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Why Washington state Democrats passed 3 Republican-backed voter initiatives

caption:  The Washington Legislative building on Jan. 19, 2024.
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The Washington Legislative building on Jan. 19, 2024.
NW News Network

A majority of lawmakers in the Washington Legislature decided Monday to approve three voter initiatives, after weeks of uncertainty and plenty of tense debate.

The initiatives were part of a group of six that were filed by and largely supported by Republicans, though hundreds of thousands of voters also signed petitions in support of them last year. Legislative Republicans celebrated the adoption of the three initiatives after the final vote.

"It's a good year for common sense," said House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn).

The proposals that passed this week would ease certain limits around police car chases, ban the creation of income taxes at the state or local levels, and outline more than a dozen rights for parents to oversee their kids' schooling. They become law in June.

Most of the bills lawmakers pass in Olympia include support from across the aisle, but many Democrats are skeptical of, or outright oppose, these initiative measures.

Since their party holds the majority in the Legislature, the decision on the part of many Democrats to enact half the initiatives into law has left some observers scratching their heads. Technically, the majority party could have done nothing and let all six of the proposals go to voters in the fall.

So why did Democrats join with Republicans to enact three of them now? Some said it was at least in part based on the voter support already behind the initiatives.

But there are a few more key factors in play. Here's what we know.

1. The enacted initiatives don't do nearly as much as the three going to the ballot in November.

Democrats already decided that three of the six initiatives had no chance of being enacted this session. Those three proposals will appear on ballots this fall. They are the initiatives that aim to repeal key parts of the state's Climate Commitment Act, repeal the capital gains tax, and make the WA Cares long term-health care payroll tax optional. Leaders have said those three measures could have a major impact on the state, including funding for child care, schools, and various climate projects.

By contrast, under the initiatives approved this week, a lot of the state's existing law will remain intact.

The ban on income taxes, I-2111, doesn't change anything in existing law because the state currently does not have a personal income tax, and there are tight rules around what an income tax could look like.

A legislative staff analysis shows the parental rights initiative, I-2081, is mostly a looser – but more centralized – retelling of rights that parents already have under a patchwork of state and federal regulations.

And while the police pursuit initiative, I-2113, would roll back certain restrictions in the state's minimum rules around police car chases, local police departments can still have tighter rules if they choose to.

Notably, other parts of the existing pursuit law, like training and supervision requirements, remain unchanged under the initiative.

Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) pointed that out on the House floor ahead of the final vote on I-2113. He was a key lawmaker behind the revisions to police pursuit regulations during the 2023 session.

"That's why I'm somewhat encouraged and I have tentative support for this," Goodman said. "I just fervently hope that the police will use their discretion carefully and that we don't see any further deaths or injuries in the pursuit of public safety."

2. Lawmakers have more flexibility to make changes to laws they enact.

By passing these three initiatives into law, the Legislature has an easier path to adjust them than if they were approved by voters. Initiatives enacted by voters have a two-year supermajority requirement. That means if lawmakers want to change a statute approved by voters, it would take a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to make that change for the first two years the voter-approved policy is in effect.

While Democrats do currently hold the majority in Olympia, they would still need Republican support to meet a two-thirds, or supermajority, threshold.

But initiatives approved by the Legislature are just like any other part of state law and can be amended or added to in the future with a simple majority.

That's important to Democrats on the parental rights initiative specifically. Some have been concerned that this echoes language that's been used by conservative groups across the country to target school policies and supports for LGBTQ students, particularly transgender youth.

It's one key reason why Democrats like Sen. Jaime Pedersen (D-Seattle) say it's better to adopt the parental rights measure than to leave it on the ballot.

"I remain strongly convinced that by staying in control of the statute and the language, we're in the best position to make sure that our values of protecting trans kids are upheld," Pedersen said.

While some Democrats still take issue with the measure’s vague language and say it could be interpreted differently by local schools, Pedersen and others have vowed to keep a close eye on the initiative's implementation. Pedersen and others have promised legislative action should the initiative be used to diminish kids' rights to privacy and health care.

3. Fewer initiatives on the ballot means more targeted campaigning.

Enacting some of the initiatives could also change how people approach the election in November.

Washington ballots are stacked this year, with voters preparing to decide who should be the state's new governor, attorney general, public lands commissioner and more. There are various federal offices on the ballot – like president and congressional seats – and most of the state Legislature is up for election too. So, Democrats say that cutting the number of initiatives on voters' ballots in half serves a couple of different purposes.

Some point to voter fatigue and worry that a lengthier ballot could dissuade people from voting, while others say taking the initiatives enacted this week off the ballot could reduce the amount of information voters will inevitably be swamped by ahead of the election this fall.

"Part of it is, I think we don't want to subject voters to big campaigns on things that don't do a whole lot," said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma).

It also narrows the focus of campaigns for and against the three remaining proposals – Democrats are the most threatened by the measures on the ballot this fall, and by taking the others off the ballot, people will have more time to explain and weigh the merits or faults of the remaining initiatives.

The three measures that passed this week are also the most popular of the six initiatives among people who signed petitions in support of them, according to Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), who chairs the Washington State Republican Party and filed the initiatives.

"I understand the political logic that the speaker and the Senate leader may have to pass that into law now and get it off the ballot in November," Walsh said in an interview late last month. "So there's a certain calculation, get the most popular one off the ballot so that it's not a factor in voter turnout."

4. Several Democrats still said no.

Despite all that, there were still plenty of lawmakers who did not support the measures that passed this week. While Republicans offered unanimous support for all three of the proposals, dozens of Democrats in the House, and some in the Senate, still voted against the initiatives. The parental rights measure got the least pushback from Democrats, passing without a single "no" vote in the Senate. And in the House, just 15 members voted against it.

The income tax ban saw a few more members voting no in the Senate and the House, with a total of 32 representatives and senators ultimately deciding against I-2111. And finally, the police pursuit initiative saw 33 no votes from Democrats in the House and Senate. There was some debate over it on the House floor, but most of the time spent on the measure was from Republicans voicing their enthusiastic support for the initiative. [Copyright 2024 Northwest News Network]

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