Austin Jenkins | KNKX

Austin Jenkins

Olympia Correspondent

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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The son-in-law of the Washington State Patrol chief resigned as a trooper after investigations into allegations of on-the-job sex and sexual assault. He is now fighting to keep his badge, testing the state's narrow law for decertifying police.

The two states are both led by strong Democratic majorities and face similar issues. Only one of them is successfully passing legislation.

Washington House Democrats on Friday unveiled a proposed two-year state budget that seeks, among other things, to head off a wave of mass evictions once the state’s eviction moratorium expires.

“Our goal is to wipe the slate clean for landlords and tenants,” said state Rep. Nicole Macri, a vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

A new state capital gains tax. An expanded and fully funded tax credit for lower-income families. Fresh investments in disaster preparation and foundational public health. And significant new spending in early learning and child care.

Those are among the elements of a proposed $59.2 billion, two-year budget Washington Senate Democrats unveiled on Thursday.

Former Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley has exhausted his appeals and now faces the prospect of having to report to a federal prison to serve a 366-day prison sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for review of his case.

Washington’s eviction moratorium will be extended through June and two million more Washingtonians will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine beginning March 31.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the moratorium extension and the speeded-up vaccine timeline at a virtual news conference on Thursday.

Last June, Washington’s chief revenue forecaster delivered the bad news to state lawmakers and state officials.

“The longest economic expansion in U.S. history is, unfortunately, over. We are now in a recession,” Steve Lerch told the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.

At the time, Lerch projected the state would lose nearly $9 billion in revenues over four years. But he also emphasized there was a lot of uncertainty in the forecast.

Sure enough, the September and November forecasts weren’t nearly as bleak. Taken together they reduced the almost $9 billion drop to a projected $3.3 billion reduction.

Then came Wednesday's March revenue forecast. It showed the state returning to pre-pandemic revenue levels.

It's the news many have been waiting for. Starting March 22, all 39 Washington counties will advance to Phase 3 under a revised COVID-19 reopening plan Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled on  Thursday.

Washington’s 105-day legislative session has crossed the halfway point and a key deadline for policy (non-budget) bills to clear their chamber of origin has passed. Majority Democrats are moving swiftly to enact a pandemic-era agenda focused on issues like tax reform, police accountability, racial equity and global climate change. Minority Republicans, meanwhile, are seeing a few of their bills advance while also objecting to much of what Democrats are pushing forward. So, what’s moving and what’s not? Let’s take a look.

Grocery store employees and other essential workers in Washington, regardless of age, will be eligible to begin getting the COVID-19 vaccine later this month, followed in April by people who have two or more medical conditions and those living in congregate settings.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the target dates, along with revised guidelines on who’s eligible, during a news conference Thursday.

Police officers, along with jail and prison staff, would be barred from using neck holds or restraints designed to restrict a person’s airway or blood flow, but the use of tear gas would still be allowed in limited circumstances under a bill that’s passed the Washington House.

The police tactics measure, House Bill 1054, is a major plank in a sweeping police accountability agenda brought forth this year by majority Democrats. The focus on police reform follows last year’s protests nationally over the killings of Black people by police, includng George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Even as the state of Washington’s revenue picture improves, majority Democrats in the Legislature appear committed to a course that will, one way or another, involve raising taxes this year. Not necessarily to balance a recession-era budget, but instead to reform a tax code they view as regressive and to address gaps and inequities exposed by the global pandemic.

With the 105-day legislative session approaching the halfway mark, Democratic leaders are making clear that existing revenues, combined with the state’s $1.8 billion rainy day fund, plus any additional federal relief dollars the state may receive, likely won’t be enough to fund all of their priorities.

At the same time, Democrats increasingly appear to view the topic of “tax fairness” as a winning issue that is both a matter of good public policy and good politics.

Washington’s sprawling Capitol campus features war memorials, a granite monument to fallen police officers, a replica of a Roman-style fountain and a brass sundial.

But as soon as this summer a new monument will join the collection. It will honor George Bush, Washington’s first Black pioneer, along with his son, William Owen Bush, who was the state’s first Black lawmaker, and their family.

A fresh round of federal aid will soon be flowing to Washington businesses and individuals hit hard by the COVID pandemic.

On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a $2.2 billion relief package funded with money approved by Congress in December.

As majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature lay the groundwork for tax increases to fund the next two-year budget, minority Republicans are jumping out ahead by releasing their own tax-averse budget blueprints.

