Episode I: Assessing Our 2021 State Legislative Sessions

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Episode I: Assessing Our 2021 State Legislative Sessions

Summary: Joan McCarter of Daily Kos, Kari Chisholm of Mandate Media, and Crystal Fincher of Fincher Consulting joined NPI’s Caya Berndt to discuss what’s been happening in our region’s statehouses on a host of issues, from pandemic recovery to climate justice to police accountability.

Release Date: June 21st, 2021
Recorded: June 6th, 2021


Caya Berndt: Hello and welcome to the inaugural episode of PNWcurrents, a new in-depth podcast from the Northwest Progressive Institute that brings together thinkers from Washington, Oregon and Idaho to discuss issues for advancing progressive causes across our region and beyond. I’m your host, Caya Berndt, and thank you very much for joining us. At the Northwest Progressive Institute, we believe that good legislation and good policy don’t pass by accident. Worthy ideas — from increasing the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour, to Medicare for All, to wider availability of rooftop solar, need sound strategies if they are to become a reality. At NPI, we believe research is the key to identifying winning strategies, while advocacy is the key to implementing them. That’s why we’re engaged in both. You can learn more about our insightful research, imaginative advocacy and our history by visiting nwprogressive.org. Again, that is nwprogressive.org. I will give you information again at the end of this podcast.

So our topic for this inaugural episode is the Pacific Northwest’s legislatures. Unlike Congress, which meets year round and makes laws for the entire country, our region’s three state legislatures are only in session seasonally. With Washington and Idaho’s 2021 sessions recently having concluded, and Oregon’s session entering its final weeks, it’s a good time to discuss what’s been happening in our statehouses. Joining me today to assess the legislative landscape are Joan McCarter from Idaho, Kari Chisholm from Oregon, and Crystal Fincher from Washington. Welcome to all three of you.

Joan McCarter: It’s good to be here.

Caya Berndt: Wonderful. It’s wonderful to have you as well. So, before we dive into our discussion, let’s do our introductions so our listeners can get a sense of the expertise and experience on this distinguished panel. Joan, would you be so kind as to kick us off?

Joan McCarter: I am Joan McCarter. I write for Daily Kos, usually about national stuff. But I’ve lived in Washington and Oregon and was born in Idaho, live here now. So I sort of have all states covered.

Caya Berndt: All right, wonderful. Kari, over to you.

Kari Chisholm: Hi, I’m Kari Chisholm. I’m in Portland, Oregon. I am a political consultant here. I work for campaigns and candidates all over the country, but of course based in Oregon, got a lot of clients here in Oregon. For many, many years I was the publisher and editor at BlueOregon, which is still online, but pretty morbid these days.

Caya Berndt: That brings us to Crystal.

Crystal Fincher: Yes, I’m Crystal Fincher, I’m the founder and principal of Fincher Consulting, a full service political consulting firm. We handle candidates and campaigns up and down the West Coast, and just really enjoy building and assembling power within underrepresented communities and leveraging that to really bring transformational change.

Caya Berndt: Alright! And I am Caya, your host. I’m a member of the Northwest Progressive Institute as well as a student at Central Washington University. I’ve done radio in the past, I’m really eager to kind of move over into podcasting. Let’s get started. Let’s begin with a recap of what happened this winter and spring. Crystal, can you summarize the highs and lows of the 2021 Washington State legislative session for our listeners?

Crystal Fincher: Well, there’s a lot that happened… but I guess I would start to say this was first of all happening in the middle of a pandemic, and especially going into the session, very unclear about the economic outlook, thinking that we were going to have a multi-billion dollar deficit. And what was very different about this session in Washington is that we never entertained the conversation of austerity, which is a very big deal and very different than what we saw in the last recession [the Great Recession] of 2008. That took a long time to recover from where the conversation only was, “Wow, we’re going to have to slash and cut a bunch of stuff, mainly social services and the social safety net.” And so going in, the tone was very different, and a lot of that was due to a large crop of freshmen [first term] and second term legislators who are a lot more diverse than we have traditionally seen in our legislature, and who were really in a different generation of growing up and the conversation was just different as they were campaigning and coming in.

So the focus was really on how can we take care of people, understanding that we were going to be getting some money from the federal government and how to best distribute that. And then on the table was also a lot of progressive revenue. Washington State actually had the most regressive tax system in the country. We don’t have an income tax here, and so a lot of our taxation unfairly burdened lower income people, people of color, those who can least afford to bear that burden were tasked with carrying most of it. And then we have over one hundred billionaires who live in Washington State who were getting off nearly scot free. So that was a huge conversation, coming in, to say that we have to make our taxation system more fair. One of the biggest accomplishments that they pushed through in the Legislature [was the passage of] the capital gains tax [on the wealthy], which has been a priority of progressives for years, and had previously not been able to make it through even in Democratic [controlled] legislatures with a Democratic governor.

So this session, a lot of revenue was put towards childcare, social safety net, and a lot of programs that undocumented immigrants or even documented immigrants couldn’t qualify for in terms of COVID relief and job unemployment relief. The state stepped in and said, “We’ll actually take care of that, and make sure people aren’t falling through the cracks.” There was just a lot that happened to take care of people, [like the] Working Families Tax Credit, where the state’s stepping in and saying, “We’re not letting people fall through the cracks. We’re actually making an effort to make sure everyone has access to health care, child care, unemployment [benefits].” And even working on the early end before the federal eviction moratorium took place, they implemented that in the states.

