NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

Legislation to abolish death penalty won’t get a vote in the Washington State House in 2019

Legislation that would remove Washington’s now-unenforceable death penalty statute from the books will not get a vote in the House of Representatives for the second straight year because of Speaker of the House Frank Chopp’s opposition.

Senate Bill 5339, prime sponsored by Democratic Senator Reuven Carlyle and requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, passed out of the Washington State Senate back in February. It eventually received a hearing in the House Public Safety Committee and then secured a “do pass” recommendation.

After that, the bill landed in the House Rules Committee, where it spent several weeks in limbo before advancing to the floor. Despite getting on the House floor calendar, however, it will not receive a vote, even though House Democrats now wield a large majority of fifty-seven. Sources tell NPI that’s because Chopp is adamantly opposed to the bill and does not want it to pass.

Today was the deadline for policy bills from the opposite chamber to receive consideration. With 5 PM having come and gone, we’re past the point where Senate Bill 5339 is eligible to be considered in 2019 under legislative rules.

Last year, when House Democrats held a slim majority of fifty to forty-eight, Chopp’s public rationale for not holding a vote on abolition (as stated at a town hall in the 43rd District) was that the votes simply didn’t exist to pass the bill.

Although Chopp’s seatmate Senator Pedersen disputed that rationale, Chopp nonetheless stuck to it. Now, however, the caucus has fifty-seven members, which means seven members of the caucus can oppose a bill and it can still pass if the remaining fifty members are present and voting yes.

Support for abolishing the death penalty in Washington State is very high, according to NPI research. Last year, 69% of Washingtonians surveyed told our pollster that they preferred one of three life in prison alternatives to just 24% who said they preferred the death penalty, while 8% said they were not sure.

(Read more about our finding.)

Senate Bill 5339 would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, which is the alternative endorsed by respondents in our poll.

We’re very disappointed that Senate Bill 5339 isn’t getting a vote in the Washington State House of Representatives this year. However, next year, there will be a new Speaker, and Senate Bill 5339 will carry over to the next session because the 2020 session will be a continuation of the current Legislature.

We will work during the interim to continue building momentum for abolition, keeping in mind that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, as Theodore Parker and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said.

POSTSCRIPT: McClatchy’s James Drew has filed a story about SB 5339 getting blocked from a vote, in which Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Senator Reuven Carlyle both state (on the record) that there were enough votes to pass it.

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