Dann Mead Smith
Editor’s note: This column was written in mid-February, so some of these bills might no longer be alive, or they may have been amended in committee. The 105-day legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on April 23.
The Whatcom Business Alliance is busy tracking and sending out action alerts on key bills that impact you and your business during this year’s legislative session. The following is a list of some of the ones you should know about and weigh in on by contacting your legislators in the 40th and 42nd districts.
Of all the issues the Washington Legislature is juggling this year, restoring the ability for police to pursue criminals in vehicles might be the highest-profile issue, given the media coverage highlighting how police cannot pursue criminals in our state due to what the majority of legislators passed in 2021. Senate Bill 5352 and House Bill 1363 would reauthorize police to engage in vehicular pursuits using the “reasonable suspicion” standard instead of probable cause. Nearly every police chief in Whatcom County has spoken about the need for this fix. The House bill, 1363, is sponsored by Rep. Alicia Rule, a Democrat from the 42nd district. As of this writing, HB 1363 passed out of its House committee of origin but as a new, substitute bill, which changed the language and intent quite a bit, so it is not as strong as the original bill. The WBA will continue to monitor its movement through the full House and hopefully in the Senate and send out ‘action alerts’ to keep its members updated.
Given how important agriculture is in Whatcom County, it would be good to support SB 5476/HB 1523, which would authorize agricultural employers to select 12 weeks a year to employ workers for up to 50 hours a week before overtime applies. This attempts to address some of the damage from the overtime laws recently passed by the Legislature that impact the agriculture sector, including the ability of workers to earn wages while working one job while allowing flexibility during harvest time.
The state’s new Long-Term Care Payroll Tax officially begins in July, when it will impact every W2 employee in the state. HB 1011 repeals the unpopular long-term care program, which is funded by a new payroll tax of 58 cents for every $100 a worker earns. State voters recommended the repeal of House Bill 1087 via Washington Advisory Vote 20, with nearly 63% voting no. And about 480,000 Washingtonians have opted out of the state’s new plan (and the tax) by purchasing their own private coverage.
Another top issue is addressing homelessness and its impacts on local businesses and neighborhoods. HB 1373 would fund the removal of illegal encampments near schools, childcare centers, parks and courthouses.
One key goal of this session is to build more homes across the state. HB 1401 would streamline the permit process by allowing cities and counties to create a simple, standardized housing permit process for affordable housing units in areas designated for housing. On the other hand, HB 1181 adds “climate change” as a specific element to the Growth Management Act and adds a goal of reducing vehicle miles driven, which would increase housing costs with yet another regulatory element. A similar proposal has been proposed in the Whatcom County Council, so it’s something to watch at both the legislative and local levels. When affordable housing is one of the biggest issues locally and across the state, we should be reducing unnecessary regulations to bring down housing costs.
Another bill related to the construction industry, especially small businesses, might end up increasing costs and add to workforce shortages if it passes. SB 5133 requires bidders to be listed as an “active training agent” on the Department of Labor and Industries website to meet responsible bidder criteria. This essentially requires all contractors looking to engage in public/government work to have a registered training agent, something many small contractors can’t afford. As a result, they won’t be able to participate in public work projects and would be considered “irresponsible bidders” by the state. The bill attempts to end on-the-job training opportunities, which is the most flexible option for contractors and should be embraced as an accessible workforce development tool. If this bill passes, it will further contribute to workforce shortages and increase construction costs to taxpayers, essentially preventing any non-union contractor from participating in public work projects.
Two other noteworthy bills could impact employers. First, HB 1106 would make it easier for individuals to gain unemployment benefits by expanding the standards for voluntarily leaving work. Employers in Whatcom County and across the state already are struggling to hire employees; we shouldn’t make it easier to be unemployed. Second, SB 5217 removes the restriction on the regulation of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (“ergonomics”), except for home offices. This increases the power of L&I to fine small businesses, even when the state doesn’t have any scientific consensus on musculoskeletal injuries. The bill is being proposed while workplace safety is improving, worker injuries are decreasing, and employers are struggling to come back from a pandemic and are in a recession. We should be making it easier rather than harder for our businesses.
Finally, here are three other bills that are worth keeping an eye on, though as of this writing it is difficult to determine whether they will be moving this year:
- SB 5482 would replace the state’s business and occupation tax with a margins tax. This is controversial, as proponents argue that this would be better than our state’s unpopular and unique B&O tax, which taxes gross profit; opponents say many businesses and industries will see higher taxes if we move to a margins tax.
- HB 1795 is one of two bills that have been introduced relating to our state’s estate/death tax. This bill would make the estate/death tax “more progressive.” Our state already has the highest death tax rate at 20%, and this bill would massively increase the top tax rate to 40%.
- HB 1484, the other estate/death tax bill,addresses who qualifies to pay the estate tax by restoring a working inflation index, as the number of people paying the tax is much higher than originally envisioned, since there is no functional death tax index for inflation. The bill also tries to correct for the fact that the state estate tax hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 2018 by increasing the 2023 exemption so that it would reflect the amount had inflation been calculated.
Now is not the time to be discouraged and feel like your voice does not matter. Your state legislators need to hear from you on these and other important issues. It’s a good time to ask them where they stand on all of these bills. You can access more information on these bills and contact your legislator via www.leg.wa.gov and www.future42.org.
Special thank you to former Sen. Simon Sefzik, who is now part of Project 42, and the research team at Washington Policy Center for their work, which was used and referenced in this column.