So just a completely different conversation in that area, and [we] also made gains in terms of climate policy and moving closer towards our goals with a low carbon fuel standard. And they also passed the Climate Commitment Act, which is a cap and trade system similar to California’s. So progressives made more progress in this session than we have seen before. And that was really the big headline of this session.

Caya Berndt: Thank you very much for that thorough recap, Crystal. It really does sound like this session, there was a lot more focus on getting a more muscular federal role to ensure that people didn’t fall through some of those cracks that were only widened by COVID-19. So thank you very much for that. I’d like to move on to Joan. The Idaho legislature is also done with its work for the time being, but what went down in Boise was markedly different than what went down in Olympia, wasn’t it?

Joan McCarter: Yes, extremely. Just starting with the fact that we’re not actually officially out of session. The Senate adjourned Sine Die, the House refused to, says that the session can come back in before December 31st, if they deem it so. We’ve never had that situation happen before, so we don’t know if that is actually true. If the House can bring it back, that might end up being in the courts if they try it. So that kind of sets the stage for everything that happened in the state this session. It was bad. It was chaotic. It was pushing all bounds of unconstitutionality. And in the way that COVID helped clarify stuff progressively in Washington State, it clarified just how fractured Idahoans are from their government. Most of the fights were cultural fights. The main response to COVID among our legislators was to deny it and to fight any possibility of mask mandates, setting up a power battle with the governor, which I would call it a draw.

He [Governor Little] conceded on some things, won on some things. None of it really helped advance the cause for Idahoans. The main [outcome] — I guess you could call it an accomplishment — was a new funding structure for transportation. So rather than address global warming, they’ve decided we’re going to put millions and millions more into roads and bridges. They rejected federal funding for education. $40 million was going to go for COVID testing in our schools, [but] they rejected [the money], because as one Republican legislator said, “Children can’t get COVID, so why test? It was more of an excuse to keep kids out of school than to keep them safe.” They rejected $6 million in grant funding from the Trump administration for early childhood education.

They cut twenty-five million [dollars] out of higher education… specifically, $1.5 million from Boise State because of a false claim forwarded by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, our sort of think tank on the right that manufactured a story about a cultural studies class at Boise State in which one student was singled out for being white. There was an investigation… it was proven untrue, but still, Boise State lost $1.5 million in funding and the critical race theory and socialist indoctrination, conspiracy theories won the day there. So that’s pretty much how things ended up in Idaho. It’s ugly here.

Caya Berndt: Wow. Goodness, it sounds like it. Yeah, I mean, we could dedicate a whole episode to what’s happening in Idaho alone. I guess a quick question that I did have was regarding Idaho being done but not really done. What’s the benefit of that? Or what were they trying to gain from that?

Joan McCarter: I really, really don’t know. It’s created quite a lot of confusion here. In fact, it made for a final week in the House that was pretty crazy, because they had to enact a bunch of emergency legislation saying, “Even though we haven’t officially ended the session, we’re still funding all of these programs after July 1st.” Because our Constitution says, if you haven’t finished your session sixty days before the fiscal year, then the government shuts down. So they had to pass a bunch of emergency legislation to try to cover that. It’s left us really not knowing what’s going to happen. They sort of — the House wanted to keep their options open in case, I don’t know what, in [case of] another emergency perhaps. If we have really, really bad COVID numbers, which is entirely possible, because we’ve got one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. This would be their way of keeping Governor Little from trying to declare another emergency, so they could rush back in and stop him. That’s as near as I can tell the theory behind it.

Caya Berndt: It sounds like it’s really tough to be a progressive in Idaho right now.

Joan McCarter: Always. But yeah, this is the worst legislature I can remember in the state, and that’s saying an awful lot for Idaho. And I didn’t even get into the rape allegations.

Caya Berndt: Oh, gosh.

Joan McCarter: We had a Republican member who was forced to resign because he allegedly raped a nineteen year-old intern. And while he resigned, a Republican representative, a woman who outed her, who doxxed her, hasn’t been forced to resign. So that’s another issue that’s sort of hanging out there waiting to be resolved. Yay, Idaho!

Caya Berndt: And then, finally, Kari! Oregon’s legislature is still meeting in Salem. What’s happened so far, and what might we expect to see in the final few weeks before adjournment?

Kari Chisholm: Yeah, [the session] is generally scheduled to end around the end of June and we start a little later, in early February. Can we go a little longer? The big question going into this legislative session was, will there be a legislative session? The last two sessions, legislators have walked out… [specifically,] Republican legislators have walked out. And because Oregon has supermajority quroum requirements — we’re one of only five states with a supermajority quorum requirement — those walkouts effectively ended and did end the legislative sessions. And I think actually there’s a little glimmer of hope that actually shame might actually be influencing Republicans for once. They have not walked out [this time]. A number of Republicans have indicated they don’t plan to walk out. One thing that happened a year ago was when they walked out, it stymied a bipartisan agreement, brought together the timber industry and environmentalists on a wildfire protection and relief bill.

