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2021 Legislative Session Recap

For the past four months of the legislative session communities impacted by fossil fuel pollution and environmental injustice stepped up and organized for real and lasting solutions.

Together we broke new ground, passing the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act and creating a new standard for inclusive, effective policy making in Olympia. As the culmination of years of work, the HEAL Act passing is a great reason to celebrate!

But along with the good news, the results of the session also underscore how much more work needs to be done to achieve climate justice priorities. Legislators came up short in limiting emissions at the source, shifting resources from highways toward sustainable mobility, and other key climate priorities for our communities.

Now that the session is over let’s review what happened. Read below and/or watch our Community Briefing to find out the progress we made together, the critical concerns we raised, and how our advocacy here in Washington is tied to national and international movements toward a Just Transition away from an extractive economy. 

At our virtual recap on May 14, participants joined in discussion with Front and Centered Community Council members and national leaders, including Cecilia R. Martinez, Senior Director for Environmental Justice, Council on Environmental Quality at The White House, and Casey Camp-Horinek of Indigenous Women Rising, about the session and how our collective advocacy is driving and supporting the national movement for environmental and climate justice.

Heal Act Passes Setting Standard for Inclusive and Effective Policy

The HEAL Act was an essential goal in the Front and Centered community’s 2021 Legislative Priorities. It’s passage is our biggest victory this session!

The HEAL Act (SB 5141) requires state agencies to apply environmental justice principles and practices in significant actions that may cause environmental harm.

The bill also includes a framework for the state to more equitably distribute funds and environmental benefits. It requires engaging community, strategic planning, and budgeting, in ways that address environmental health disparities and ensure that the communities most impacted by environmental harm get the much-needed investment toward a greener and fairer economy that benefits everyone.

The HEAL Act also establishes an Environmental Justice Council, with majority representation from overburdened communities, to help inform and collaborate with agencies as they incorporate EJ into their processes and practices.

The legislation incorporates several recommendations from the state’s Environmental Justice Task Force that resulted from years of organizing and policy development by the community leaders and the work of Front and Centered to ensure accountability to frontline communities in state action on climate and environmental justice. In 2020, the Task Force issued a report with recommendations that were informed by Front and Centered community listening sessions across the state. These recommendations laid the groundwork for the HEAL Act, and reflect the voices of many frontline communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.

Good policies are made when there is robust engagement with those communities that are most impacted by climate change and pollution. HEAL is an example of that, says Rosalinda Guillen, Executive Director of Community to Community and Co-Lead of Front and Centered.

Cap and Trade Falls Short on Climate Justice

Throughout the session, Front and Centered and our members raised serious concerns about the SB 5126 pollution trading scheme’s ability to reduce emissions, because it does not require reductions where and when pollution occurs. Instead, it creates a national or international marketplace for carbon trading, passing on the responsibility.  The cap and trade bill was not initiated through an inclusive process, undermining years of work, and did not address key environmental justice concerns on reducing emissions at the source, despite claiming to be an environmental justice proposal.

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Front and Centered’s member organizations, some legislators made significant attempts to mitigate risk to overburdened communities, and build on our work crafting I-1631. Unfortunately, our primary concerns about trading, rather than directly limiting emissions, remain in the bill that was passed, which we believe will not effectively nor equitably cap carbon pollution emitted within Washington State.

We need a Just Transition away from digging, dumping, and burning fossil fuels. says Yolanda Matthews, Climate Justice Organizer at Puget Sound Sage and Co-Lead of Front and Centered. Climate justice won’t be won by listening to big oil, but instead by listening to those in the field, working in the industry, living in high pollution areas, and marching in the streets demanding real change.

Transportation Proposals Fail To Address Community Needs

Last summer and fall we conducted listening sessions with frontline community members across Washington State to hear what they needed from a clean transportation package. The answer was clear, more transit and better sidewalks and multi-modal infrastructure to reduce pollution and keep our communities safe!

Despite more than $25 billion in identified needs for transit, walk, and roll infrastructure that would create options to get off fossil fuels and increase opportunity, legislators were unable to come together on a set of investments or change the regressive, antiquated dependence on the gas tax.

While the House proposal included relatively significant increases for multi-modal projects, both chambers offered business-as-usual packages that locked the state into years of road building binge.

Worse still these proposals were crafted by a concerningly small number of legislators with little opportunity for public input. Change in our transportation investments must start with democratizing the process.

For more on our transportation needs see our statewide transportation listening sessions, a comparison of this sessions’ transportation packages, and a virtual discussion around how those packages fell short of community needs.

Other Climate and Environmental Justice Action in the Legislature

Climate Justice is integrally tied to land and land-use. Despite significant effort, a bill that would have required local land-use planning to account for reducing carbon emissions and climate impacts, HB 1099, did not pass. However It did get a budget proviso for funding to support planning, so we can take another swing next session.

Efforts to add environmental justice to planning through attention to pollution and mobility also died with this and other amendments to growth management planning. But a housing update, HB 1220, did go through.

However, several bills passed that start to move economic justice for communities and workers, including:

  • The Working Families Tax Credit, which Front and Centered advocated for, will give 420,000 households tax rebates between $300 & $1200 in 2023
  • Capital gains tax reform will start to address justice in taxation raising $415 million in 2023 with a 7% tax on profits over $250K
  • Farm workers, who have labored for years without fair compensation, won overtime protection!
  • A $340 million Immigrant relief fund
  • And $658 million in rental relief so desperately needed by tenants in this crisis!

So the results this year were mixed. Once again we have reason to celebrate this session, but it’s clear we have a long road ahead to passing an agenda that truly incorporates climate justice.

What’s clear is that we’re going to keep working for climate and environmental justice for all Washingtonians.