Policing, Taxes, and Redistricting: Legislative Session with Melissa Santos
Release Date: 03/04/2021
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The Friday Week in Review show will be back next week, as we enjoy the long weekend. We are airing a show with Melissa Santos talking about her excellent reporting on Washington's Brady List.info_outline
Melissa Santos joins Crystal this week to get in to policing legislation and its potential outcomes, whether or not we’ll see a wealth tax come to fruition in Washington this year, and the appointment of accused rapist Joe Fain to the redistricting commission.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Read about how the Washington legislature is seeking to deal with police use of excessive force here: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/washington-legislature-takes-up-excessive-force-by-law-enforcement/
See what’s policing bills are still before the legislature here: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/washington-state-lawmakers-pass-bills-to-ban-police-use-of-chokeholds-and-neck-restraints-collect-use-of-force-data/
Learn about the flawed investigation into the killing of Manuel Ellis of Tacoma by the police here: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/times-watchdog/contradictions-conflicts-of-interest-cloud-probe-of-manuel-ellis-killing-by-tacoma-police/
Get to know about how police officers are de-certificed here: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/times-watchdog/fired-but-still-a-cop-how-the-state-decertification-process-leaves-troubled-officers-with-their-guns/
Follow Washington’s potential plans to tax the wealthy of our state (with today’s guest, Melissa Santos) here: https://crosscut.com/politics/2021/02/tracking-plans-tax-rich-2021-washington-legislature
Read about Washington State’s regressive tax system here: https://www.kuow.org/stories/why-washington-ranks-as-the-worst-state-for-poor-residents
Learn about the objections to Joe Fain’s appointment to the redistricting commission here: https://crosscut.com/politics/2021/02/groups-denounce-selection-joe-fain-redistricting-commission
Follow everything going on in the legislature, learn about how to contact your legislature, and watch and participate in committee hearings at https://leg.wa.gov/
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Thank you for joining us today on Hacks and Wonks. Today I'm very pleased to be joined by Melissa Santos who's Crosscut's staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature. Thank you so much for joining us today, Melissa.
Melissa Santos: [00:01:05] Thanks for having me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:06] Well, you have definitely been covering lots of events in the Legislature, so I guess just starting off, I wanted to get an idea for where the public safety and policing reform bills stand. Lots of fanfare going in - talking about a number of reforms that they were talking about implementing, the need to move forward on demands that community were making and to keep communities safe in function and not just name - with a lot of ideas that turned into a lot of bills. And so what is currently still alive in the Legislature in terms of public safety and policing reform and where do they stand?
Melissa Santos: [00:01:51] I think most of the bills, in some fashion, that were introduced early this year to deal with sort of different police reforms are still alive, in some fashion. They always change in the process, but we saw the state Senate pass out a bill to try and reform arbitration as a process by which sometimes discipline that's imposed on cops gets overturned through this arbitration process after they're either suspended or fired. And there's been concerns that that makes it hard to actually discipline cops effectively. So there's some reforms moving forward to deal with that. I think the Governor and some of the advocates' insistence that there needs to be an independent investigatory body to investigate police uses of force - I would be shocked if the Legislature didn't pass something to do that and create that independent agency. So that's moving ahead.
We also, I think it was just today - this week, we saw a bill that would create a more clear duty for cops to intervene when they see wrongdoing or misconduct. That's moving as well. And some of the bills that I thought might be more difficult actually have cleared some of the early deadlines to stay alive. One of those is a bill dealing with qualified immunity that would create a way for people to sue at the state level when they feel their rights have been violated - in a way that people feel they have not been able to do federally because of how the law is structured at this time.
So we're seeing a lot of stuff to do there. And I think the biggest bill that probably people are focused on are some of the ones to limit what police can do. I mean - tactics kind of bills that would set limits on what kind of holds they can use, what kind of circumstances they can use police dogs on people. And so those are things that are kind of really changing, I think, and kind of being modified over time. But that there's definitely, I think, going to be some new restrictions on police tactics passed. It's just what shape they will take it's still kind of being decided.
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:05] So yeah, you bring up a good point. It depends on what shape they will take and any modifications, amendments - which happen through this process. Legislation can change, things can be added or taken out. So from what it looks like, does it look like the policy is going to make it through as intended? Are there changes being talked about or being made to pieces of legislation? Or does it look like they're going to be able to deliver on the original intent of the bills as originally written?
