More than 130 islanders attended a town hall event June 3 at the Methodist church to hear State Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle) and Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-West Seattle) discuss the accomplishments and setbacks of the latest legislative session.
It was a big year for health care and the environment, with bills passed that protect patients and address climate change, but both legislators said more work is needed to fix the state’s tax structure and to provide funding for education.
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-West Seattle), the House Environment & Energy committee chair, was planning to attend but was unable due to scheduling conflicts.
Cody, the House Health Care & Wellness committee chair, said that legislation she sponsored to end surprise medical billing was long overdue, coming six years after she first introduced it in the House. It was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in April, aiming to protect against charges for out-of-network healthcare services and providers. The bill will go into effect in August.
Cody’s support was also instrumental in passing a new “public option” insurance plan known as Cascade Care that will be offered through the state’s exchange. She said the state will contract with private carriers to offer plans with standardized benefits that set an average rate while lowering deductibles so “people will be able to buy insurance that they can actually use.”
The reduced costs to consumers are made possible by limiting Medicare reimbursements to doctors and hospitals to 160 percent of current Medicare rates.
Many in the audience cheered when Cody spoke about the elimination of personal exemptions for vaccines, and for raising the purchase age for tobacco products to 21. She added that a willingness in the House and Senate to search for treatments for behavioral health problems and opioid addiction gave her hope for further bipartisanship on other issues.
“People actually believe there could be recovery and resiliency, and that is such a change from 10 years ago, that people now actually accept that we need to be funding mental health and substance abuse disorders,” she said.
Cody added that she supports the formation of an island hospital district.
“I think you really need to do that because God knows we need to keep a clinic on the island,” she said, adding that legislators agree that rural health care in the state is inadequate. But Cody emphasized that continued operation of a clinic on the island will depend on islanders.
“That’s my message here — the local community needs to support [it] to have health care in your area,” she said.
Nguyen, a Senate Transportation committee member, said that a progressive majority had made it possible “to pass good legislation that really puts people first,” as well as increasing representation by people of color in the state Senate.
During his campaign last year, Nguyen called for reducing property and sales taxes on lower earners. He delivered on that promise in the Senate and was the primary sponsor on a bill establishing a new real estate excise tax (REET) that will reduce the sales tax on properties valued under $500,000 while raising it on property owners of multi-million dollar estates. The bill was signed by Gov. Inslee in May.
Nguyen said the money raised by the REET bill will be used to fund the state’s Education Legacy Trust Account.
“The goal was, how can we, in lieu of a state income tax, have a more progressive tax structure?” he said.
Hopes for a capital gains tax this year, Nguyen said, were dashed by a lack of conversation between the House and Senate. But he added that while more discussion is needed, there is now an appetite in both chambers to pass an income tax on high earners, potentially in the next session.
Nguyen was behind legislation passed last month that will vacate some misdemeanor marijuana convictions. He added that a bill he and other legislators sponsored this session — to restore voting rights for convicted felons — was another success, noting that equability and justice are principles he is passionate about as vice chair of the Senate Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee.
The two-year state budget passed in April increases the per-pupil amount by lifting the “levy-lid” for school districts with enrollments of more than 40,000 students, which only benefits the Seattle School District. On Vashon, which faces declining enrollment and shortfalls in special education funding, up to $800,000 in reductions may be needed for the 2019-2020 year.
Following the McCleary decision, legislators made a commitment to fully fund education by reserving additional money to support teacher salaries across Washington. To do that, they used median home values to calculate the amount to distribute to each community, ranging from 6 and 12 percent in some to 18 percent in others. But while many nearby districts receive as much as 18 percent for teacher salaries, Vashon only receives 12 percent.
A bill sponsored by Fitzgibbon and Cody to raise the percentage for Vashon didn’t get farther than the House, said Cody, and she was not optimistic that the situation would change for the better soon.
“The difficulty is, it’s not per-pupil paid by the state that is only for Seattle, it’s the fact that Seattle gets to use more of their levy,” she said.
Nguyen said that he believes the issue, called regionalization, heavily affects Vashon relative to other communities and that the problem needs to be addressed by lawmakers in Olympia.
For her part, Cody voted in favor of the Seattle levy lid, but noted that she is afraid of future legal action on the part of parents and educators stemming from differences between school districts in the state.
Fitzgibbon, in a phone conversation, expressed that the latest legislative session was successful because of the number of environmental protections passed. He said one bill that he was most proud to sponsor — HB 1112 — will discontinue the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in refrigeration products.
“They’re an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, about 10,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. We’ll be one of the first states to phase out that chemical and that will also cut down our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
Fitzgibbon said he was encouraged by legislation signed by Gov. Inslee last month that will electrify the state’s energy grid by 2030 and move Washington toward becoming 100 percent carbon-free by 2045. But he said he was disappointed that a bill he sponsored to implement a low-carbon fuel standard passed in the House only to die in the Senate Transportation Committee.
He blamed Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), the transportation committee chair, for protecting business interests that oppose fuel alternatives while focusing on increasing transportation revenue for building highways.
“We’re hoping we can figure out how to change minds between now and January,” he said.