They stymied that bill, it was killed in the walkout and then of course we had the greatest wildfire season in decades and it really, of course, impacted rural Oregon. So this time, we don’t appear to be having a walkout and much of the frustration of some of the most radical extremist groups, particularly those whose support of gun extremism, they’re frustrated. We did in fact pass a gun safety storage bill as a result. We are making progress on a whole series of police accountability and racial reconciliation bills. There’s a climate bill that’s advancing that appears to be on the verge of getting passage. And we just passed, this last week, a $9.3 billion schools budget and it’s headed to the governor’s desk. So for the first time in quite a few years, Oregon is actually making progress, which is exciting to see. One last thing I will note for you: We also in Oregon, in the middle of the session, we had a resignation from state representative, Diego Hernandez, and then he was replaced. There were sexual harassment allegations.

[Hernandez] was replaced, in fact, by a woman who was one of those who had filed a restraining order against him, a domestic violence restraining order, Andre Valderrama, the chair of the David Douglas School District School Board, a policy advocate for the ACLU of Oregon is now a state representative. And in addition that being itself a good thing, that meant that Oregon’s House of Representatives is now fifty/fifty, male and female, which is of course a great benchmark for Oregon to finally hit that mark. So it’s been quite exciting. Last thing I’ll mention: the breaking news on Friday night, [concerning] State Representative Mike Nearman, a Republican from Independence, Oregon. He’s been seen on videotape, opening a door in late December, allowing protesters to flood the Capitol, they were pushed out by police. His resignation has been called for, he has been indicted. That is a crime.

And on Friday night, what we got was a videotape of him five days prior to the incident in which he says to a roomful of people, “Here’s the plan. We’re calling it operation Hall Pass. If you text this phone number, someone will go to that door and open the door for you.” He, of course, jokingly says: “If you ask me about it, I’ll deny it. And that number I gave you isn’t my cell phone, it’s just a random string of digits.” But of course, once again, folks are calling for his resignation immediately and if not resignation, then expulsion. So stay tuned for that.

Caya Berndt: Well, thank you very much, Joan and Kari and Crystal for those recaps. As I said, we could easily devote entire episodes to any number of the issues that you’ve brought up. But for this initial podcast, I want to focus on a handful of key issues that our listeners are really curious about. The first one does have to do with budgeting. We all kind of touched on that a bit. So I’d like to get your takes on how the pandemic in the recent presidential election have influenced the trajectory of our state’s budgets, especially with respect to public health. In any legislative session, putting together a budget is the foremost must-do item. So how did you feel your state did this here with respect to putting together its operating capital and transportation budgets? Joan, since you mentioned that, it was kind of a mixed bag because it did at the same time ignore climate issues. You did mention that Idaho had made some progress there. Would you like to get us started?

Joan McCarter: It’s good and bad progress again. What they decided to do was devote a larger proportion of sales tax funding to transportation. I should back this up a little bit and say Idaho is in a good fiscal situation. We’ve got the largest rainy day fund than we’ve ever had, even with turning away federal money. It’s where they’re choosing to put that funding and what they’re deciding to do with it, not necessarily going to education, particularly young kids’ education, sending back the $6 million of federal grant money for preschool. They rejected calls — statewide calls — for full day kindergarten, so we don’t even have that. But they did devote more than they ever have to transportation funding, which is good, we need it. Our roads are in bad shape. At the same time, they didn’t address critical issues like property tax [fairness].

They didn’t address the sales tax on groceries, which has been a problem for decades that they keep saying is only temporary but they keep not getting rid of it. We have a 6% sales tax on groceries, which of course is extremely regressive. [Oregon has no sales tax, and Washington exempts groceries from the sales tax.] They changed property taxes and an exemption for people who are widowed, elderly, disabled. And cut about 4,000 seniors out of the possibility of getting that tax break from the state, putting their ability to stay in their homes in jeopardy, while at the same time giving income tax breaks to the wealthiest. So it’s sort of a microcosm of what national Republicans are doing, what we would see the House of Representatives do if they were entirely Republican. That’s what’s happened in the Idaho Legislature. While we’re awash, essentially, in money right now, there’s plenty of funding. They’re building up that rainy day fund, they’re not going to use it, and they’re particularly not going to use it on education, on housing, on making life better for the low income among us.

On the one hand, it is fantastic that there’s going to be this transportation funding, because of that means jobs. Unfortunately, it means not necessarily high paying jobs, since we are a “right to work” state [meaning, laws exist that impose barriers to unionizing] and the federal minimum wage is the minimum wage in Idaho, but people will be working. But the major problem that we’re facing right now is a housing crisis. I saw [that] in the past four years, Boise’s housing prices have increased 74%. It’s ridiculous and in a lot of our communities like McCall, which is a resort, [or] Sun Valley, Coeur d’Alene, all of these resort communities, people can’t afford to live anymore. We’re seeing a lot of people, particularly the pandemic really, really increased this [problem]. People coming from out of state, they can work from home, they can work from anywhere. They [can] sell a house in California, and they can buy one very cheaply here and kick somebody out. And we’re also seeing a huge, huge conversion of what had been regular rentals to Airbnbs.

Caya Berndt: I would like to turn to you, Crystal. With respect to Washington’s operating, capital, and transportation budgets, how do you think that we did this year?

Crystal Fincher: In terms of the operating and capital budgets, I think we did great. I think we did better than we have really done in decades. I think that certainly going back to the conversation of we didn’t entertain austerity. And it really was, [instead,] how do we strengthen our social safety net, and they certainly delivered on that. Even more was really foundationally addressing our lack of an income tax. There [are] different types of taxes that are more progressive than what is currently in place, and certainly the capital gains tax [on the wealthy] is one of them. Now, that is not a tax on wages, it’s a tax purely on gains from the sale of stocks, or bonds or investments and so purely on that and purely above a really high threshold. So it’s only affecting a very small percentage of Washington residents… under 1% of Washington residents.