Melissa Santos: [00:04:44] I feel like we're still a little bit early in the session to say for sure, but I definitely think there's some concern that the tactics bill, in particular, might be getting watered down. I need to take a little closer look at some of those concerns, but that one was a really wide-ranging bill, right? I mean, it had limits on the use of military equipment, the use on, maybe that was a different bill. There's a lot of police bills - but the whole idea was making it so they're less militaristic. A lot of sort of limits on that - banning certain neck restraints and such. And I think the fear is that they might end up with a bill that just says we won't use choke holds anymore or something. And that that's not going to be substantive enough.
And I don't know that, right now - I talked to the ACLU of Washington, who's working on some of those bills now and they still feel - they were telling me that they're fairly substantive. I'm not sure they're going to tell me they think they're terrible right now or something if they're working to kind of keep them whole, but it's just something that - we're not even halfway through the session at this point, so there's just a lot of opportunity for those bills to change. And I think that's something people are watching really closely. I'm not sure how they'll ultimately end up and if they'll stay the way advocates and the community members hoped they would be. It's still kind of to be determined, in my view, at this point.
Crystal Fincher: [00:06:08] And you bring up a really good point - we are still fairly early in the session. But there's this weird dynamic that a lot of people who are tuning in, for the first time for a lot of people, to the day-to-day happenings of the Legislature - because so much more is online and you can engage with committees online, is hearing the big rush of deadlines that recently passed and are passing for bills to get out of committee, for bills to get heard, for bills to pass deadlines to move forward, which do happen fairly early in session. So I guess what happens - we're very early and stuff makes it past cutoff - between cutoff and then we still have another month or two of session, what occurs during that time? Is that all the horse trading and the modifications and figuring that out?
Melissa Santos: [00:07:03] Yeah. I mean, I think that that's one reason on these bills they've just been ... House Democrats and Democrats right now - they do control everything in Olympia. So, I mean, they've really indicated that these are priority bills - to really enact new police accountability measures, right? And it's always a point of tension because police unions, in general, don't like further regulation. They don't want their arbitration rights to be taken away, right? So there's a lot of pushback, and I think there's a lot of internal discussions that go on at these times that aren't even happening in the public arena. But we've seen this before - on police reform a couple of years ago. Some of the bills to - let me remember - to basically make it easier to charge police for abusive force, what was Initiative 940. That was sent to the Legislature, for them to review, and it looked like maybe nothing was going to happen. And at the end, this compromise measure comes through, that everyone says is great.
And so I just think that even if bills look like they're dead - they didn't clear a committee deadline - I'm not comfortable writing a story that says, "Oh yeah, this bill, it's gone this year." Because I just think that there's all these conversations happening, especially after we saw last year, where I think that - I wouldn't be surprised if some of these proposals get merged as some giant bill at the end of the year, the end of the legislative session I should say. That is even different than what we're seeing now.
Crystal Fincher: [00:08:49] Yeah. That's fair and definitely possible, and we've seen that happen before. In terms of support and opposition, I think a lot of people anticipated, Hey, there's a Democratic majority. If Democrats talk about wanting to do it on the front end leading into the session and introduce bills, then it should automatically be able to happen. Have we been seeing unified Democratic support, or are there some legislators who have on the Democratic side been more resistant? And on the flip side, are there any Republican legislators who have been more receptive?
Melissa Santos: [00:09:27] I do think there has been, on police reform, some at least surface agreement. You've been seeing from the Republican side saying, "Yeah, we need to do stuff." I think that the Manny Ellis case in Tacoma, where the independent investigation wasn't really turning out to be so independent and that kind of blowing up as a huge problem in the past year - I think that has indicated to people across parties that there's an issue with actually even enforcing the laws we have on the books on right now, like to have independent investigations, which was something that was approved by voters with 940.
