Legislature makes some progress in 2023, but public safety remains a top concern

No agreement on drugs could force special session

Note: The following e-newsletter was sent to Sen. Shelly Short’s subscribers April 28, 2023. To subscribe to Sen. Short’s e-newsletters, click here.

Scene in the Senate April 23 as the Legislature adjourned its 2023 session after 105 days in Olympia.

Dear friends and neighbors:

Our 2023 legislative session ended Sunday evening – but some of our biggest debates seem like they are just beginning. This year public safety was the Legislature’s top issue, yet we made only a half-step toward restoring the tools our police need to do their jobs. We weren’t able to reach agreement on drug policy, and we may wind up having to return for a special legislative session. And even though we avoided tax increases this year, I expect a renewed push for more taxes when we return to Olympia in 2024.

On the other hand, this year’s Legislature made some progress on housing issues, and bipartisan cooperation on the budget offered a bright spot. In this e-newsletter, I want to give you a quick recap of some of the major issues we faced this year.

As floor leader for the Senate Republican Caucus, I was in the thick of this year’s biggest debates.

Public safety issues take center stage in 2023 session

Major disagreements on guns and drugs, cooperation on housing and budget

Police pursuits – Sharp restrictions on police pursuits enacted by our Democratic colleagues two years ago provoked one of the biggest debates of 2023. In most cases, officers were forbidden from chasing suspects who flee the scene of a crime. This effort to bring a kinder, gentler approach to law enforcement resulted in a skyrocketing crime rate, with a 50 percent increase in stolen vehicles, and a tripling of criminal driveaways. We’ve even seen a few deaths, in cases where police were unable to stop car thieves and reckless drivers who went on to commit worse offenses.

Pressure was high this year to restore our old law, but urban lawmakers put up stiff resistance. Ultimately we passed a bill that restores pursuits for some violent crimes, but continues to block pursuits for non-violent offenses such as reckless driving and stolen vehicles. While this bill represented some progress, I voted against it because it didn’t go far enough. We will need to revisit this issue next year to prevent more needless tragedies.

Drug policy – The Legislature’s biggest misfire this year was its failure to pass a new law prohibiting the possession of hard drugs – and it could force us to return for a special session to clean up the mess. At a time when overdose deaths have reached epidemic proportions – 2,500 last year — this failure could leave the state with no law at all against the possession of heroin, fentanyl and other hard drugs.

Drug use exploded after our state Supreme Court overturned our old felony statutes in 2021 and our colleagues insisted on a stopgap measure that made possession a barely enforceable misdemeanor. Our current law expires June 30, and most of us returned to Olympia this year ready to recriminalize drugs. In the Senate, Republicans worked with moderate Democrats to pass Senate Bill 5536, a compassionate response that gives police and prosecutors a pathway to force addicts into treatment. But hard-liners among House Democrats insisted on a weaker approach that satisfied no one, and in an unusual vote on the session’s final day, the bill failed 55-43.

Our colleagues will need to find a way to reach compromise. Democrats hold the majorities in the state Legislature – an 18-vote advantage in the House and a nine-vote advantage in the Senate. This issue is a test of their leadership. Republicans, meanwhile, stand ready to support a law that is both compassionate and enforceable – and we hope our colleagues will be willing to consider one.

The budget – Here we saw some promising signs of inter-party cooperation, as Republicans worked with Democrats in the Senate on a $70 billion operating budget. Though our colleagues were in the driver’s seat, the budget bill was the most responsible we have seen in the last six years, staying even with inflation, leaving a reserve for downturns, and avoiding new taxes — at least for now.

Affordable housing – As a shortage of housing drives up prices statewide, lawmakers of both parties worked together on legislation to remove obstacles and reduce the burden of state regulation. I sponsored and passed two bills (SB 5374, SB 5457) to reduce state planning requirements on small cities. Other bills this year will streamline permit processes, increase high-density development, and make it easier for homeowners to develop accessory dwelling units. Unfortunately, other legislation enacted this year will increase development costs – including a bill requiring state and local land-use policies to be designed around climate change. Regulations imposed by government add $128,000 to the cost of typical new-home construction, and we will need to continue working to reverse this trend.

Second Amendment rights – All of us are appalled by incidents of violence, but an emotional response from our colleagues this year offers no help. Three bills passed this year go further than ever before in restricting the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. These new laws ban the sale of certain modern sporting rifles and other semi-automatics, require firearms purchasers to complete a state-approved gun-safety course, and allow the attorney general to sue manufacturers and dealers when firearms are used in crimes. Legal challenges were immediate when these bills were signed into law Tuesday. These simplistic and heavy-handed responses unfortunately will affect only law-abiding gun owners, and not those determined to commit violent acts. Effective solutions require us to confront mental and behavioral issues and our responsibility to intervene before tragedy occurs – a much harder task.

Local projects – This year’s capital budget provides nearly $9 billion for vital infrastructure across the state. In the 7th Legislative District, big-ticket items include funding for the Department of Natural Resources to relocate and consolidate aerial firefighting operations at the Omak Airport. Other projects included in the capital budget, to name a few, are the Airlift Northwest Hangar in East Wenatchee, housing in Colville and Grand Coulee, fire stations in Coconully and Elmer City, and library improvements in Republic and Pend Oreille and Stevens counties. The Legislature also increased funding for small-school-district construction projects, with appropriations for 33 projects in the 7th District alone.

Stay tuned for taxes — Though the Legislature didn’t pass any new taxes this year, it was really a momentary respite. Two big taxes approved in earlier sessions have already kicked in this year — the state’s new income tax on capital gains, and cap-and-trade policies that so far have increased the price of gasoline by about 35 to 50 cents a gallon. A new payroll tax for long-term care begins July 1. Tax proposals up for possible consideration next session include a wealth tax, an expansion of the income tax, an increase in the real estate excise tax and increases in state and local property taxes. Although we got a break this year, our colleagues’ fixation on unneeded taxes will continue to drive up the cost of living in Washington, deepen our shortage of affordable housing, and increase burdens on those who can least afford them.

Lt. Gov. Denny Heck brings down the final gavel in the Senate.

Thanks for reading — it is an honor serving you!

Sen. Shelly Short, 7th Legislative District




Contact me!

Telephone: (360) 786-7612

Email: Shelly.Short@leg.wa.gov

Mailing address: P.O. Box 40407/ Olympia, WA/ 98504

Website address: https://shellyshort.src.wastateleg.org/

Legislative Hotline: 1 (800) 562-6000