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Ballot initiatives cast shadow over Washington legislative session

Three men in dark blue suits and one woman in purple suit having a discussion in the legislative chambers.
Bill Lucia
Washington State Standard
Washington’s Senate Minority Leader John Braun, left, and House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, center-left, both Republicans, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, center-right, and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, right, discuss issues the Legislature will tackle in the 2024 session.

Housing. Transportation. Behavioral health. Public safety. Climate change. Education.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday those areas will be their focus when the 2024 session gets underway Monday.

But they acknowledged six citizen initiatives on course for the November ballot cannot be ignored. Each measure will be a factor in conversations and decisions concerning those priority issues, they said.

“They’re there. We have to deal with them,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said at the legislative preview hosted by the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and Washington State Association of Broadcasters.

Thursday’s preview featured discussions on transportation and the budget, and a panel of the leaders of the party caucuses in each chamber.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers shared similar desires but different approaches to put more money into behavioral health services and special education, hire more police officers, spur home building, assist unhoused individuals and tackle a growing number of transportation challenges.

They were sharply divided on issues like Democrats’ push to control rent increases and Republicans’ desire to direct general fund dollars to transportation. Proposals to use proceeds from the cap-and-trade programs to fund gasoline and energy rebates received lots of mentions.

But it appears some of the most heated conversations in the session could be sparked by the six initiatives authored by state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, and submitted by Let’s Go Washington, the conservative political committee sponsored by Brian Heywood, a hedge-fund manager. Walsh is also the chairman of the state Republican Party.

Petition power

The measures would repeal the state’s cap-and-trade program andcapital gains tax, remove most restrictions on police engaging in vehicle pursuits, make it easier to bar the state and local governments from imposing an income tax, and create a “bill of rights’ for parents of public school students.

Because they are initiatives to the Legislature, each would automatically go on the ballot unless they are adopted by lawmakers. Legislators could put an alternative to any or all of the initiatives on the ballot.

How to respond to the initiatives – which are in the process of getting certified by the Secretary of State – is causing partisan rifts ahead of session.

Democrats, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, are gearing up for a ballot battle to protect coveted programs and policies they’ve enacted in recent years.

“I have confidence in the voters,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said Thursday.

House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said the Legislature should adopt the police pursuits initiative, which is similar to a Democrat-sponsored billeasing restrictions on vehicular chases. If it doesn’t, the Legislature should pass the bill, which has bipartisan support, and place it in front of voters as an alternative.

Republican lawmakers said they want public hearings on each of the six measures. No decisions have been made on whether to do so or put alternatives on the ballot, Jinkins said.

Meanwhile, a new poll conducted by Stuart Elway shows the crux of three initiatives enjoying support among voters.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed support eliminating restrictions on when police can engage in a vehicle pursuit of a suspected criminal, Elway said.

And an almost equal percentage back giving parents of public school students the ability to review textbooks, obtain discipline records and opt their children out of sexual education courses. And a combined 57% said they favor repealing the state’s capital gains tax.

Elway made clear those polled were not asked specifically about the initiatives but told these were proposals the Legislature was expected to discuss.

“This is sort of the playing field in terms of voter attitudes,” he said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence.

Audio from KNKX by reporter Jared Brown.

Jerry Cornfield is a reporter at the Washington State Standard. He joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald.