The Capitol building in Olympia is marble colored and include pillars and a dome in the classic style.
The State Capitol in Olympia. (Stephen Fesler)

The Washington State Legislature’s 2021 session adjourned on April 25th with some big wins and some big whiffs. Republicans did jack all and were in lockstep against climate action, and it basically goes without saying they’re zeroes. But even within the Democratic Party, not everyone in the canoe was rowing in the same direction, so The Urbanist wanted to highlight some of the heroes and zeroes from this session.

First off, let’s go over the biggest happenings. Three things really stand out. The legislature passed a capital gains tax for the first time ever and put a price on carbon — two huge strides on progressive tax reform and climate action. The legislature also passed significant Growth Management Act (GMA) reform for the first time since the Act went into effect in the early 1990s; HB 1220 will make it easier to site affordable housing and encourage cities and counties to plan for housing abundance, as Futurewise recapped recently.

Hero #1: Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, Climate Whiz

Considering how many false starts carbon pricing has had in our state — with two failed statewide ballot measures and a handful of failed legislative pushes — the key Climate Commitment Act (CCA) architects Senator Reuven Carlyle (D, North Seattle) and Representative Joe Fitzgibbon (D, West Seattle) deserve recognition. And since Fitzgibbon was instrumental in passing the clean fuels standard and GMA reform, we will honor him as our number one hero.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon speaks at a West Seattle Transportation Coalition (WSTC) rally for transit back in 2014 when Metro faced recession cuts. (Courtesy of WSTC)

The Urbanist Election Committee has been a big fan of Fitzgibbon with glowing endorsements, and it’s rewarding to see a great campaign vision translate into action and huge legislative success. Rep. Fitzgibbon recently did a far-ranging interview on David Robert’s Volts podcast for those who’d like to hear how climate policy came to fruition in his own words.

Zero #1: Senator Steve Hobbs, The Highwayman

Inversely, all three of those strides were opposed or obstructed by our number one zero: Steve Hobbs (D, Lake Stevens), who voted against the capital gains tax, the clean fuels standard, GMA reform, and sought to undermine climate legislation by tying it to passage of a transportation package, which he fought to keep heavily focused on highway expansion and hostile to transit. Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs proceeded to fail to pass his transportation package for the third-straight year because his vision was too far from the progressives in his party, who prefer greater investment in transit and walkability like the House version offered.

Senator Hobbs, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, at a youth rally in 2016. (Washington State Democrats)
Zero number one: Senator Steve Hobbs is Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. He’s pictured here at a youth rally in 2016. (Washington State Democrats)

The Climate Commitment Act (CCA) priced carbon through a “Cap and Invest” strategy, and its path through the sausage-making process wasn’t always pretty, but it did ultimately succeed in getting the votes. David Roberts, formerly of Vox and now of the Dr. Volts newsletter, argued Washington has passed “the most comprehensive and ambitious carbon pricing system in the country.”

Cap and Invest Plan hinges on passing transportation package

“On the upside, once it is in effect, the CCA is authorized to stay in effect until its emission goals are reached,” Roberts wrote. “This is a really big deal: there won’t be a big legislative fight over reauthorization like there was in California in 2017, which weakened that state’s program. There is no sunset or time limit on the CCA. It stays in place until the state is net-zero. A declining cap is now the status quo, and it’s always more difficult to pass a new bill to change the status quo than it is to keep it in place.”

The CCA is designed to meet the state’s carbon targets, which were updated last year, calling for 45% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, 70% by 2040, and 95%/net-zero by 2050. “Keep in mind: this is not just the electricity sector,” Roberts wrote. “It’s electricity and transportation and oil and gas and more — somewhere between 75% and 80% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Only California has comparable economy-wide aspirations, but Washington’s rate of reductions will need to be much more rapid than California’s to reach its targets. In terms of the sheer pace of change to which a state has committed, Washington has taken the lead.”

We published a CCA op-ed from Andrew Grant Houston that argued that the math didn’t add up and that frontline communities would bear the brunt of carbon pollution allowances. Roberts addressed those lines of attack saying that CCA marries a carbon cap with industrial regulations and investments to protect marginalized communities, including a robust air quality monitoring system. It might not be perfect, but it’s as good as any policy passed in the country at tackling the frontline communities problem, he contended, and better than the WA STRONG carbon tax bill presented as an alternative, which would have exempted “energy-intensive trade-exposed entities” — or to put in a less jargon-heavy way, export-heavy businesses like Boeing.

Roberts also acknowledged that tying the CCA to passage of a transportation package is a downside, even if the answer he ultimately landed on is it’s an acceptable price to pay. The toll could be lowered if the state legislature succeeds in wrestling the package far away from Hobbs’ backwards vision and toward greater investment in transit, walking, rolling and biking. A transportation package should be a climate package in a state where transportation is by far our number one source of emissions. Why take two steps forward and one back, when we can take three steps forward?

And if carbon pricing drives up the cost of driving, wouldn’t it be more equitable and progressive to provide high quality alternatives to driving rather than shiny new freeways that most Washingtonians won’t be able to afford to use? Presently switching to an electric car typically halves the carbon footprint compared to an equivalent conventional car, but doesn’t eliminate it, which is a really big deal when the goal is net-zero by 2050. Climate action plans at the state, county, and city level call for lowering vehicle miles traveled. So why are we adding highway capacity?

Roberts argued maybe the transportation package won’t be so bad. But that’s far from clear and projects he portrayed as having broad consensus like the $5 billion I-5 Columbia Crossing project really don’t, a point The Urbanist article he cited tried to make. The Columbia Crossing (now rebranded the Interstate Bridge Replacement) is a freeway widening project disguised as a simple bridge replacement greenwashed with hypothetical light rail that hasn’t been fleshed out into an actionable plan. Still, a bad transportation package for a good climate package could be a tradeoff worth making in the long run. But it’s still not an optimal outcome, and more than anyone Senator Hobbs is to blame for the bad tradeoff. Incidentally, Hobbs is up for reelection in 2022 in the 44th District.

Hero #2: Davina Duerr, Growth Manager

The Urbanist endorsed Futurewise’s Washington Can’t Wait campaign and luckily House Bill 1220 survived the daunting gauntlet for land use bills in this state. The bill reforms the GMA to ensure better comprehensive plans that actually address housing needs, as Futurewise detailed in their recent Wonkabout Washington release. Representative Davina Duerr (D, Bothell) authored HB 1099 adding a climate change element to the GMA as well. That bill passed the House but died in the Senate transportation committee, again implicating head zero Senator Hobbs.

1st District Rep. Davina Duerr in chambers before the pandemic. (Photo by Washington State Democrats)

Facing this Senate obstruction, Rep. Duerr and Rep. Fitzgibbon persevered and deftly executed Plan B: an end around to add HB 1099 provisions via a budget proviso. “[A] proviso was approved in the Final Operating Budget that will fund the Department of Commerce to start the work on setting up the programs needed to implement the GMA climate change element that HB 1099 creates,” Futurewise wrote, in effect keeping the reforms on schedule to affect the Major Updates to Comprehensive Plans due in 2024, updates which happen but once a decade.

Zero #2: Gerry Pollet, Get Off My Lawn

Pro-growth lawmakers have long hoped to pass a minimum density bill promoting upzones and progressive land use changes at the state level, but those dreams routinely dash into the reality of a state largely run for and by single-family homeowners who prefer to keep things the way it is. This session, a bill loosening restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in urban areas statewide nearly made it through the logjam, but got gutted near the finish line. According to reporting from Publicola‘s Leo Brine, Representative Gerry Pollet (D, North Seattle) was instrumental in torpedoing the good aspects of the bill, evoking the scapegoat of Airbnbifcation (which California data shows is a red herring since only 8% of new ADUs were listed as short-term rentals) and delaying implementation of the bill.