But it brings in a huge amount of revenue, because again, we have over one hundred billionaires (with a B!) in Washington State, which is a lot more than people thought and were aware of, and it really does make people wonder, [why] are billionaires housing themselves here? [It’s] because they can escape taxation, which just makes income inequality worse for everyone everywhere. And so, looking at that, and passing that was very big. However, it faces a legal challenge. And Republicans have been signaling the entire time [that they’re going to try to overturn it]. Our former Republican Attorney General, Rob McKenna, is leading with his law firm a legal challenge to this, saying it’s really an income tax. So this is going to go through that whole thing, and it’s going to be very impactful, whether this gets upheld or overturned. Indications are it should be upheld, but we will see what our state Supreme Court ultimately has to say about it.

But this could be the key to starting to implement more types of taxes both at the state level and at the city levels, because there’s been a lot of indications that cities, especially on the more progressive side of things, like in Seattle, are willing to implement these taxes. Many cities have been scared away by, “Well, that could be an income tax, so we can’t really do that. We’re afraid it could be overturned.” So getting this precedent set is very important. Finally, having the Legislature [be] willing to move forward and say, “You know what? We have to hash this out. We’re going to have to have this fight, if we’re going to be able to get to a point where we’re not relying on regressive taxes and fees to fund everything in the state, which really creates just a lack of funds for everything in the state and an increase in fees, an increase in the sales tax, and we just can’t continue that way. It has made everything worse, it continues to widen the inequities that were really exacerbated during this pandemic, and it’s just not sustainable for so much of our community.

So that in terms of the budget was a huge accomplishment.

Now, the transportation budget. We are currently in the middle of having a big conversation among more progressive Democrats and more moderate Democrats about how we need to handle our transportation budget [going forward]. There certainly are a lot of people, myself included, [who care about this]. Transportation is the number one source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. We have to make progress on clean transportation options, and further funding that. And that’s a huge priority for a lot of people. [There’s an element that favors] multimodal investments, and rail and transit, and clean fuels and energy. Meanwhile, there’s another element who enjoy a lot of chairships and in our House, and especially in our Senate, who are saying, “You know what? We have some highway expansion bills on the docket and some road expansion bills [that we really want to pass].”

And [those folks are] really not taking into account the environmental component… how we’re going to be able to breathe and thrive. And especially for communities of color, and lower income communities who bear a disproportionate impact of that pollution created by our current transportation modes, [this is a problem]. It is urgent because that is directly tied to cases of asthma, life expectancy, heart disease, and more studies come out about this. So [transportation] is a really big topic of conversation in Washington State right now.

Caya Berndt: Thank you for that. We are going to touch on climate action [again] in just a moment. And I agree with you: I think you’re very correct in that transportation and infrastructure and climate are intertwined. You can’t really make legislation about one without considering the other. As far as the capital gains tax, it sounds like that is [going to be] really beneficial. Is that something that other states like Oregon, or Idaho could potentially benefit from, is something or a kind of a similar structure?

Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And a lot of states already have that implemented… states like South Carolina and others. This isn’t an odd concept. It is presented as an odd concept by Republicans in Washington, much like raising the minimum wage or other elements like, hey, we do better if we subsidized college for people. We do better with a lot of those things that are happening in many other states, and college subsidizing is happening in Washington State. But they always like to try and reframe the conversation saying, This is extreme. It is a burden. It’s just another income tax. And it’s a slippery slope. [We better] be careful, so we better not take any steps to prevent [our state] from taking all the steps. Meanwhile, people are suffering under the current system. So I certainly think it’s something that other states, if they haven’t already implemented it, which a number of them have, they could potentially look at it, because this polls actually really well in Washington.

Tax used to be a scary word for a lot of people and Republicans used to be able to in Washington State, wield the word tax and scare everyone away. This capital gains tax polled across the state at over 65% popularity with the public [NPI’s polling has found that around three-fifths of voters support a capital gains tax on the wealthy]. This isn’t controversial among Washington residents. This is really caught up in the culture war. We’re just going to call it a tax and say it’s scary, in a way to just avoid higher income people from paying a fair share.

Caya Berndt: All right, thank you very much Crystal for that incredible insight. Kari, I do want to move on to you in regards to your thoughts on how Oregon has been doing as far as state budgeting goes.

Kari Chisholm: You bet. And just to answer that question, Oregon does have a capital gains tax as does Idaho. So Washington’s the one catching up with the other states in this regard. You really can’t talk about budgeting in Oregon without talking about the kicker, which is a term that a lot of folks around the country will wonder what the heck we’re talking about. Oregon has a very unique law, which is that if the state economist is wrong about the estimate that they have made as the state revenues by more than 2%. In other words, if revenues come in 2%, more than what state economist predicted, then all that money goes back to taxpayers. Well, 2%, I mean, that’s like hitting the middle of the dartboard every single time. If you think about it, the state economist made a prediction in the summer of 2019, as to what the tax revenues would be over the next two years. In the summer of 2019, the world looked like a very different place.

We had no idea a pandemic was in the offing, and then we had no idea that there would be trillions of dollars of federal funding in subsidies and stimulus payments to combat that pandemic. The idea that the state economist would, over that two year period, split the dart in the middle of the bullseye perfectly is insane. Our kicker law is completely insane.