So I do think - I'll have to look at the votes on some of these - but yeah I think there'll be Republican votes for some of these bills, so I don't think it will be a strict party line thing. But yeah, I mean, you have a lot of, in general, I'm going to speak generally, because I haven't looked at the vote count on every bill that closely, but you definitely have Democrats who are conscious of maintaining police support and are worried about public safety and people in their communities saying - there is a sense that we can't dismantle the police too much among some people in certain communities, especially some suburban communities. That's something people are worried about - that some of their constituents will not like that. And even in some of those same communities there's maybe people that are feeling the opposite. So I think that there's pressure to not defund the police. There is no measure to defund the police that the Legislature is considering right now, I should clarify, but I think some of this is getting grouped in there a little bit. I mean, these are kind of pretty straightforward bills that would not take funding away from the police. The State can't even really do that too much because it's all locally, for the most part, funded.
But, actually, the bill I didn't mention that I think is one of the more significant ones would make this decertification process that our state has right now actually, theoretically, I guess, work. Because right now - I was just talking to someone today who's a police chief who said that he doesn't feel like if he checks a box saying, "I think this person needs to be looked at for decertification." He doesn't feel like he has any guarantee that that will happen, even if he thinks it's important for it to happen as an individual police chief who fired this person. So that's kind of an issue that we have where cops sometimes do bounce between departments, even if they are let go from one department or maybe allowed to retire in lieu of being fired or something like that.
And right now, that's the whole idea, is that if you have a process by which you can say, "Okay, you are no longer certified to work as a police officer in Washington State." That could kind of end that ability to go between departments. But I mean, it's all in the details about what's the standard by which, the universal standard by which, hey, this person no longer will have a certification anymore. And I think that that gets really complicated when dealing with unions, because I mean, there certainly are a lot of things - there's a lot of reasons why unions generally started a long time ago to try and protect workers' rights. But I think there's that conflict within the labor community right now about how police unions fit into that entire picture.
And so that's a whole thing that I think is really going to mess with it - is actually the fear that messing with police unions is going to lead to some dismantling of union protections more broadly. And I think that's a huge issue right now for some Democrats who think that that's - the concern, for instance, with the arbitration proposals. If you make it harder for police to review their discipline through arbitration, are we saying it's okay for other unions to no longer have the power to review and have objection to some disciplinary measures opposed against teachers, against other people, and all sorts of things.
So that's going to be a kind of more complex one, politically complex, in that respect, I think. And yeah, that's why it's not just like a Democratic rubber stamp on any proposal that has emerged at this point.
Crystal Fincher: [00:14:21] Certainly. I would agree with that. I appreciate your clarification and care to which you took to point out that there is no bill to defund the police. Legislation can be very complex and there's so much that goes into it, that the details become really important. And certainly with a number of these bills, frankly, the police and unions and their interests have become very good at just using tiny little details and technicalities to really remove the teeth from a lot of bills or to make things so subjective and conditional that they actually don't apply to many situations that were originally targeted with the bill.
You're listening to Hacks and Wonks with your host Crystal Fincher on KVRU 105.7 FM.
And for people's information - you can actually just go onto leg.wa.gov, and you can see all of the documents from hearings. You can look at videos from hearings to see what people are saying, or just read a bill digest, which gives you a synopsis of the bill. You can see who testifies in favor of and in opposition to bills - sometimes that's very illuminating. And then you can also see vote tallies on how they're voting - which legislators are voting in favor of legislation moving out of committee or on further, versus those voting against. So that can give you a lot of useful information about what your legislators are doing and what different organizations throughout the community are doing and what they're actually advocating for.
I also wanted to talk about revenue proposals and there certainly are a lot on the table. What is still in play and where do those stand?
Melissa Santos: [00:16:23] It's funny, I was having this conversation with someone yesterday where - I just don't think any of these deadlines matter for any tax bill at all.
Crystal Fincher: [00:16:32] Yeah.
Melissa Santos: [00:16:32] Because basically, every single year, there's new revenue tax measures that emerge when the legislators release their budget proposals. And then there's sometimes new ones that pop up once they reach a budget agreement at the very end of the session where you're like, "Well, what's that? I don't even know what that is." So what I ended up doing, just because that ends up being what usually happens, is I'm trying to keep track of all of them in one story that I just update throughout the session at this point.