Rep. Gerry Pollet has represented the 46th District since being appointed by the King County Council in late 2011. (Photo courtesy of Pollet campaign)

The gutted bill is so different from the original intent that several organizations backing the bill asked Governor Inslee to veto it. Sightline Institute argued the bill actually represented a step backward on liberalizing ADU rules. The irony here is that the City of Seattle already passed ambitious ADU reform which shows Rep. Pollet’s meddling won’t even affect most of his constituents since they already benefit from the liberalized ADU rules. Could he be intervening to protect his Lake Forest Park and Kenmore constituents? Perhaps he had missed that Kenmore liberalized their ADU rules in 2020, too. He’s behind the times and out of step with his district, which hurts at a time when leadership to address the housing crisis is sorely needed. Pollet also butted his head into the 35th Avenue NE bike lane debacle, again on the side of obstructionists who didn’t want their neighborhood to change.

No statewide provision for ADUs in cities isn’t the end of the world, but the fact that Rep. Pollet is so opposed to even backyard cottages and basement apartments goes to show how far he is from lending a hand to strike down apartment bans writ large and bring affordable housing to leafy single-family home enclaves, which our leaders should absolutely be prepared to do. Especially if they claim to represent Seattle and the 46th District.

Hero #3: Jesse Johnson, Police Reformer

Another area of major policy movement was police reform. While several promising police accountability bills died, two important ones survived to passage. Representative Jesse Johnson (D, Federal Way) authored a police tactics bill that should reduce harm from overzealous militarized policing. “Rep. Jesse Johnson’s police tactics bill bans chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and shooting at moving cars,” The Stranger‘s Rich Smith wrote. “The legislation also creates a workgroup to determine whether cops should sic dogs on people, limits the kinds of stuff departments can get from the military, puts politicians on the hook for tear gas use, and places restrictions on initiating car chases. Most of those restrictions were stronger in earlier versions, but Republicans pitched fits.”

Rep. Jesse Johnson at the Capitol pre-pandemic. (Credit: Washington House Democrats)

The other important police accountability bill to pass was SB 5051. Authored by Senator Jamie Pedersen, the bill sets up more state oversight of police hiring and misconduct and creates a database that makes it harder for bad cops to jump from department to department and easier to decertify them. “That bill essentially sets up the enforcement and transparency mechanisms for those new laws regarding police misconduct,” Smith noted. “It overhauls and expands the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, a group of Governor-appointed cops, lawyers, and civilians that will now have the ability to proactively investigate officer misconduct and decertify cops in the state.” With leaders like Rep. Johnson rallying behind the issue, SB 5051 breezed through the House with only a few Democrat defections, mostly swing-seat Democrats, and passed comfortably. Johnson was appointed to his District 30 seat in early 2020 and won a decisive victory in November.

Zero #3: Kevin Van De Wege, Immoderate Moderation

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Senator Kevin Van De Wege (D, Sequim), who signed on to a bill with Senate Republicans that sought to further criminalize protest. Van De Wege also voted against some of the landmark progressive bills like the capital gains tax, the CCA, and HB 1099, the climate element of GMA reform. Despite decisive Democrat majorities in both chambers, Van De Wege seemed to spend more time conspiring with Republicans and the moderate caucus to obstruct rather than using majorities for good.

A photo of Senator Van De Wege from the 2016 legislative session. (Credit: Washington Senate Democrats)

Hero #4: T’wina Nobles, People’s Champion

Senator T’wina Nobles (D, Fircrest) was a breath of fresh air this session. After a few key bills came passed 25-24, Nobles was the decisive vote, showing her win against Republican Steve O’Ban from the 28th District seat he occupied far too long was pivotal. Nobles also passed two bills as a first-year legislator including a foster care reform bill defining a role for school districts (SB 5184) and mental health sentencing reform (SB 5293) that will encourage mental health treatment instead of long jail sentences.

Picture of T'wina Nobles
T’wina Nobles prevailed in November 2020 by a 1.4 point margin. (Photo courtesy of Nobles campaign)

These bills flew under the radar but represent an important step forward for breaking cycles of poverty and protected people like Nobles herself who grew up in the foster care system and lived through homelessness because the system wasn’t responsive to her needs.

