When Washington’s part-time citizen legislature convened for the 2021 legislative session in January, our state’s considerable challenges were more evident than ever. In the wake of rising Covid-19 cases, four years of federal obstinance on climate change, and the prospect of the first-ever legislative session conducted over Zoom, there were deep concerns about the Legislature’s capacity to rise to the moment.

By the time the 105-day session concluded, however, the results were clear: 2021 marked a historic year of action and transformational legislation to accelerate climate action and boost an equitable economic and public health recovery.

In the spirit of grace and sincere gratitude, I’d like to share some highlights.

Climate

According to the International Panel on Climate Change’s most recent estimates, the global economy must achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As chair of the Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee, I partnered closely with Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon and others to pass a nation-leading climate package that puts Washington on the path to reach that target.

The climate package included three major bills to decarbonize our economy and encourage green, 21st-century jobs. The Climate Commitment Act, or Senate Bill 5126, establishes an economy-wide cap-and-invest system to steadily reduce carbon emissions within a market-based framework. House Bill 1091 targets the state’s largest source of emissions, the transportation sector, by achieving a 20 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2038. Senate Bill 5141, or the HEAL Act, fits holistically with both of those policies by designing an appointed council to embed environmental justice principles in state agencies and investments to ensure a just climate transition.

With the Climate Commitment Act, Washington joins California as the second state in the nation to adopt an economy-wide carbon pricing policy. It will cut emissions both by making it more expensive for companies to pollute and by investing $5.2 billion in clean transportation projects, in addition to funding climate mitigation and resilience. Just as importantly, the legislation includes innovative policies to reduce air particulates in communities disproportionately impacted by pollution, including an air quality monitoring and tracking system, a commitment to spend 35 percent of revenue from the cap-and-invest program in such communities, and integration with the environmental justice panel created in the HEAL Act. We are now the only state in the nation with an enforceable, binding commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the goal outlined in the Paris Accords.

Economy

As home to premier global companies in technology, coffee and aerospace, Washington’s economic foundation is strong. However, the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic highlighted cracks in that foundation, including the continued costs of the state’s regressive tax code, disparate access to basic services like broadband and childcare, and the need to strengthen support for the small businesses that are the bedrock of Seattle’s economy and character.

Soon after the Legislature convened, House and Senate Democrats acted swiftly to support schools, businesses and vaccine deployment by passing $2.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief and $1.7 billion in small business tax relief in January, later adding another $500 million for the hardest-hit businesses. The recently passed two-year, $59.2 billion operating budget builds on those initial efforts by providing $1.1 billion in vaccine distribution and public health efforts, a $4 billion increase for K-12 education to address school enrollment changes, reopening and learning loss, $303 million to expand childcare access and affordability, and crucial policies to rebalance our state’s regressive tax code. For the first time, the Legislature funded the Working Families Tax Rebate, a program modeled after the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and which will provide between $300 and $1,200 in annual sales tax rebates to nearly 500,000 taxpayers.

The $6.3 billion capital budget will also put people back to work on vital construction projects in housing, broadband, school renovations and more. Specifically, it invests a record $350 million in affordable housing grants and loans, including $120 million in an innovative Rapid Housing Acquisition Program. The goal of the program is to urgently create housing for unsheltered people by providing localities with assistance to fund flexible solutions, including hotel acquisitions, tiny homes and enhanced emergency shelters.

As new services funded in the state budget roll out, my staff and I remain committed to providing personal, high-touch casework assistance to all residents of the 36th District. If you encounter challenges with rental assistance, small business supports, a Covid-19 vaccine appointment, an unemployment claim, or any other service, please reach out to my office and we will strive to assist you directly.

Conclusion

The 2021 legislative session marked a new era in our state’s transition to a 21st century, green and equitable economic future. However, we know the collective trauma of the past year and the profound challenges to our mental health, economy and civic institutions will continue long after the pandemic subsides. Authentic, lasting progress will require shared leadership and understanding from the those within the business community, faith leaders, non-profit and public services, and so much more. Together, we can build on the promise of the 2021 legislative session to make Washington a true light among nations. 

— Sen. Reuven Carlyle is the 36th District senator.