And so what just most recent estimate that came out about a week and a half ago, is that Oregon is going to have brought in well over a billion dollars out of a $24 billion budget, about a billion dollars more revenue than was anticipated two years ago. And of course, what happened was a year ago, we thought, “Oh, my gosh, everything’s going to collapse, or lay everyone off, or cut all the funding for everything.” But then the sooner as money came in, and in fact Oregon has done very well, revenue wise.

So we’re looking down the barrel of a $1.4 billion kicker money sent back to taxpayers, the bulk of which will go to the highest income folks in Oregon, which just it’s a tragedy. We should be spending this money to support folks or putting it in the bank for a rainy day. And I’m sort of listening to Joan thinking, boy, you’ve got this rainy day fund in Idaho, which is sort of an anti-government state is rather impressive compared to what we’re doing here in Oregon, when we just ship it all back out. And then when the economy comes in under, when the revenues come in 2% below estimates, we don’t claw it all back, we go into austerity mode. So that’s the challenge that we’re facing ahead here in Oregon with budget. The current budget, they’re still working that out, they have until June 27th to pass it for the next biennium.

As you can imagine, we’re looking at trying to make very strong investments in education, summit transportation, certainly trying to, assuming the climate bill goes through, that’ll change things somewhat. It is a real challenge to be living in this environment where if tax revenues come in below estimates, austerity ahead, if they come in above estimates, can’t save it, got to ship it all back to the rich people. So it’s much ignored and it’s a struggle.

Caya Berndt: Thank you very much for that great insight, Kari. It is really interesting just how each state is handling their respective budgets. And the big question really does seem to be how to best allocate that money so that everybody else is benefiting and not just the wealthiest people. You’ve mentioned climate, Kari. And so I think this would be a good time to move on to how each state has been handling climate action. It’s been a top priority for Democratic leaders in the Pacific Northwest for many years now. And despite having majorities in Washington and Oregon, Democrats have struggled to make progress on climate change [combating the climate crisis].

After building bigger majorities in the last midterm, Democrats in Washington were able to unite behind a clean energy package in 2019, including a 100% clean energy bill. This year, the legislature went further with the Climate Commitment Act cap and invest plan requested by Governor Inslee — and you touched on this, Crystal — and the equity focused HEAL Act. Kari, Democrats in Oregon have also run into some serious obstacles and trying to craft their own climate legislation, haven’t they?

Kari Chisholm: Yeah, in 2019, it was the clean energy jobs bill that caused the Republicans to walk out of the legislature and refuse to come back. So despite those majorities, without that supermajority quorum, we weren’t able to make progress. This time around, we are making progress. And it appears… it’s not a done deal yet, but it appears that there’s a somewhat scaled down bill that’s got a chance of passage. It is scaled down some [in terms of] scope and some of the ways it impacts the power companies. It is however, also the most aggressive bill in the country in terms of a timeline for reducing to zero carbon [dioxide] emissions. The plan under the bill that appears to be moving forward would bring Oregon to zero carbon [dioxide] emissions by the year 2040. And now, we’ll see what happens when we get there. That is only twenty years away, of course, by now, but it is an aggressive approach, even as it’s scaling down some of its ambitions in other ways.

Caya Berndt: And then, turning to you, Joan. Climate and equity obviously aren’t priorities for Idaho Republicans who control the legislative agenda in Boise. Were there any wins for clean energy in the session? Or is the extent of the action pretty much confined to the local level?

Joan McCarter: It’s entirely confined to the local level, and even then it’s a struggle because the Idaho Legislature has adopted most of the ALEC agenda for climate change. That’s the American Legislative Exchange Council, the group that writes reactionary legislation and then shops it out to Republican legislatures. So really, most local governments are pretty well constrained by state law, by the Legislature in what they can pursue, like a plastic bag ban. So really, it’s not even on the agenda for most of the state, which is extremely frustrating. They want us to be living in 1950, and that’s what they’re enforcing.

Caya Berndt: I do want to turn to you, Crystal. You kind of went over your assessment of this year’s climate legislation. What are some ways to get climate change past the local level and into more of the conversations and dialogues that are happening among leadership?

Crystal Fincher: It’s really interesting the situation that we’re in, in Washington State as compared to Oregon or Idaho, where we have both chambers of our legislature controlled by Democrats [and no supermajority quorum requirements], as well as our Governor, [Jay Inslee], who prioritized at the very beginning of the session, [requested] this legislation and said, “I am putting forth this package to be carried through in the Legislature. This has my full support.” So we have the luxury here with that leadership to have a conversation that isn’t focused on whether or not we should take climate action, but what climate action should be taken. And I think that does us all a favor, because it’s not like there is one thing that can be done, and universal agreement around that. There are a broad suite of policies that can be put into place, and there isn’t universal agreement.

One of the things that came out was talking about a just transition to a cleaner future to cleaner fuels to less greenhouse gas emissions. With some prior packages and prior conversations, it’s well, people just need to like transform their fleets, and people just need to live greener, when in reality, that’s a lot more expensive for a lot of people. [Clean energy] doesn’t enjoy the subsidies that oil-based and a lot of dirty fuels enjoy that carries through to the pricing and everything that flows from that. And so it’s not trivial to say, we’ll just start doing things in a greener way, just start doing things with fewer emissions, because everyone from people in lower income communities to rural communities are saying, “With what money?” What we found through that was that those conversations, if you actually engage those stakeholders, can move forward in those elements.

