Legislative session produces wins on poverty, justice but setbacks on life issues

  • Written by Janet Cleaveland
  • Published in Local
Photo by Janis Olson Photo by Janis Olson

OLYMPIA – In this year’s short and frenzied state legislative session, Washington’s bishops never eased up, battling the abortion mandate for all health care plans issued in the state and advocating to repeal the death penalty.

They testified before committees. They met with the governor, lieutenant governor and legislators. And through the Washington State Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the state’s bishops, they encouraged Catholics to let their opinions be known.

“On issues of poverty and restorative justice, we did pretty well,” said Joe Sprague, WSCC executive director. Lawmakers passed measures on affordable housing for the poor, assistance to the homeless, and relief for those convicted of a crime but saddled with insurmountable debt (see box).

But they were disappointed that the insurance mandate, which passed March 3, didn’t include language that would provide protection for people who object to built-in abortion coverage, Sprague said. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill, but the bishops sent him a March 5 letter urging him to veto the measure:

“By mandating abortion coverage in state insurance plans, this legislation represents an assault on a foundational teaching of our faith: the inherent dignity of every human person from the moment of conception until natural death,” the bishops wrote. “This principle leads us to reject policies that promote abortion, and it is the same principle that compels us to care for the poor and vulnerable in our communities and to oppose the death penalty.”

A related bill, signed into law, requires employers to provide contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans that include maternity coverage.

“It was a difficult session, especially with regard to protecting innocent human life,” said Republican Sen. Mike Padden, a Catholic from Spokane Valley. “We are in a sad state when the government can force someone to pay for the killing of innocent life. It’s all the more important to get conscience protection” in bills, he said.

More controversial bills than usual

This session marked the first time in five years that Democrats had control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, which allowed Democrats to pursue certain pieces of their agenda differently than in the past, Sprague told Sacred Heart Radio in February.

In previous years, measures like the abortion mandate have passed the House but ultimately stalled when the Senate was controlled by Republicans. Now a razor-thin edge gave Senate Democrats the ability to work at a frenzied pace, Sprague said in the interview.

And this year, more than 1,400 bills were introduced, an unusually high number for a 60-day “short” session (sessions are 105 days in odd-numbered years to provide time for hammering out the biennial budget).

“Normally, we have about three or four controversial bills, emotionally heated ones,” said Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way. “This year there were so many — about 15: climate change, gay rights, gender rights, guns, the death penalty,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many controversial bills in my 18 years.”

At one point, the WSCC was tracking 67 bills, including repeal of the death penalty, a measure strongly supported by the bishops. The bill made it through the Senate and a House committee, but never made it to the House floor for a vote.

“I thought it had momentum in the House,” Miloscia said. “[House] Speaker Frank Chopp was cautious on a lot of issues and did a lot of controversial issues in a short session,” Miloscia said. “At the end of the day, they decided not to try to pass it in House.”

This year, as in past sessions, Miloscia and Padden sponsored a bill requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions. That bill died in committee.

Catholics should ‘push for what’s right and good’

Now it’s campaign season, with all House representatives and half the state’s senators up for reelection. It’s a time for Catholics to learn more about those who are seeking their votes, Sprague said.

“We do have an opportunity as Catholics to engage current legislators and candidates on the campaign trail,” he said, “first to thank them because they are interested in serving the public, but then to ask their position on life issues, religious liberty and serving the poor.”

Looking toward next year’s legislative session, the WSCC will meet with stakeholders, asking them for ideas in developing policy and shaping plans.

“We want to be a little more on the ‘front foot,’ a little more proactive in pursuing policy issues,” Sprague said.

And the WSCC will continue keeping Catholics informed through its advocacy network, sending updates on the first Friday of each month. During the session, the WSCC sent weekly updates and its network grew by 25 percent, Sprague said.

Miloscia said he hopes Catholics will continue the momentum and get more involved in public policy.

“I really worry about what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “I see a scary new world. Catholics need to organize and push for what’s right and good.”


By the numbers: WSCC at work in 2018 legislative session

6 times Washington bishops testified before legislative committees

13 meetings of bishops with the governor, lieutenant governor or legislators

67 bills tracked by WSCC at the peak of the session

112 meetings with legislators or staff on Catholic Advocacy Day

267 participants in Catholic Advocacy Day

2,145 messages sent to legislators from the Catholic Advocacy Network that were triggered by WSCC action alerts

Source: Washington State Catholic Conference


WSCC priority bills

Bills that passed and are awaiting the governor’s signature:

  • Document recording fee: Makes permanent a document recording fee that supports homeless programs and increases it from $40 to $90.
  • Rental discrimination: Prohibits landlords from discriminating against applicants or tenants based on source of income, especially people who rely on some form of public assistance.
  • Court-imposed repayment: Makes changes in court-ordered debt obligations to help those trying to get back on their feet after serving their sentences. Provisions include eliminating interest on most of the debt and limiting sanctions for those who can’t pay.

Other bills:

  • Housing Trust Fund: Funding of $106 million to help finance affordable housing around the state, including seven projects being developed by Catholic Housing Services and Catholic Charities in the state’s three dioceses. Status: Passed the Legislature in January.
  • School safety: Creates a statewide standard for first responders to notify all schools, public or private, whenever an evacuation or lockdown is ordered at a nearby school. Status: Passed the Senate but stalled in the House Judiciary Committee; however, it was added to the 2018 supplemental budget, so it will be in effect for a year.