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Friends and Neighbors,
The 2023 legislative session ended on Sunday, April 23. Like every legislative session, there were successes and disappointments. But what made this one unique is the unfinished business and failure to address our state's drug crisis. More on that later.
Let's start with the positive news. First, state lawmakers passed bipartisan transportation and capital budgets — two of the three state spending plans. These budgets will make important investments across our state, and it was great to see collaboration on their development. I voted for both of them.
The 2023-25 transportation budget will spend $13.5 billion, including $10 billion for WSDOT ($1.3 billion for Washingtonian State Ferries), $650 million for Washington State Patrol, and $431 million for the Department of Licensing. I'm pleased that most 20th District projects were kept on schedule, but concerned that one project has been delayed.
Our transportation system will continue to face challenges. This budget does not address all of them, but it does support critical policies and projects that will benefit communities across our state. While this is a biennial (two-year) budget, we will pass a supplemental transportation budget next year to make mid-course adjustments – and hopefully get our project back on schedule.
The 2023-35 capital budget, often called the state construction budget, will appropriate $8.98 billion and leave an estimated $95.4 million for next year's supplemental capital budget.
This plan will allocate funding to support K-12 school construction, housing, behavioral health facilities, infrastructure, and community grant programs. It includes several projects in or near the 20th District including:
- A portion of the $70 million appropriated for the Office of Chehalis Basin to administer floodplain risk reduction and habitat restoration projects in the Chehalis River Basin.
- $3.345 million for critical habitat in the South Sound.
- $3.05 million for a new emergency medical services and fire station in South Thurston County.
- $2.48 million for the Centralia Quad Infield Turf Project.
- $2 million for double culvert replacement in Castle Rock.
- $1.25 million for the SW Washington Agriculture Business Center in Tenino.
- $500,000 for Dig-Once coordinated projects on Reynolds Road/Harrison Avenue in Centralia.
- $500,000 for the Lewis County Senior Center in Chehalis.
- $482,000 for the restoration of Centralia Historic Fox Theater.
- $450,000 for the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreational Complex.
- $350,000 for the Scott Hill Park and Sports Complex of Woodland.
- $250,000 for athletic field lights at Ridgefield Outdoor Recreational Complex.
If you visit this website, select “20th Legislative District” in the “District” field, and click on “View Report,” you can find more details on the projects in the 20th District.
The final version of the 2023-25 operating budget was released on the next-to-last day of the legislative session, to be approved on the final day, and included 1,405 pages of detailed spending. We were briefed upon its release. If that seems like a bad process that lacks transparency, well … you're right.
This $69.77 billion budget was negotiated behind closed doors by the majority party and then provided to state lawmakers and the public with little time to read it. If you are interested in what this budget funds, there is a map called the Washington State Operating Budget universe that may be interesting and helpful.
I voted against this legislation because I remain concerned by the growth of state government. State spending has more than doubled in the last decade. Think about that for a second: Spending for the 2013-15 budget cycle was $33.88 billion, and for 2023-25 it will be $69.77 billion. Even with several new tax increases passed by the majority party during that time, is this type of spending sustainable? I don't think it is. And that worries me.
I'm especially concerned as we face economic uncertainty and the possibility of lower tax collections (revenue). This budget will increase state spending by $5.6 billion over current spending levels. Now is the time to be fiscally responsible and careful, so we don't have to make drastic cuts during the next economic downturn which most believe is inevitable and on the horizon. This is very concerning since this budget leaves a small ending fund balance of $105 million over the four-year outlook.
There was also no discussion of even modest tax relief, despite Washingtonians continuing to face high inflation, property taxes, and gas prices. I offered proposals to reduce the state sales tax and lower property taxes. Neither measure could even get a public hearing. If there's any good news, it's that the majority party abandoned their proposals to increase property taxes and increase real estate excise taxes. But, both of these bills will be back next year.
Opposition to new tolling for I-5 bridge replacement project
In the last week of the legislative session, I voted against legislation — Senate Bill 5765 — that opened the door for tolling on the I-5 bridge replacement project between Vancouver and Portland. It would allow for tolls to be set by mutual agreement between the two state Transportation Commissions, and a toll account would be created for toll revenues. You can watch my floor speeches in this video and read my news release here. I will have more to say about this issue in the future.
Two of my bills delivered to the governor
In past email updates, I've discussed House Bill 1491 and House Joint Memorial 4001. I'm happy to report both measures passed and were delivered to the governor.
House Bill 1491 will prohibit an employer from searching an employee's vehicle in the employer's parking areas. I delivered a floor speech, including the background on this idea, to express my support on March 2.
House Joint Memorial 4001 will request the Washington State Transportation Commission to commence proceedings to designate a section of State Route 411 in Cowlitz County as the “Cowlitz County Deputy Sheriff Justin DeRosier Memorial Highway.” I appreciate my colleagues support on this measure. To learn more about Justin's story, you can watch my floor speech from March 6 here.
Drug possession and treatment
Our state is experiencing a drug crisis. Too many people are in the grip of addiction and it is destroying lives and communities. So bad, that our state Department of Health has created an opioid and drug overdose dashboard. It is clear our state drug possession and treatment laws need reformed.
In February 2021, our state Supreme Court issued the Blake decision which basically said Washington's felony drug-possession statute was unconstitutional because it criminalized possession even when a person did not knowingly possess drugs. In the 2021 legislative session, I supported Senate Bill 5476 as a temporary fix that expires in July 2023. While better than doing nothing and well intentioned, unfortunately, it has not been effective.
Everyone knew this important issue needed to be addressed in the 2023 legislative session. A bipartisan bill emerged from the Senate on March 3 which included making the possession of controlled substances (illegal hard drugs) a gross misdemeanor. It also included options for pretrial diversion programs and drug possession charges being dropped. Senate Bill 5536, while not perfect, passed out of the Senate with a bipartisan vote. This version likely would have had bipartisan support in the House, as well.
House Democrats had other ideas and amended Senate Bill 5536, including lowering the possession of controlled substances to a misdemeanor. They passed this version off the House floor on April 11.
As expected, the Senate refused to concur in the House amendments. That resulted in the bill going to what's called a conference committee. In this process, a new, purely partisan version of the bill was created and advanced to the House floor on the last day of the legislative session. When it came up for a vote, it failed on a 43-55 vote — something you rarely see in the Legislature. The measure needed to pass the House before it could go to the Senate, where it likely didn't have the votes to pass either. Then, the 2023 legislative session ended.
I voted against Senate Bill 5536 on April 11 and on the last day. I want people to get help. And I understand how hard that process can be. But I don't think the two versions of the bill voted on by the House would help people recover. In fact, I think they would perpetuate problems. I also think local governments would have less control over their communities than now. I continue to support the gross misdemeanor penalty and believe the House should have passed the version sent over by the Senate. Had House leaders allowed that to happen, an effective bill would already be on the governor's desk.
This is a complicated issue, but that's no excuse for failure on an issue this important with a deadline for a permanent fix fast approaching. State lawmakers are elected to address complex issues and take difficult votes. Sadly, a special session now must be called to address this issue – which I expect to be called soon. I will update you as more develops on this issue.
I'm your state representative year-round
While the legislative session is over, please remember that I'm your state representative year-round. Please do not hesitate to email, call or send me a letter. I look forward to hearing from you.
408 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7990 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000