So one, especially here passing the HEAL Act, which was championed in our Legislature particularly by some members of color, supported by excellent organizations like the Front and Centered Coalition, really prioritizes taking an environmental justice lens to all of the policy passed in the state to say, “Are we accounting for its impact on all communities? Are we accounting for how this is going to impact people of color, low income people, rural communities, to actually have to sit there and consider, are we leaving people behind? Are we mitigating negative impacts that may occur because of this? And to incorporate that in the legislative process and ordinance processes locally, in order to make sure that we help people move this along, because that helps us get further towards our goals. So I think in passing the HEAL Act, which was very helpful, that lens helps to make sure people have those conversations and engage those constituencies.

Because it’s one thing to talk from Seattle for the rest of the state — and you being in Spokane, Caya, certainly probably have heard — this is just a Seattle thing. And people run against Seattle, and there’s resentment against Seattle, and metropolitan areas for dictating this policy, and speaking in a way that people in other areas can’t necessarily identify with it. The reality on the ground in a very dense metropolitan area is different than it is in a rural community. But if you say, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this.” And maybe you aren’t using the buzzwords that set people off and immediately signal, this is a socialist takeover to people who are used to hearing that, then they can say, You know what? This actually makes financial sense. This is going to electrify your fleet or using cleaner farming practices or electric vehicles have tangible benefits for every one of those communities.

So just speaking about those and then listening when they say, “Okay, but with what money?” And looking at as part of this package, we do have to help people make that transition. We all are helped. So I think getting out of some of the ivory towers and [offices of] progressive organizations, quite frankly, to get on the ground with people and communities and say we can all move forward together, let’s talk and say this is the goal. But let’s all figure out how to take root there together without leaving anyone behind. I think that’s the key to moving forward and there were certainly coalitions put together that were shocking to people, that you could get rural constituencies and other constituencies where this hasn’t necessarily been top of mind or priority in communities of color, in lower income communities where now they’re saying, “This is a top priority. This is immediately impactful to our health and the welfare of our neighborhoods and communities.” And that just makes the entire effort easier and stronger.

Caya Berndt: Thank you very much for that answer, Crystal. We are getting into kind of the latter half of the podcast here. So I do want to move on to another big priority for Democrats this season, that is one that’s received a lot of energy and attention. That is police accountability. At the federal level, the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act is stuck in the U.S. Senate because of the filibuster. In the states, there’s been movement. Since Washington and Oregon have Democratic trifectas, there are votes there to adopt legislation changing the status quo. So I want to start with Kari. What is the status of that cause in your state so far?

Kari Chisholm: Yeah, rather than trying to pass one single big police accountability bill in Oregon, what we’re looking at here is actually a series of more than a dozen different bills that are all targeted at police oversight and accountability. The first of those has now finally passed the Senate after passing the House and is headed to the governor’s desk. The Senate passed another four bills that will have to go back over to the House for work. What’s interesting about this is that in Oregon, [since] a lot of these bills are fairly narrowly crafted individually, they’re actually passing with broad bipartisan support in many cases. For example, there’s a shift to the unlawful assembly law so that if people don’t disperse when officers order them to disperse, police are not required to arrest them. Under existing law, they were required to arrest them, and obviously protesters would say, We weren’t doing anything. We’re trying to get in the way. People were… There’s too big of a crowd, or whatever.

And cops would say, we’re required by law to arrest you. So that’s one of the bills, for example, that’s moving forward. There’s a bill to prohibit local law enforcement agencies from receiving military surplus equipment, that’s another bill moving forward. There’s bills to require law enforcement to immediately request medical assistance for a restrained person experiencing respiratory or cardiac difficulty, essentially, a George Floyd type [of situation]. You can’t just stand there and at minimum watch him face respiratory difficulty. If you’re a law enforcement officer standing by, you have to call for medical assistance. Training on background checks and crowd management, requirements for identification during crowd management activities. Lots of little small things. And as I said, they’re mostly moving through with bipartisan support, which is an interesting dynamic that’s happening here in Oregon that we’re not seeing back in Washington, D.C.

Caya Berndt: And then Crystal, did you want to respond to Kari or follow up with anything regarding how Washington has been handling this legislation?

Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly a lot of legislation that similar to what Kari mentioned in Oregon. So, here, we passed bills banning chokeholds, neck restraints, the use of no knock warrants — which have been very problematic — limiting the use of military equipment and tear gas, which we’ve seen deployed several times here in defiance of local orders. So that state ordinance really helps to codify that across the board, requiring the duty to report if officers see another officer breaking the law, acting unethically, they are now mandated to report that and can face disciplinary action themselves, if they don’t do. [The state is] strengthening the process for decertifying officers. There’s a big problem with officers committing, sometimes, egregious acts of misconduct. There’s an excellent Crosscut series on this. And then being able to move to a different department, sometimes with that not appearing on their record.

Sometimes with just that record not being checked, if they’re not decertified, they can be hired in a neighboring jurisdiction and then can go on to repeat the same types of offenses which has happened here in Washington State. So, strengthening that certainly helps. And then, we established a new office of independent investigations to investigate all police uses of deadly force, as well as prior killings, if new evidence comes to light, which there wasn’t really a venue for doing that. So those police accountability bills were a big step forward and more progress was made on that. Again, a lot with the help and momentum from a lot of the newer legislators to push that through. But again, we saw some bipartisan support on some of those [bills], certainly the push from community to pass those was strong, and that engagement with the Legislature was felt to a greater degree than we had before. And then, tacking on that just in terms of the voter suppression effort.

