The state Capitol Building in Olympia. FILE PHOTO

The state Capitol Building in Olympia. FILE PHOTO

Legislature OKs initiatives on police pursuits, income tax, parental rights

Few restrictions on police pursuits; income tax prohibited; parental rights clarified

  • Wire Service
  • Tuesday, March 5, 2024 4:32pm
  • Northwest

By Laurel Demkovich, Grace Deng, Jerry Cornfield and Bill Lucia / Washington State Standard

Three citizen initiatives designed to lift restrictions on police vehicle pursuits, prohibit income taxes and establish a “bill of rights” for parents of K-12 students are set to become law in Washington after winning approval in the state House and Senate on Monday, March 4.

The initiatives do not require the governor’s signature. They will take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends — so in early June, if lawmakers wrap up their work for the year as expected on Thursday, March 7.

Passage of three initiatives in one day is historic in Olympia. State lawmakers have only enacted citizen initiatives about a half-dozen times in the past 110 years, according to the secretary of state’s office. Only once — in 1995, when two were approved — did the Legislature approve more than one of these initiatives in a single year.

The group Let’s Go Washington, with financial support from investor Brian Heywood, gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures for six initiatives sent to the Legislature this year.

Democrats, who hold majorities in both the House and Senate, agreed to advance three of the measures to floor votes. The three other initiatives — to repeal the state’s capital gains tax, scrap the Climate Commitment Act and its carbon market, and make it easier for workers to opt out of Washington’s new long-term care insurance program — are headed to voters this fall.

Approval of the three initiatives marks a win for Republicans in the Legislature, who generally support all six of the measures and fought to get them hearings and floor votes. For Democrats, it has the advantage of halving the number of measures that will go before voters this November, which should enable the party and its allies to concentrate on defending their priority policies that the other three measures target.

Income tax

Initiative 2111 would prohibit Washington state and its local governments from imposing taxes on personal income.

In the Senate, 38 lawmakers voted for the initiative and 11 — all Democrats — voted against it. In the House, it passed 76-21.

“This initiative is designed to do one thing, which is to codify in law the state’s longstanding tradition of not having a tax based on personal income,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair June Robinson, D-Everett, said.

The proposal will not change any current laws. Washington does not have an income tax, and there are no serious proposals in the Legislature to impose one.

The state Supreme Court has long ruled that a statewide graduated income tax in Washington is unconstitutional. On 10 occasions since 1934, Washington voters have shot down ballot measures that could have allowed the state to adopt personal or corporate income taxes, according to the secretary of state.

Supporters argue that people in Washington have long said they do not want an income tax, and the Legislature should honor that and put it in state law.

“This is an advantage that our state has over our neighbors and over other states,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who authored all six of the initiatives in play this year.

But opponents of the tax initiative said an income tax could be a tool to help make Washington’s tax code less regressive, where the tax burden is heavier for lower earners.

Rep. Chipalo Street, D-Seattle, said Washington needs to be working to make its tax code more balanced.

“We could do better,” Street said. “We should consider all methods of doing so.”

Parental rights

Initiative 2081, or the “parents’ bill of rights,” would require public school materials, such as textbooks, curriculum and a child’s medical records, to be easily available for review by parents. It would also allow parents to opt their child out of assignments and other activities involving questions about the student’s sexual experiences or their family’s religious beliefs.

It passed unanimously through the state Senate.

Many of the rights outlined in the initiative are already in state or federal law.

“This initiative seeks to clarify all these rights and inform parents in clear and straightforward terms what they can expect to know,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island.

Democrats emphasized the parents’ bill of rights doesn’t change any protections for marginalized groups, an acknowledgment that the parental rights movement often aims to ban discussion of LGBTQ+ topics and issues related to race.

Republicans said the initiative was about ensuring parents don’t feel left out of their child’s education and would help build trust between schools and parents.

“This initiative does not marginalize the students. It does not. What it is doing is re-asserting the value of the parents,” said Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane.

However, one Republican, Rep. Travis Couture, of Allyn, said Washingtonians requested the initiative because of stories like one teacher in Olympia trying to “convince a little girl that she was actually a different gender than what she wants,” echoing some conservative groups’ testimony during committee hearings.

The House passed the initiative 82-15, with only Democrats opposed. Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, echoed educators and LGBTQ+ groups who told lawmakers they were glad to hear the initiative would not impact existing law but said the language was confusing and could cause alarm among marginalized youth.

“I am worried about the message this sends in particular to our LGBTQ+ youth,” Macri said.

Police pursuits

Initiative 2113 would give police in Washington more leeway to pursue suspected criminals by erasing restrictions on when they can undertake vehicle pursuits.

The Legislature put limits in place in 2021 as part of a suite of policing changes passed in response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other high-profile police killings — reforms aimed at reducing the potential for violence and death in police responses.

Today, an officer can initiate a chase if they have reasonable suspicion that a person in a vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense, a sex offense, domestic violence-related offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol or trying to escape arrest.

Under the initiative, an officer will be able to engage in a pursuit if they have reasonable suspicion a person has violated the law.

Civic and law enforcement leaders, and Republican lawmakers, say the constraints on chases have emboldened criminals and contributed to an increase in crime. Police accountability advocates say changes in state law have led to a decline in high-speed pursuits and fewer bystanders being injured or killed.

The Senate passed the measure 36-13 with only Democrats opposed.

“We can take a major step right here, right now to protect public safety, to protect our citizens,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “It’s not going to solve all the problems but it will go a long way to make law enforcement better able to do their jobs. The effective date of this couldn’t come soon enough.”

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said relaxing the restrictions will have deadly consequences.

“An expired tab, a broken taillight, loud music — any infraction whatsoever could allow law enforcement to engage in a high-speed chase,” she said. “In states where those restrictions have been loosened, what we’ve seen is fatalities have soared.”

In the House, floor speeches spanned an hour before the measure passed 77-20.

“The facts are the people of Washington state are less safe since the body passed this policy,” said Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic. “The facts are that the body passed a policy that hurt the people of Washington state.”

Democrats who opposed the measure said bystanders and officers would be among those injured or killed. And they cited statistics showing that across the country Black individuals are more likely than whites to be killed in pursuits.

“I don’t believe this will solve the problem that it seeks to and I believe it will do more harm than good,” said Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, who voted against the initiative.

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy.

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