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WA lawmakers pass key policy deadline, head into final week of session

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There are just nine days left in the 2023 legislative session in Olympia.

That means time is winding down to get bills onto the governor's desk, and the clock is ticking on the big issue at hand this year: the passing of the next two-year budget.

KUOW's Olympia correspondent Jeanie Lindsay spoke with Morning Edition host Angela King to catch us up on the latest.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Angela King: This week was the deadline for when bills needed to pass out of their second chamber. Bills that were amended at that stage will go back to their chambers of origin for another vote. Some pretty major bills are in that position right now, correct?

Jeanie Lindsay: Right. The deadline was on Wednesday at 5 p.m. Now we are entering into a new phase of concurrence or conference committees. There have been some pretty substantial bills that have made it through their opposite chamber, including the big priority bills around drug possession and addiction treatment as well as several housing bills.

The missing middle housing bill, House Bill 1110, passed this week. That's the bill that legalizes the "plexes" — duplexes, fourplexes, depending on city size and how close they are to transit. And it legalizes those in areas that used to be for single-family homes only. That's a huge step to increase density boost housing supply, which lawmakers have talked all session long about being a really big priority to address access to housing and affordable housing.

The House also passed the so-called "Blake fix," [Senate Bill 5536]. But that debate is certainly not over. Initially, this bill would have made drug possession a gross misdemeanor, a step up from a simple misdemeanor. But the House scaled that back, leaving it at the simple [misdemeanor] level. Republicans are really unhappy with that and say that, without stronger legal penalties, it doesn't really fix anything. So, they're pushing the Democrats in the Senate to ramp up the legal penalties in the final version of that bill. So, it's likely going to face conference committees to be negotiated out. Still, there will be some version of this bill that makes it to the governor, because even though there's disagreement on the final outlook, there is agreement that something has to be passed this year.

You know, there's also some movement on major gun reform legislation. Gun safety advocates in the legislature have tried for years to pass a ban on assault-style firearms. It looks like this might be their year to get that done. So Jeanie, tell us where that bill stands, and why now. What is it about this attempt that's almost got this issue to the finish line?

There is a lot of energy around firearms regulations this session. The governor has called for them. The Democratic majority has the political will. The pressure from people who have been advocating for this has really ramped up, especially in light of the high-profile acts of gun violence that we've seen even this week. So, lawmakers have the votes to do it this year.

So, there's legislation to ban assault-style weapons, [House Bill 1240]. Lawmakers are also working on a bill that would require a 10-day waiting period and safety training for all gun-buyers; [that's House Bill 1143].

There are concerns from people who are opposed to these bills about their constitutionality, which is a very common argument. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court did strike down a New York concealed weapon law, so there is some concern about whether these changes will stand. But the governor is expected to sign them, and they are almost certainly going to be immediately challenged.

Let's move from gun safety legislation into law enforcement measures. We've been following a bill that deals with when police can engage in car chases with suspects. Their ability to do that was scaled back in 2021. But now, they might get a bit more discretion. This has been a complicated debate all session long. So, where did it land this week?

[Senate Bill 5352] was passed by the House this week. There is an attempt to sort of strike a balance between not completely rolling back the current law and addressing the concerns that have been brought by law enforcement and local communities. Some Republicans oppose the bill for not loosening the parameters enough, while some Democrats argue that the change isn't necessary — they want to see more data on what the impact has been of the 2021 law and point to police pursuits being dangerous, especially in urban areas.

Republicans are really pushing for the Senate Democrats to continue changing that bill because they don't like the House changes. So, it could be negotiated even more, because the Senate does have to handle that bill again. There's also the possibility that this doesn't make it to the governor's desk. But the governor has said he'll sign a bill on this issue if it makes it to him.

Washington state has been in the national news lately, too, regarding the abortion medication mifepristone. So, let's talk about what actions lawmakers have been taking on several abortion-related bills here.

I'll start off with the mifepristone bill here in Washington, [Senate Bill 5768]. The bill would allow the Washington Department of Corrections to sell, manage, and distribute the state's new stockpile of mifepristone. It's exempt from all these other policy cut-offs that we've talked about, because the bill has a price tag and lawmakers have deemed it necessary to implement the budget. So, they have up until the final day [of session] to work on and pass this bill, which they're going to do in order to have folks access this 30,000-pill, three-year stockpile.

Lawmakers have also approved a couple of other bills relating to protecting abortion access, including the state's so-called shield law, [House Bill 1469], that has passed both chambers and is headed to the governor's desk, if it's not there already. That bill will protect people providing or seeking abortions in Washington from out-of-state lawsuits, so courts and cops can't serve warrants or subpoenas, make arrests, or extradite people for charges related to abortion and gender-affirming care services. We're seeing a lot of states across the country and neighboring Idaho make efforts to prevent that from happening, especially for minors.

There was also a bill in the Washington legislature to protect health data on apps like period trackers and other health-tracking applications that people use on their phones. [House Bill 1155] will protect that information from being shared or sold by third-parties without someone's consent. There was another piece of legislation that passed to reduce costs for abortion. There's also another bill that would protect the licenses of people who provide abortions.

Talking with lawmakers, a lot of this is being spurred by efforts to make sure that people can still access these services, abortion and, in some cases, gender affirming care, without risking repercussions in states where they're being criminalized. Honestly, Angela, it's really a whole new post-Roe world that we're seeing take shape. Because remember, this is the first year after Roe was overturned last summer that legislators are coming back into session with a whole new landscape to navigate one way or the other.

Is there anything else you're keeping an eye on at this point? Is there any thing that's outstanding that could really affect the last week of the session, which is coming up next week?

Absolutely. Conference committees are going to be huge. We spoke with House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) yesterday, and [she says] some bills could die if they go to conference committee. Bills could also change in those committees as well. So, we'll have to see how some of these big pieces of policy take shape, including the Blake bill.

We've also sort of been on hold with the financial picture. Budgets are still out there, lingering about, and lawmakers need to decide in the next week whether or not they'll add some new taxes, how they're going to fund the state's next two years of construction, operations, and transportation. So, certainly still a lot going on. And we'll know how it all looks by Sunday, April 23.

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