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Analysis: How did the 2019 legislative session fare on climate justice?

Front and Centered envisions a more just future that is not only cleaner and safer, but where our communities and the earth are healed and thriving, our people have dignified work opportunity and prosperity, and our government values, respects, and represents us.

In order to reach this vision, policies in the Washington State Legislature must address equitable governance, a prerequisite to effective action; healthy communities rooted in place, strengthening our relationship to place to prevent and reduce pollution; a regenerative economy that places equity and well-being above accumulation, and resources throughout it; and renewable resources, which includes energy conservation and solar power.

In these areas, our work is guided by climate justice principles that include the use of an equity analysis, equitable decision-making, and the achievement of equitable outcomes.

So how did Washington fare under these principles this session?

Equitable Governance in Climate and Environmental Decision-making

Good environmental policy starts with equitable decision-making process. The scale of change we’re able to achieve depends on whether equity is embedded in decisions.

Advocates push through slushy snow to testify in support of the HEAL Act during the bill’s first hearing on Feb. 13. Photo by Samantha Bushman.

Steps made toward equitable governance:

  • The Healthy Environmental for All * (HEAL) Act (SB 5489, HB 2009), the legislation we championed this past session proposed to define environmental justice, require state agencies with the greatest influence on reducing carbon pollution to address environmental health disparities through existing policies and programs, and create a diverse task force to develop coordinated action. At the end, a task force to develop recommendations was approved in the state budget, setting the stage for further action. While the full HEAL act passed in both the House and Senate by significant margins, the Washington Business Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) and the Association of Washington Business (AWB) were able to slow reconciliation of the two bill versions, preventing it from passing before the session expired.
  • The proposed Office of Equity **, would have facilitated and track outcomes for state policy and systems change to promote equity in policy, practice, and outcomes and require agencies to use equity assessment tools. Like in the HEAL Act, a task force will be formed to further explore creating a state office dedicated to equity, and the decision-making body includes the people most impacted in all areas of government, such as environment, health care, employment and education.  
  • Legislators approved I-1000, reversing the ban on affirmative action, creating more flexibility not only in education, but a broader set of government decisions and resource allocations. It allowed the state to “remedy discrimination against, or under-representations of, disadvantaged groups as documented in a valid disparity study or proven court of law.” This affects not only issues like education, but the states policies and resource allocations related to issues like climate, energy and the environment. Many community-of-color-led groups, including Front and Centered coalition members Asian Pacific Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE) worked on this win. 

More to work on:

  • A bill to increase the State’s insufficient targets for emissions reductions to match the Paris Accords failed to advance for the second year in a row, leaving Washington state’s targets far below what’s necessary to avoid the worst harms from global warming.

*This policy was Front and Centered legislative priority.

**We testified in support of this bill. 

Healthy Communities Rooted in Place

Photo by Hannah Letinich.

By respecting communities’ ability to thrive in place, and relationships to place, we can reduce pollution and build resilience. This was embedded in the HEAL Act through environmental health disparities mapping. Issues like land use, housing and transportation are integral to climate justice. Front and Centered anticipates an increased focus on those three in future policy work. In the meantime, we want to highlight some progress that move us forward as a state in these areas. Legislation addressing place that passed included:

  • The Model Toxic Control Act* (SB 5993) has been updated to stabilize and increase the tax on hazardous substances like oil. One percent of this goes to community participation grants. Additionally, the strengthened tax builds investments in spending accounts for operations, capital, and stormwater prevention and cleanup of toxic pollution of sites, explicitly allowing use of funds for affordable housing sites developments.
  • Thanks to the work of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, the legislature allocated $175 million to the Housing Trust Fund (versus $107 million in the last budget) to build nearly 5,000 permanently affordable homes across the state. It also allows local communities to access up to $51 million for affordable housing using existing sales taxes. More work is needed to ensure that housing is focused in areas with jobs and transit.
  • Tenant protection bills (SB 5600 and HB 1440, respectively) give renters more time to pay rent and encourages cities to allow increased housing near transit, reduce parking requirements and analyze and plan to minimize displacement (HB 1923). Taken together, these bills support communities to thrive in places they are rooted in rather than drive somewhere to access their needs.