Zero #4: Annette Cleveland, Freeway Friend

Senator Annette Cleveland (D, Vancouver) is another reason the Senate has been a place that progressive legislation goes to die. Luckily, the addition of Senator Nobles helped the body outvote their moderate Democrat anchors on some major progressive bill this year. Nonetheless, Cleveland was able to wreak some havoc, ensuring the transportation package remains a highway expansion laden mess — for now. Representing the 49th District where the I-5 Columbia Crossing project intends to invest billions in freeway expansion, she has been steadfast for the project and shown little leadership in making the project focused on transit rather than enabling sprawl.

Senator Annette Cleveland first won election in 2012 to represent the 49th District. (Credit: Washington Senate Democrats)

Hero #5: Noel Frame, Progressive Tax Reformer

After shepherding the capital gains tax through, Rep. Noel Frame of Seattle’s 36th District also deserves hero recognition. Unfortunately, the tax was cut in half as it navigated the legislative hurdles to passage, and it’s expected to face an appeal that could reach the Washington Supreme Court. The appeal could present an opportunity to overturn Washington state’s very unfortunate legal classification of income as property — nearly every other state has defined the two separately, which allows for progressive income taxation.

Noel Frame at a Stand with Women rally
Noel Frame at a Stand for Women rally. (Photo courtesy of State Democrats)

Rep. Frame has led the Tax Structure Work Group aiming to advance progressive tax reform, a concept to which nearly every Democrat pays lip service but few actually take on the burden of legislating into existence. A favorable Washington Supreme Court ruling could open the door to Frame and company doing a full progressive tax reform overhaul. That Frame is willing to take on this daunting work is a huge credit to her.

Zero #5: Mark Mullet, Corporate Caddy

Reelected by the narrowest of margins in the 5th District, Senator Mark Mullet proceeded to mostly do what he’s always done: side with Republicans and against progressives on key issues. He voted against the capital gains tax, obstructed HB 1099, and has been a big agitator for highway expansion in his district.

Mark Mullet narrowly held onto his 5th District seat by a razor-thin margin against progressive challenger Ingrid Anderson in 2020. Mullet won by 58 votes. (Photo courtesy of campaigns and Crosscut)

Honorable mentions

Plenty of other legislators were doing great work beyond our five heroes. Among them are Representative Nicole Macri (D, Seattle) and Senator Patty Kuderer (D, Bellevue) who led on tenant protections. Kuderer authored the right to counsel law which should help tenants stave off the eviction wave likely when the Governor Jay Inslee lifts the eviction moratorium, which could be as soon as July 1st. Rep. Macri, meanwhile, passed a bill closing a loophole in tenancy laws that allows landlords to evict tenants without cause at the end of a fixed term lease, which adds to her already impressive resume representing the 43rd District well. Rep. Macri also led the charge on HB 1220 along with Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds).

Senator Joe Ngyuen (D, Seattle) has also consistently agitated for progressive change and whipped votes for key bills. Likewise, Senator Rebecca Saldaña (D, Seattle) fought for a better senate transportation package with her Evergreen Plan counterproposal (which Hobbs proceeded to bury). She also authored and passed the HEAL Act, which seeks to enshrine environmental justice principles in state government.

Senators Reuven Carlyle and Jamie Pedersen showed up pretty big on progressive pushes this session, despite cultivating somewhat more moderate reputations in the past. Perhaps next year being an election year for both of them inspired more progressive energy. Nonetheless, we’ll take it; Carlyle’s leadership getting the CCA through the Senate is impressive. He’d likely be a hero, if he hadn’t also been working on a “data privacy” bill that shielded corporations from liability for breaking those privacy laws. That bill nearly snuck through after Carlyle apparently tried to horse trade it for votes on $150 million in supportive housing via document recording fee bill, which luckily passed anyway.

Honorable mention to Representative Timm Ormsby (D, Spokane) for authoring that supportive housing funding bill and actually treating homelessness like a crisis and helping local jurisdictions with resources.

Dishonorable mentions

Senators Steve Conway (D, Tacoma) and Jesse Salomon (D, Shoreline) voted against HB 1220 despite the incredible need for affordable housing in their districts and the admirable efforts of our readers and other advocates to stuff their inboxes. It’s hard to understand what they were thinking.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.