OLYMPIA, Wash.—A capital gains tax on the state’s billionaires. A “cap and trade” tax on global-warming gases. Legislation to curb police murder of African Americans and other people of color. A ban on “open carry” of firearms at street demonstrations and on the state’s capitol grounds. These are only a few of the landmark bills pushed through the Washington State Legislature in its 105-day session that ended April 25.
The legislature met in ZOOM meetings due to the pandemic. Yet grassroots mobilization for COVID-19 relief, tax fairness, Black Lives Matter, against armed vigilantism, and action against global climate change won victories not seen in decades in Olympia.
Tax the rich
Washington State has the most regressive tax system in the nation—worse than Mississippi—dependent almost entirely on a “soak the poor” 8.5% sales tax. A ballot initiative to impose a progressive, graduated state income tax several years ago failed. Bills in the legislature to raise taxes on the wealthy likewise failed.
But the legislature this year approved and Gov. Jay Inslee signed a 7% capital gains tax on all income above $250,000 annually. When it goes into effect in 2023, the new tax will generate an estimated $445 million in revenues. The tax will be levied on a handful of wealthy taxpayers, especially the 100 billionaires in Washington State like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Rob McKenna, former Washington Attorney General, a Republican, filed a lawsuit against the bill on May 20 charging that the capital gains tax is a disguised income tax outlawed under the Washington State Constitution. Eric Pickens, an elementary classroom teacher and president of the Port Angeles local of the Washington Education Association, said, “As a teacher, most of the families I work with are struggling to buy food or pay the rent…. It is not right that these families pay more in taxes than the wealthiest in our community.”
Rebuilding after the pandemic
Based on federal COVID-19 relief, the legislature approved $2.2 billion to combat the economic fallout from the pandemic. It includes $714 million for K-12 schools, $618 million for public health including vaccinations, $365 million for rental and utility assistance, $240 million for small businesses, $50 million for child care, $26 million for food banks, and $91 million for income assistance, of which $65 million will be income assistance for immigrants.
Native American tribes have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 but also played a crucial role in organizing the mass vaccination effort in Washington State. Clallam County, for example, was rated first in the state in the delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations thanks to the leadership of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Lower Elwha Klallam, Makah, and other tribes. The legislature approved Senate Bill 5101 to increase from 18 to 20 the seats on the state’s Emergency Management Council, those seats reserved for Native American tribal members, to advise the governor in emergencies like COVID-19.
Washington became the second state after California to enact a “cap and trade” law to reduce carbon emissions when the legislature approved Inslee’s Climate Commitment Act, a measure to reduce global warming gases. The bill requires the state to impose a “cap” on greenhouse gas emissions that steadily lowers over time.
It also creates a market for businesses to buy and trade pollution allowances that become increasingly expensive. Some environmental groups oppose “cap and trade” since it actually legalizes pollution, even if it creates an incentive to reduce those emissions.
Cutting gun violence
A year ago, on June 3, 500 people, mostly youth, stood in a peaceful vigil in downtown Sequim to protest the murder of African American, George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Many mothers brought their children to this Black Lives Matter protest. But armed gun vigilantes instigated by a local gun store owner descended on the vigil.
The gun merchant demanded of the organizer, “Where is Antifa?” Many of the demonstrators fled with their children. But the BLM organizer, Courtney Thomas, told the vigilantes, “You are here to intimidate us. We are not intimidated.” The gunmen slunk off but continued to demand that the BLM vigilers show their identification.
That same day, armed gunmen terrorized a multiracial family from Spokane who were in the town of Forks on a camping trip. Clallam County Sheriff Deputies escorted the family out of the county for their own safety. About the same time, armed vigilantes invaded the capitol grounds in Olympia.
Brian Grad organized a group to keep these kinds of behaviors in the spotlight, Anti-Vigilante Action, Training, and Research (AVATAR). The group urged legislation to protect the First Amendment right of peaceful assembly. The legislature responded by enacting legislation outlawing the open carry of firearms on state capitol grounds and within 250 feet of a permitted street protest.
Grad told People’s World the new law is a victory, a defense of the democratic right to demonstrate. Yet he warned that the Republicans are hell-bent on ramming through legislation across the nation to strip millions of people of their right to vote. “In Germany, they called it a ‘putsch,’ a bloodless coup. They want to bring back Trump or whoever else they want as dictator of our country.”
The legislature also enacted a number of measures to make police departments more accountable including the creation of a standing commission excluding anyone connected to law enforcement to investigate any police killing and report their findings to the governor and the legislature.