Washington fortunately did a lot of action and work on that [ballot access] previously with vote by mail, efforts happening. We were one of the first states to implement statewide vote by mail, did more to expand ballot drop box availability, automatic registration for people just when they register for their driver’s license, or they turn eighteen, has been very big and huge. Restoring the rights of felons — people who have committed felonies — to have their voting rights automatically restored instead of having to go through a laborious process to get that reinstated. So a lot of those efforts have helped stem that tide also, and in our elections have helped to enfranchise more people to make sure that the laws that we’re able to pass and the votes that we’re taking, truly represent the people and not just a privileged subset, as has been in the past. And so that stands in stark contrast to Washington, D.C., and a lot of the Republican controlled state legislatures moving in the other direction. And I’m sure Joan can speak to that.

Caya Berndt: I was just about to say, Joan, I don’t imagine any police accountability bills have passed in Idaho.

Joan McCarter: No, the larger problem we have with police killings are of animals, which of course is a big deal…. somebody’s dog gets shot. But I think there’s probably a lot of low level harassment happening by cops in minority communities… particularly in the farming communities, where we have large Hispanic populations. I think there’s a lot of harassment there that we are not hearing about. There aren’t out and out killings by cops [however]. So there’s that, but by all means we are not immune from the need for reform, it’s just that those things are bubbling up to the surface here. Voter suppression is less of an issue than voter control, I suppose. Because we don’t have large communities that vote Democratic, there isn’t enough [of a threat to Republican rule] to suppress the vote here. However, what the Legislature has done twice now — and this year, they succeeded — is keeping citizens from being able to speak out through the citizen initiative process.

And in fact, there’s two suits now before our Supreme Court over the legislation that they passed (and Governor Little signed this year) to make putting a citizens initiative on the ballot essentially impossible, creating such high hurdles that it just can’t happen. They’ve done this twice before. They did it after 2012 when voters rejected two very controversial education bills that were put through — the Luna laws, to privatize education, to cut teacher salaries. Those things didn’t go over well with voters, so we overturned them. In 2013, the Legislature came back, heightened the requirements for what it would take to get a ballot initiative on, and then in 2016, Reclaim Idaho, a new progressive group of Idahoans born and bred, fighting back, got Medicaid on the ballot. [The Patient Protection Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, gives states the option of expanding Medicaid.] Got it on the ballot, [it] passed hugely with more than 60% [in support] across the state.

So that brought the Legislature back the next year trying to curtail that, trying to put up all of these new hurdles again. Governor Brad Little vetoed that bill. This year, they came back with some modifications, and he signed it. So at this point, that’s something that’s going to court. Our former Supreme Court Justice, Jim Jones, joined with Reclaim Idaho in saying what you’re trying to do is unconstitutional. This is against what the state Constitution is allowing you to do. We’ll see if the current Supreme Court agrees.

Caya Berndt: I want to kind of go back a little bit to what you were mentioning about how Idaho in general was handling police accountability. I think you said that it’s not that the need isn’t there, it’s just that that’s not a mainstream conversation. Is that kind of an accurate assessment?

Joan McCarter: Very much so.

Caya Berndt: What do you think needs to be done in order to make it a [top level] conversation the way that it is in Washington and Oregon and that it needs to be?

Joan McCarter: I think, if it happens, it is going to happen in a bad way. I think it’s going to be an Ammon Bundy kind of style confrontation with the cops. I think it’s going to be the white supremacists who are yelling, police brutality. It is going to be the reverse of what we’re seeing in the rest of the country. And I fear what it could mean for the people of the state, for law enforcement in the state, frankly. It’s a very armed state and I think that law enforcement in this state have valid concerns with some of the people they’re going to end up confronting. So it’s an entirely different conversation that we’re having in the state versus Washington or Oregon, entirely different. We’ve had strong Black Lives Matter protests. Pretty much every county in the state did see a response after the George Floyd killing, there were demonstrations larger and smaller.

And they were remarkably peaceful, remarkably calm. There were white supremacists that showed up, but they were not large groups. The police did a good job of keeping that under control. So the tensions here are very, very different. And part of it is that we don’t have a tradition of police brutality, particularly in a city like Boise. It could change. It could definitely change. The culture here — I’ve got to say, the cop culture in Boise is better than it was Portland when I lived there and better than it is in Portland now, very much less racist. But again, because we have such small people of color populations in the state, there aren’t [the same] levels of tension there.

Caya Berndt: And ultimately, we would want things such as police accountability [proposals] to be introduced in order to prevent something horrible happening rather than something horrible causing those things to be needed.

Joan McCarter: Right. No, I really do see more of an opportunity for an Ammon Bundy type group. Ammon Bundy is going to be running for governor, by the way. Everybody remembers the Nevada standoff of the Bundy family. We have Ammon here. He’s not registered to vote in Idaho, but he’s decided he wants to be governor and he’s very good at fomenting trouble. Some of his acolytes are doing that right now in Oregon, in the Klamath Basin. That’s where we’re going to see problems for law enforcement in Idaho from that group.