*This policy was Front and Centered legislative priority.

A Regenerative Economy

How we create livelihoods, how we meet our needs, and ultimately how we manage our economy is critical to reducing pollution and achieving our vision of climate justice. Regenerative economic policy is an area we intend more attention to in future sessions. In the meantime, some wins of note:

  • Bills to protect workers, essential to a just transition, including agricultural workers (SB 5438 passed unanimously in the House!) and immigrant workers at risk during work (HB 5497), thanks to the staunch advocacy of Community 2 Community and Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Front and Centered member organizations united in justice for Honesto Silva Ibarra, a farmworker who died due to lack of protection under his H2A visa.
  • Legislators set new regulations to address classes of toxic chemicals in consumer products (SB 5135), giving the Washington State Department of Ecology authority to ban or restrict chemicals after determining whether safer alternatives are available. Bills to plan for reducing food waste (HB 1114) and a cracking-down on greenwashing plastic products (ESHB 1569) also passed. Both food waste and these plastic products are small barriers slowing the flow of throwaway consumer goods toxic to our bodies and the climate.
  • Legislation also passed that phases out Hydrofluorocarbons (HB 1112) a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration and cooling products.
  • The final budget included a progressive Real Estate Excise Tax that charges more for the sale of more expensive homes (although using it for tax breaks), an important precedent. However, this item failed to pass proposed taxes on income earned from capital gains. Income is closely correlated with carbon pollution, so taxing higher, disposable incomes and wealth — especially if invested wisely — can contribute to reducing climate pollution.

Clean Energy and Resources

Pastor Herbert Carey of To God Be the Glory Church in Kent with Front and Centered’s Sameer Ranade. Photo courtesy of Sameer Ranade.

Equitable governance, the management of place, and our economy can ensure we use fewer resources. However, we also need to transition the resources we do use to maximize efficiency and switch to renewable sources. Some wins this session in that direction:

  • Front and Centered played a key role in shaping and advocating for the bill to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation* (SB 5116), which requires Washington’s electric utilities to phase out coal by 2025, use no more than 20 percent fossil fuels by 2030, and eliminate fossil fuels completely by 2045. This bill signed into law last Tuesday also requires a broader analysis of equity, public benefits and pollution when making new investments, and ensures universal and improved energy assistance to households with lower incomes. The legislation codifies use of a cumulative impacts analysis and designation of communities highly impacted by climate and environmental impacts, one that Front and Centered also advocated for in the HEAL Act. The passing of 100 Percent Clean Electricity with strong equity components written into the bill is a testament to what can happen when frontline communities demand our right to shape policy.
  • In the new Clean Energy Transition Fund, priority must be given to projects that benefit vulnerable populations *, including Tribal Nations and communities with high environmental or energy burden. Additionally, grid modernization projects that identify a Tribal Nation or nonprofit as partners in developing and completing the work are given priority.
  • The legislature also passed conservation measures, including a bill to require that requires high energy efficiency standards product standards that save consumers money over their lifecycle (HB 1444) and a bill that requires large commercial buildings to meet energy performance standards and requires natural gas companies to take all available and cost effective conservation measures ** (HB 1257).
  • Legislators also preserved existing tools allowing customers to gain bill credits for generating their own solar power, essentially being able to measure and sell this power to utilities (SB 5223). This is an important tool for energy democracy, but at the same, it fails to create more much-needed access to community solar participation, virtual net-metering and on-bill financing.

*This policy was Front and Centered legislative priority.

**We testified in support of this bill. 

Front and Centered is in the process of further developing our framework for policy that advances climate and environmental justice. While this session was a step forward, it’s clear this is just the beginning and more work is needed to develop community-responsive policy, educate legislators, mobilize for action and advance equitable governance, place-based communities, regenerative economies, and renewable resources.