Back in the Majority, Senate Democrats moving fast to pass backlogged bills

Now in the ruling majority, state Democrats are racing to pass legislation that failed to pass the state Senate during last year’s legislative session.

Since 2012, Republicans held a majority in the Senate after two Democratic senators opted to caucus with the Republicans. Now, with Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Kirkland elected last November, control of the Senate flipped, giving the Democrats a ruling majority.

The ruling party gets to appoint their caucus members to chair Senate committees. These positions have discretion over whether legislation can get a hearing in a committee before it is even voted on — giving chairs significant power. Additionally, the ruling party gets to stack committees with their members, giving them majority votes in committees.

As such, Senate Democrats are eager to push legislation that never made it through Republican-controlled committees over the past five years, such as a pay equity bill, a ban on gay conversion therapy, gun regulation and legislation to expand voting rights.

“Our objective is to have a package of bills that have been bottled up by Republican committee chairs moved through the Senate and to the House so the governor is signing a bunch of bills by the end of the month,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, the newly appointed chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Pedersen said the Senate will be conducting floor votes on a slew of bills starting next week.

Identical equal pay bills, which are designed to address the gender-wage gap and gender-based promotion discrimination, have been introduced in both chambers by Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, and Sen. Anette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.

The bills would amend Washington’s Equal Pay Act — a law that hasn’t been updated since 1943 — to prohibit gender-based wage and promotion discrimination, and to formally allow employees to discuss their wages with one another. Additionally, the bill would mandate penalties for employers who are found guilty of violating the statute and require them to compensate impacted employees with back pay.

Last year, the House version passed but ultimately died in the Committee on Labor and Commerce, which was then controlled by Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

“This is something that should have been done years ago,” said Rep. Senn,  who sponsored the bill.  “Now, with the Democrats in control, I’m confident that we’ll get it out of committee.”

The bill was voted out of the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee on Jan. 9, and is expected to pass the House next week.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he thinks his caucus will largely support the bill if it is amended to accommodate the concerns of business interests, which, for example, want to see a local preemption clause added to ease the regulatory load on employers.

“I could see overwhelming support if we perfect it,” he said.

Another bill introduced by Senate Democrats over the past few years that has routinely failed to move forward is the Voting Rights Act, a bill that allows lawsuits against local governments whose electoral voting districts diffuse the voting power of minority groups. The legislation never made it out of the then-Committee on State Government.

Notably, a House version of the bill has been passed five times since it was first introduced in 2012, but never made it to a vote on the Senate floor.

Sen. Schoesler said that while he hasn’t “tested the pulse” of his caucus on the legislation yet, he thinks Senate Republicans will take issue with some elements of the bill that identify “alternative voting systems” as good methods to ensure proportional representation.

“I was told that there are alternate voting methods (in the bill) that are not conducive to our county auditors running efficient elections,” he said, adding the bill could also use some tweaking.

The bill passed 3-1 out of committee on Friday, Jan. 12.

Another high-profile bill is SB 5722, which bans gay conversion therapy — a controversial method that claims to change a person’s sexual orientation. Like some of the Democrats’ other priority bills, it was introduced last year but never made it to a floor vote; it got a hearing on Jan. 11 and is expected to pass out of committee.

Senate Democrats also aim to pass gun regulation legislation that didn’t pass last year, including bills that hold gun owners liable who fail to secure their guns in homes where children are present and enhance background checks and licensure for assault weapons and high capacity magazines. The latter will get a hearing Monday morning. However, these bills might face more difficulty on the floor, according to Sen. Schoesler.

“I’ve never seen strong support for gun control in my caucus; that’s safe to assume,” he said.

Sen. Pedersen agrees: “In a closely divided Legislature there are a few people who are in the middle both in our caucus and in the Republican caucus on these issues.” Still, he said, “the bills, in all likelihood, have the votes to come out of committee without any problem.”

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, agreed that the votes on gun regulation will be close

“We have narrow majorities, so we’ll have to do vote counts to see what can pass,” he said.

Guns aside, both Senators Pedersen and Billing predicted that many of the backlogged bills are likely going to pass with upwards of 30 senators voting in support.

“They’re going to go out with big majorities,” Sen. Pedersen said.

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