Caya Berndt: So we did cover a lot of good ground in this episode. There’s a lot to discuss. If I could devote hours of time to any one of these topics, I would. But I think that now would be a good time to transition into my final question, before we wrap up. What is one action that our listeners, especially listeners in Idaho, can take to advance a progressive cause that needs a boost in your home state right now?

Joan McCarter: I think this is something probably any Idaho and who would be listening would already be doing, but: Talk to your neighbors! Don’t be cowed. Don’t be afraid to go out and find your community because it is out there. It’s very quiet, it’s intimidated, it might feel lost, but it’s there. Join your Democratic Party, become a precinct chair, we have hardly any. Just do a small thing to be a presence in your community for democratic values, because it is at this point, small d, democratic values. And Big D!

Caya Berndt: An it’s not a small thing, talk to your neighbors, join an organization. It sounds simple enough, but actually putting it into practice is great action, and I think it makes more impact even than I think a lot of people realize. I want to offer the same question to Kari next. What is one action that our listeners can take to advance a progressive cause that needs a boost in your state, regardless of whether or not they’re a citizen of Oregon?

Kari Chisholm: Yeah, look, one of the great things about being a resident of a smaller state — I went to college in California and love here being in my home state of Oregon — is that you can reach out to your legislators, and you can talk to them. Unless you’re completely off your rocker, they’re going to take a phone call, they’re going to be willing to have coffee with you. So whenever an issue is important to you, whatever you want to share with your legislator, pull your ideas together, make the phone call, ask to have coffee with your legislator, and you’re going to be heard. Now, if that conversation is happening, and if you’re, let’s say, [represented by a] Republican in a red place, it might be more challenging than if you’re talking to a progressive Democratic legislator, in a blue place… that might be more fun. But that’s the brilliant thing about these small places, is that you can be heard, and you can make an impact.

I think a lot of us spend all of our time thinking about the national level, what’s happening on Capitol Hill. You listen to Rachel Maddow, and yet, you want to think about those things. But the place to have a real impact as a person is right here at the local level, whether that’s your local elected official, city council, City Hall, or your state legislator. They’re going to listen to you because you’re a voter, they know that you have friends. They’re all trying to make friends and win influence, and part of that is by listening to you. So get in there, be part of the process. America is run by those who show up.

Caya Berndt: And finally, I want to turn to you, Crystal. What is an action our listeners can take to advance a progressive cause and in your home state… any cause that needs a boost that isn’t getting what it needs?

Crystal Fincher: I want to say amen to what Kari said. He’s absolutely right. I think that people are used to feeling powerless, and I don’t know that that is unintentional. But we look at the national conversation, and the things that are happening out of Congress, and that gets all the coverage and takes all the airtime and it’s infuriating, and you feel like you can’t do anything about it. The opposite, as he just said, is true at a local level. And I would even suggest one level even more local: Your city council, your county council. Go and meet with them. It is not an exaggeration when I say I have seen legislation be introduced, city ordinances be introduced, because one person made a phone call to their city council person. I have seen entire city councils change their public statements on issues because four people showed up to a city council meeting. If you get involved on a local level, so much is overlooked, and so few people engage at that level that when just a few people do, they take notice, they take that as a signal as this is a big issue.

And right now, a few other people are doing it, and literally only a few and just about every city that you’re in that’s listening to this, that if you go and do that, you can change policy on the local level. And people often think of, okay, there’s this big transformational policy, it’s got to start at a statewide level or national level. Fifteen dollars an hour in this country started in the city right next to me — SeaTac, Washington, a small city — and they decided to do a local ordinance to put fifteen dollars an hour as the minimum wage. It passed there, then it passed in Seattle, and then it passed everywhere else in the country. That’s how policy starts in this country. It’s at the local level. And when you look at how different a city like Boise can be to a city like I’m in (Kent, Washington), to think of all of the different cities and how different they are. That speaks to how much control cities have to shape who they are, what they do, and what they look like, and you can make that impact.

I think even if you’re a progressive person, with red city council people and they’re conservative, you can still have those conversations, because everyone’s still living in that same reality on the ground with many issues. I’m not saying all of them are going to go well, but you would be surprised how many might, and it just starts with creating that dialogue. So I would encourage people to find out what their city council people’s names are and to call them and comment about an issue that you care about. Go to a meeting, listen to what they’re talking about, and then give your opinion in the public comment section. That changes policy, and it starts there and then spreads across the country. So I highly encourage that, because I just cannot tell you how much power you actually have to make that difference on the local level.

Caya Berndt: Yeah, and like Kari said, it’s all about showing up. I think that dialogue starts with conversations, like Joan said, even conversations between your neighbors, because if they’re not being reached by the right information, then you kind of have to be the vehicle for the information that’s going to facilitate that change. Wonderful thoughts from all three of you.

Thank you very much for joining us on this first episode of PNWcurrents. Thank you to our listeners for joining us, with our guests, Crystal Fincher, Kari Chisholm and Joan McCarter. We hope that you all enjoy the conversation, and hopefully gain some knowledge that you can apply to your own advocacy. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Stay tuned for the release of our next episode in July. We’ll be talking about our region’s progress towards getting Cascadia vaccinated with three public health experts. To learn more about the work that NPI does, be sure to check out our website at nwprogressive.org. Again, that is nwprogressive.org. And there you will find a transcript of this episode and the PNWcurrents archive, as well as our poll findings, Statehouse Bill Tracker, elections hub, and our publications, like the Cascadia Advocate and In Brief. We’ll see you next time. For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.