So at this point, everything's alive, I should say. I do think that the idea of taxing capital gains, which has been around in our state for a while - this would be profits from selling stocks, bonds, and some other assets, possibly commercial real estate, but there's some differences in different proposals. That proposal - I think it has more potential to actually pass this year than it ever has had before. And that's kind of a big one that the Governor has proposed, a capital gains tax. The Senate budget committee actually passed out a capital gains tax last week, or very recently. And it's usually the Senate where this measure, I can't say it goes to die, because the House doesn't actually vote on it in general. But generally the perception is the House has the support to pass this measure to tax capital gains, but the Senate has not in the past, even with a slim Democratic majority. There seems to be some thought that has changed with just even having one or two fewer moderate Democratic senators who were reticent about the proposal. So we're going to have to see if they actually are going to take that vote, but there seems to be more of a consensus that, Yeah, taxing people who have huge sales of stocks that nets them a large profit - that's something we might be willing to do this year.
And so that's one of the ones that's in play. There's a new thing that the House Finance Committee Chairwoman Noel Frame proposed, which is a wealth tax, and that's interesting proposal. It would just be a flat 1% tax, but then everyone who has under a billion dollars is exempt from it.
Crystal Fincher: [00:18:47] And that was billion with a B.
Melissa Santos: [00:18:50] Yeah. A billion with a B. So that doesn't apply to that many people. I think the State Department of Revenue estimates less than 100 taxpayers would pay that, yet it would raise like $2 billion a year, which is a lot. The state budget is probably going to be $55-56 billion this year, so two billion a year is not an insignificant amount of money. Yeah. But the issue with that, and actually really kind of with the capital gains proposal too, is they don't think they would be able to collect that money - sorry, they do not think they would be able to connect that .. I'm really having trouble speaking, okay.
Crystal Fincher: [00:19:26] You're fine.
Melissa Santos: [00:19:28] With a wealth tax or a capital gains tax, there's not going to be an immediate you can collect this money and spend it on stuff. I mean, it takes a while to even build up money from tax collections anyway. But there will be lawsuits over these proposals if they passed - particularly the wealth tax, I think. There would be arguments - that is an income tax that is against our state constitution. Actually, they would happen for capital gains tax too. So that's always lurking in the background that - are these taxes even legal? The Republicans argue they are not. So those are there. Those are happening and are actively being considered.
There's actually - one of the proposals I suspect might just like pop up at the very end of the session, because I know it's being worked on but it hasn't been introduced, is a payroll tax that's similar to what Seattle passed, I guess it would be last year. Time is very strange lately.
Crystal Fincher: [00:20:25] Yes.
Melissa Santos: [00:20:25] But I guess that would have been 2020. And this is again trying to tax people or companies really that have a lot of people who make a lot of money, that employ people and where they pay pretty high salaries. So it's a business tax. It is not something that aims to target actual employee income but saying, "For every person you pay over $150,000", I think that's the current thought at least for the threshold, "We're going to charge you a certain percentage on their salary." And that is something that there are lawmakers working on. There's always these discussions behind the scenes, but there hasn't been a bill introduced.
And so that's something they're talking about. There's some estate tax proposals to kind of make that more progressive as well. And I haven't heard as much buzz about those, but it's one of those things that it's possible they could do something like that. Where saying, "Hey, when people die and pass on their big, big, big amounts of money, we're going to say, 'Okay, we're not even going to apply the tax to people who have smaller estates, but we're going to raise the tax on people who have really big one.'" That sort of thing. So yeah, those are some of the ones that are in play right now. I'm a 100% confident there will be different tax proposals though, that are introduced, soon.
Crystal Fincher: [00:21:40] Well, we'll certainly have to follow that. There's a feeling that we were already paying more than our fair share as people who are not billionaires. We are known for being one of the most regressive states in terms of a tax burden, meaning that people at the bottom are paying the highest percentage in terms of taxes of a variety of types. And we don't have an income tax in the state, but we certainly have a variety of sales and use taxes and other taxes and that's even before we get to the fees conversation. And that all adds up to more than what most income taxes would be for moderate income individuals anyway. And certainly on the very high end, they're just reaping these benefits without paying back into the public coffers.
I wanted to also touch on a hearing that happened actually this past Sunday of the Redistricting Commission. And this was not a normal hearing, and the composition of this Redistricting Commission isn't as it's been before. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Melissa Santos: [00:22:50] Yeah. Well, we have a redistricting process in Washington State that - a lot of people say that compared to some states, ours is pretty good. I mean, this is the body that is assigned to redraw boundaries of all the Congressional districts, all the legislative districts. So that actually really matters. I do not explain this to you, Crystal. I'm probably explaining it to the listeners, because Crystal knows way more about this than I do, but it really matters for - who can get elected where, who's represented in what areas, which communities are kind of split down the middle so that maybe their ability to be represented or influence their lawmakers is diluted. So that that's all kind of at play with this commission.