The plans unveiled by House and Senate Republicans in recent days have no chance of passing the Democratically-controlled Legislature, but do offer alternative sets of spending priorities. The budget frameworks also allow Republicans to draw a philosophical line in the sand around new and higher taxes.

How much you pay for auto, home and renters insurance depends a lot on your credit score. If your credit is good, you tend to pay less. If it’s not so good, you likely pay more.

Now, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler wants to ban the use of credit-based insurance scoring to set rates. He says it’s a matter of racial justice. 

“Inconsistent.” “Disastrous.” “Senseless.” Those are just some of the words being used to describe Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan for reopening the state – and they’re the words of his fellow Democrats. It’s a sign of rising frustration over the slow pace of getting restaurants, gyms and other businesses open again.

From the start of the pandemic, Governor Inslee faced criticism from conservatives upset about his mask mandate and stay home order. But over the last week, there’s been a noticeable shift. Now members of Inslee’s own party are assailing him.

Washington billionaires would pay a “wealth tax” under a proposal in the state House that will get a public hearing on Tuesday.

The bill is sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Noel Frame, who chairs the House Finance Committee, and would impose a one percent tax on intangible financial property, such as stocks and bonds, futures contracts and publicly traded options. A billionaire’s first $1 billion in “taxable worldwide wealth” would be exempt.

This year, the Washington State Legislature has welcomed a record number of lawmakers of color, including a record number of Black lawmakers who are all Democrats.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday announced adjustments to his phased reopening plan that will allow two western Washington regions, comprising seven counties and nearly 60 percent of the state’s population, to move to Phase 2 beginning on Monday.

A proposal to impose sweeping restrictions on police tactics and techniques in Washington is highlighting stark differences of opinion between police and reform groups.

Capitol dome in Olympia in January 2020.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

The Washington Legislature approved rules to allow lawmakers to meet remotely because of the pandemic. The in-person votes Monday in Olympia happened under tight security with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.

The State Patrol and the Washington National Guard line the perimeter of the state Capitol in Olympia on Monday.
Casey Martin / KUOW

Updated at 4:10 p.m.: We are keeping an eye on the Capitol in Olympia today as lawmakers convene for the 2021 legislative session. While the focus inside will be on voting whether to meet virtually for this session, the focus outside will be on safety.

Amid the ongoing pandemic and threats by far-right protesters to "occupy" the Capitol, Washington lawmakers will convene Monday for what will ultimately be a mostly remote 2021 session with a focus on the ongoing response to COVID-19, police reform, addressing climate change and writing a two-year state budget.

As he prepares to begin a third term in office, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is proposing a new tax on health care premiums to fund post-pandemic public health. He’s also once again urging the Legislature to pass a capital gains tax.

The tax measures are contained in Inslee’s two-year, $57.6 billion operating budget proposal released Thursday in advance of the 2021 Legislative session. Separately, the Democratic governor also released proposed capital construction and transportation budgets.

For the second Saturday in a row, a gun was fired as groups of protesters from opposing ends of the political spectrum clashed in Olympia.

At Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, nurses with desk jobs are being told to prepare to come back to the front lines, and elective surgeries and procedures are once again being put on hold.

The desperate measures come amidst an ongoing spike in coronavirus cases in the community and as the hospital prepares for a post-Thanksgiving surge of COVID-19 patients.

“Unfortunately, I think within the next week it’s going to be a significant rise in COVID-19,” said Dr. Kevin Caserta, the chief medical officer for Providence SW Washington.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in Washington foster youth spending more nights in hotel rooms while overall reports of child abuse and neglect have declined precipitously. Those are among the pandemic-related findings of an annual report from the state’s Office of the Family and Children's Ombuds (OFCO) released Monday. 

The director of public health in the third most populous county in the United States will be Washington's next secretary of health. 

Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced the appointment of Dr. Umair A. Shah to lead the state Department of Health beginning on December 21.

Since 2013, Shah has been executive director of Harris County Public Health in Houston, Texas. He will replace outgoing Secretary John Wiesman who has served in the position since 2013. Previously, Wiesman announced his plan to leave the post at the end of the year to take a teaching job in North Carolina. 

Washington Republicans say the Legislature should immediately meet in special session to address the economic fallout from Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest Covid-19 orders – and even consider tapping the state’s “rainy day” fund.

Under Inslee's orders, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums will once again have to close. Also, restaurants and bars will have to cease offering indoor dining service and limit outdoor dining to five people per table. Many other businesses will also be affected. The new rules will remain in effect for at least the next four weeks. 

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