In the 105-day legislative session that ended April 28, Washington lawmakers delivered major reforms for working people, including progressive tax reform, a first-in-the-nation long-term-care social insurance program, and a mandate to create good union jobs transitioning to 100 percent clean energy by 2045. The breakthroughs came thanks in part to Democrats’ 57-41 majority in the Washington House and 27-21 majority in the Washington Senate.
- Tax mansions more than starter homes SB 5998 makes Washington taxes a little less unequal by replacing the state’s flat 1.28% tax on home sales with a graduated tax instead: The real estate sales tax rate will drop to 1.1 percent for regular people’s homes (up to $500,000 sale price), then rise in stages until it reaches 3 percent for homes over $3 million. Incredibly, even though four-fifths of home sales will now be taxed at a lower rate, the tax increase on purchases of high-end properties by the well-to-do will result in a net increase of about $150 million a year to state coffers.
- Bankers can afford to pay HB 2167 doubles the business-and-occupation tax to 1.2 percent for large financial institutions that have annual profits of at least $1 billion.
- Tuition-free higher education HB 2158 makes those who benefit the most from higher education contribute to make it affordable for the next generation. It raises the business and occupation tax by 20 percent on architecture, engineering, legal, insurance, financial, medical, telecom, and software firms, and uses the proceeds to make state college tuition free for families making up to $50,000 a year, and provide a state-sponsored student loan program for middle-class students above that. It also increases salaries for community college faculty who teach high-demand classes.
- Public-option health insurance SB 5526 creates a public health insurance option known as Cascade Care that will compete with private insurers on the state’s health Obamacare individual insurance exchange. The state will hire insurance companies to set up the individual health insurance plans at different coverage levels, with coverage starting in 2021. A rate cap will limit the amount Cascade Care pays health care providers to 160 percent of the rate set in federal Medicare plans.
- First-in-the-nation longterm care insurance HB 1087 sets up a long-term care benefit program. Beginning in 2025, the program will provide individuals up to $36,500 to pay for services like in-home care, assisted living, nursing home and respite care. The benefit will be paid for by a 0.58 percent employee-paid payroll tax that starts in 2022. That works out to about $24 a month for a worker making $50,000 a year. Workers become eligible for the benefit once they’ve contributed for five years.
- Hospital worker rest and meal breaks HB 1155 requires Washington hospitals to provide uninterrupted meal and rest breaks to nurses and medical technicians. If a rest break is interrupted because of an emergency, the worker must be given another 10-minute break. Unions have been trying to pass this for 10 years. This year, the issue went viral nationally when Washington Republican Maureen Walsh spoke against it in the senate floor, saying nurses “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” More than 770,000 people signed an online petition calling on Walsh to walk alongside a nurse for a 12-hour shift.
- Crack down on noncompete agreements Employers have increasingly been requiring workers to sign pledges agreeing not to go to work for competitors. SB 5478 prohibits such “non-compete agreements” for workers making less than $100,000, bars their use in cases where an employee is laid off, limits them in all cases to no more than 18 months, and prohibits franchise chains from restricting franchisees from hiring other franchisees’ employees.
- Protect hotel housekeepers and other solo workers from sexual assault SB 5258 aims to prevent sexual harassment and assault of hotel, retail, behavioral health, and custodial employees who work alone. It requires their employers to adopt sexual harassment policies, conduct sexual harassment training, and provide panic buttons to enable solo workers to call for help.
- Refinery safety HB 1817 requires petroleum refineries to use a skilled and trained workforce: All workers must be either registered apprentices or skilled journeypersons. And workers at high-hazard facilities must be given advanced safety training by Jan. 1, 2022.
- Transition to clean energy SB 5116, backed by the Washington State Labor Council, requires Washington electric utilities to phase out coal by 2025 and use 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Tax incentives to speed that along are tied to labor standards like prevailing wage, apprenticeship utilization, and preferred hire for women and minority-owned workers and contractors; higher rebates are available for developers that sign project labor agreements or community workforce agreements.
- Infrastructure spending Lawmakers approved a two-year, $4.9 billion capital construction budget and a $10 billion transportation budget. Capital expenditures include $1.04 billion for K–12 school construction; $175 million for affordable housing projects; and $95 million for sewer, drinking water, solid waste, street, and storm water projects.
- Legalize affirmative action Citizen initiative I-1000, unanimously endorsed at the Washington State Labor Council’s COPE Convention, effectively overturns I-200, a ban on affirmative action in state contracting, education and hiring that voters passed in 1998. Under I-1000, the state will now be allowed to use affirmative action policies to address discrimination or underrepresentation so long as those policies don’t rely on quotas or constitute preferential treatment. However, I-1000 opponents say they will gather signatures on a referendum to put the issue on the November 2019 ballot.
- More notice in cases of eviction Washington lawmakers changed the Residential-Landlord Tenant Act to require that landlords give 14 days notice prior to eviction. The current requirement is three days.
Better luck next time?
Not all union-backed bills made it to the finish line. Here are some that didn’t pass the Washington Legislature this year
- Universal health care SB 5822 would have created a work group — with representatives from labor leaders knowledgeable about Taft-Hartley health trusts — to make recommendations for a system of publicly funded, privately delivered health care for all Washington state residents. The bill passed in the state senate, but died in a house committee.
- Capital gains tax House Democrats proposed a 9.9 percent “extraordinary profits” tax on the sale of stocks and bonds when profits are over $200,000, but couldn’t find enough support for it.
- Fair scheduling Modeled after an ordinance recently approved in Seattle, HB 1491 would have required large fast-food, coffee, restaurant and retail chains to provide workers advance notice of schedules and give part-time workers access to additional hours. The proposal got hearings, but didn’t pass this time.
- Crackdown on worker misclassification Employees who are wrongly classified as independent contractors can be cheated out of minimum wage protections, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation coverage if they are injured at work. SB 5513 would have created one clear test to determine who is truly an independent contractor so that the rules are the same for the minimum wage, prevailing wage, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance, which currently use differing tests to answer the question.
- Contractor accountability HB 1521 would have adopted performance metrics and accountability measures for all public contracts.
- Safer railroad staffing Past rail disasters involving trains hauling hazardous materials would have been prevented had more than one worker been assigned to the train. HB 1841 would have ended single-member crews for hazardous material trains. It passed the House, 72-24, but failed to get a Senate vote.