So we do have a bi-partisan redistricting commission, which is, I think most scholars think that's preferable to having just the party who controls the legislature being able to decide everything, redraw the boundaries to make their party have an advantage. But it still has partisan politics in play, right? So anyway, each of the political caucuses of the legislature appoint someone. So two Republicans, two Democrats. In this case one of the people appointed was a former state Senator named Joe Fain, who represented the 47th Legislative District until, through the end of 2018. He's from Auburn, but it also, it includes part of-
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:16] Maple Valley, Covington.
Melissa Santos: [00:24:17] Thank you.
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:18] Yeah.
Melissa Santos: [00:24:19] And actually, it's one of those districts, I think kind of splits communities down the middle in some ways.
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:23] It is.
Melissa Santos: [00:24:25] So it's a kind of a strange district. Well, he got appointed, but the thing about Joe Fain is he lost his race two years ago shortly after being accused of rape. And so that was a bit of a controversial appointment for the Senate Republicans to make of their former colleague. And that we heard about that on Sunday. This is maybe the third or fourth meeting of this redistricting commission. Yeah, I think it's the third one, because this was just kind of finalized - the membership in mid-January. And so there was a letter written in the last few days, I guess, so a week ago now. So maybe two weeks before your listeners will hear this saying, "This was inappropriate." This was the National Women's Political Caucus saying, "This person should not have been appointed. Someone who had a rape accusation that was never disproven, was never really fully investigated, should not be serving on this important commission that decides so much of our political future for a decade."
And there were a lot of groups that signed onto that as well. There were some groups representing sexual assault advocacy groups. There were individuals who signed on in their personal capacity as well. And this was the first commission meeting since that letter came out. So we did hear from several people who expressed their disappointment that the commission includes someone who was accused of rape and sort of that accusation still lingers because it never was investigated. And there was actually an effort to investigate it in the State Senate that then was dismantled and got shut down. So it just kind of sitting out there and that was something people expressed disappointment with. I think everyone who spoke, maybe there were - might have been a dozen people, maybe a little fewer, so not some huge, huge crowd, but it's a Sunday morning at 9:00 AM. But all of them except one mentioned this - this was the topic of conversation. The people who commented from the community about the commission, that "We think this sends a terrible message to sexual assault survivors that their experiences do not matter to have a person accused of rape on this commission."
And so that's going to be interesting, I suppose. The thing that has become clear is you really can't do anything once you appoint someone to a commission, like the redistricting commission. I don't think there's any power of anyone to actually take someone off unless they resign. I'm not sure if there's anything written, is what I've been hearing, that there's anything that can be done at this point, unless someone decides, "Hey, I'm going to step down." And there's no indication Joe Fain intends to do that at this point.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:58] And disappointing and confounding - and certainly the Republican response has ranged from - this was solely a political attack, and not a credible accusation, which flies in the face of what I think most people and what the general consensus is - is that that absolutely was a credible accusation and deserved to be investigated, certainly, and the facts determined. And the fact that it just went away and then Joe Fain was appointed, hired as the head of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, which we could talk about a variety of reasons for why that happened. But then pops up as the choice of the Republican Party statewide, for just one of two spots. Out of everyone they could have chosen, this is the direction they chose to go - was really disappointing and infuriating to a lot of people. But it certainly also seems like Joe Fain is almost hiding from the public and he has been hesitant to appear on camera, has been hesitant to fully participate in these meetings, has been hard to schedule and them finding time to come together. So even now, the productivity of the commission is being called into question. So we'll just continue to keep an eye on it.
So with that, I think we are actually at the time today. Thank you so much for joining us, and thank you to everyone listening to Hacks and Wonks today. So again, appreciate our guest Melissa Santos who's Crosscut's staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature. You can find her on Twitter @MelissaSantos1, and she just does excellent work. You can read her on Crosscut, certainly helps to stay on top of what's happening in the Legislature and across the state. So thank you and have a wonderful day.
Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts, just type in "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.