened his first legislative session to drinking from a fire hose. “There is so much,” he said. “As people may know, the legislature is nothing like our federal Congress. We are in session for a few months out of the year, so there’s a lot of legislating that happens in a few short months.”
Hutchins said on any given day he had constituents in his office talking about education, and then he’d run over to the housing committee and talk landlord/tenant law. Next stop — the transportation committee to talk about the state transportation budget before heading back to his office for a meeting on wildlife.
“You’re moving all over the place because the legislature covers policy in every possible area,” Hutchins said. “It was quite the education and a really fast-paced environment.”
What struck Hutchins, he said, was the quality of the people he met on both sides of the aisle. “In just this first session, I’ve developed some meaningful relationships across the whole House (of Representatives). It’s been a really valuable experience so far.”
Hutchins serves on the transportation committee where he was impressed by other legislators, a Republican and a Democrat, who bring in their deputies on a weekly, often daily basis, in a very inclusive and bipartisan process to build a budget. Hutchins said he was proud to be part of the bipartisan effort that engendered great respect among the people involved.
“I think in today’s politics,” he said. “I hate to say it, but I think it’s rare.”
Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-Port Orchard) said that for the first time in a long while legislators secured transportation dollars, something she referred to as historically challenging. Caldier said she, Hutchins and Randall worked well together when it came to transportation and on capital budget projects for their district.
“We got $1.3 million for Lakebay Marina,” Caldier said. “We got funding for the Port Orchard breakwater, Pen Met Parks for their athletic facility, and we also secured funding for the Admiral Theater in Bremerton.
“In the 26th district, we tend to get more,” she said. “That’s the real benefit of being in a swing district — both Republicans and Democrats want the 26th to have funding. It works out quite nicely.”
Caldier and Randall have partnered many times on capital budget investments to bring home the most for their communities, like The Mustard Seed Project and bringing more dental services to the Key Peninsula.
Randall agreed it’s most effective when there are three legislators working together and she credits having great relationships with Caldier and Hutchins.
“It feels like it’s a big change, and one that I’m very happy about,” Randall said.
As someone who represents a purple district, Hutchins said he is most disappointed in how common the partisanship is in politics today.
“I have many friends on the Democratic side,” he said. “I think people want to see more bipartisanship. It’s a part of the process.”
House Republican Minority Leader Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn) and Minority Deputy Mike Steele (R-Chelan) were elected shortly after Rep. J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) announced he was stepping down.
Hutchins said he has great confidence in the future of their leadership.
“They represent a generational shift in Republican leadership and that’s something Rep. Wilcox made clear in his parting words,” Hutchins said. “He thought it not unreasonable for there to be a new generation of leadership, not just new leaders but a new generation and that’s what the caucus ended up doing.”
Caldier acknowledged she had her own personal issues with Rep. Wilcox, so she is looking forward to the new leadership. “When he came in, we had 48 members. We’re now at 40 and that’s a huge loss under his leadership.”
Being in a swing district, Caldier said she understands the most important issues people face.
“I was not listened to at all when it came down to how important the Dobbs decision was, to women in general but especially swing districts,” she said, referring to the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow states to restrict or protect the right to abortion after 50 years of federal protection.
“I believe I was the only single woman in the caucus so you’d think I would have been an important voice,” Caldier said. “It was incredibly frustrating not to have a group of men listen to me.”
“You know,” she said, “I think that was reflected in the (mid-term) elections.”
Randall described what she thought ended up being a hard vote for her two 26th district colleagues on data privacy for health data and individuals seeking abortion or other health services. Randall voted the same way, and said it was the right vote for their constituents.
“It was an issue they (Caldier and Hutchins) took some heat from local and caucus Republicans. But it made me really proud to sit alongside them.
“I’ve heard over and over from neighbors in our community that they don’t want big government or corporations meddling in their healthcare access,” Randall said.
As the legislature adjourned, the big piece left unresolved is most often referred to as The Blake Fix.
Two years ago, the State Supreme Court threw out the state’s drug penalty laws. The temporary Band-Aide-fix the legislature applied two years ago was set to expire at the end of June. The legislature failed to pass a new law during its regular session, from Jan. 9 to April 23, so Gov. Jay Inslee called the legislature back for a special session May 2.
Without a special session there would have been a complete decriminalization of drugs.
“It was in the House where we saw the biggest challenge because their left flank had a number of individuals strongly in favor of complete decriminalization,” Randall said.
“We were finally able to get to an agreement that I think is better policy than any of the previous versions, one centered on treatment and pushing folks into treatment, but also allows law enforcement and first responders the tools to get people who are publicly using and unsafe on the streets into either jail or treatment,” she said.
In a caucus press release, Hutchins said, “I believe we passed a bill May 16 that correctly balances accountability and compassion. It is not perfect. But it is miles ahead of what we saw on the final day of session and a huge improvement over what we have had for the past two years under the temporary Blake fix that has led to the awful scenes we now see on our streets and across the state.”
Inslee signed Senate Bill 5536 into law May 17. The new law increases penalties for possession of a controlled substance to 180 days in jail for the first two convictions, a $1,000 fine or both. It takes effect July 1, 2023.
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