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Hacks & Wonks

Feb 11, 2021

Senator Joe Nguyen is on the show today to brief us on what’s going on this legislative session. Crystal and Senator Nguyen get in to the 2.2 billion dollar relief package currently making its way through the legislature, how the historic diversity of the legislature is shaping policy, collective bargaining and police accountability, and approaching drug policy through a public health lens.

A full text transcript of the show is available below and at

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s guest, Senator Joe Nguyen, at @senjoenguyen. More info is available at



Learn about the 2.2 billion COVID relief package here:

Read about the Washington State legislature’s historic diversity here:

Read more about the bill concerning private arbitration and policing here: 

Learn about Washington State’s potential decriminalization of drugs here:

Get a guide to participating in this legislative session here:

Watch Senator Nguyen’s video series, Olympia Explained, here:

Dig deep into this legislative session here:



Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

So today we are thankful and happy to be joined by Senator Joe Nguyen from the 34th Legislative District who has been extremely active in putting together legislation and really pushing it through. And so I wanted to bring him on to give us an update on all of the things that he's working on and how this session is shaping up. So thank you for joining us. 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:01:12] Thank you for having me - I appreciate it. Thank you for all that you're doing as well in the community. Your name pops up more than - more than a few times on the stuff that I work on as well so it's always good to see you. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:01:22] So what's going on in Olympia? 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:01:24] There's a lot going on in Olympia. Here, I'll - the first thing I'll kind of tee up is that now that we're in this remote nature of session where it's, you know, a kind of a hybrid. All of our committee hearings are remote. Floor action is a hybrid. I happen to be on the Floor 'cause I'm in the leadership side of things - helping organize. But what I will point out is that it's been fascinating kind of seeing this new paradigm, right? All of our committee hearings - we're literally seeing record numbers of people testify before committees on bills. Usually what happens when you testify on a bill - it's, you know, paid lobbyists who are financially motivated to be there. And now you're seeing regular people - people from across the country, people from across the state - testifying on important issues. We had a a community hearing on the Working Families Tax Credit and we had 343 people sign in from all over as well.

So it's been overall positive. Obviously you want to get back, you know, in person and normal as much as we can once this pandemic is over, but that's been kind of the biggest thing - is just the remote nature of session and seeing how people are able to interact with it. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:02:25] So what are you working on? I guess, starting off, just to address the pandemic and the financial challenges that people are experiencing because of it. Is there any relief on the way? 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:02:38] No, I thank you for asking that. I think the biggest thing for us is obviously addressing the pandemic and the first bill that we're working on, that's kind of working its way through to Governor's office right now is a $2.2 billion economic relief. And that's everything from small businesses, to workers, to enhanced unemployment benefits for people as well. We know that in this pandemic, it has disproportionately impacted some communities more than others. And being able to provide that economic relief to get people to be able to stay stable, stay housed, stay home - that's how we get through this. So we have that economic relief that is on the way. I've been a big supporter of just basic needs in general. Ever since I got to the Legislature a couple of years ago, where fundamentally, I think one of the root causes, one of the root problems of our democracy is income inequality.

And when you see in Washington State - that has literally, you know, the wealthiest economy in the United States and potentially in the world and you have some of the folks who are the wealthiest people to ever exist in the history of humanity live here. And then you also see rampant unemployment , you see rampant homelessness, you see issues that are a fallout from that unaffordability. You need to be able to tackle that for us to have a society that is just and equitable. So the reason why I say that is because, you know, we've been talking more about TANF - basic needs programs. 

What's interesting is that before the Legislature started this session, I made a huge push to reject any austerity measures, right? So in the last recession and the last time we had a downturn, they oftentimes would balance the budget by cutting programs that we actually need. So in Washington State, for folks who don't know, about 87% of our budget - it's constrained. Whether it's constitutionally constrained because you're required to pay for certain things, or you get federal matching dollars for like Medicaid or long-term care - so you wouldn't want to cut those. So you look at the 13% that's left, you're talking like - basic needs programs, higher education, affordability, housing. So there was an effort to potentially go back to special session and make cuts to these programs. We said, no. And luckily we prevailed because now we're able to provide this relief, provide this funding for families.

And what I'm most proud of is not actually legislative, but the fact that nobody's talking about austerity, nobody's talking about making cuts to TANF, right? So for me, you know, that's one of those things that you may not notice, but the fact that the narrative and the messaging has changed from, Let's make these budget cuts and tighten our belts. To, How do we appropriately invest in our communities so that we're safe and that we're healthy and that we can make an equitable recovery? That to me has been probably the biggest victory without ever having to pass any legislation - is changing that dynamic. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:17] Well, and that's huge. And the last time we went through a recession here in the state, that was dominating the conversation.

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:05:24] It was the old part of the conversation. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:26] Right. And the shift is so dramatic and I think it is led by, frankly , your leadership, a lot of the other newer leaders who've been elected and coincidence - also many more leaders of color who have been elected, who understand the impact of austerity measures within communities and oftentimes feel it a little closer to home. You certainly seem to be leading with a stance of how can we help, who needs help, instead of whether people deserve to be helped at all.

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:06:00] Yeah. I mean, we're not here to nitpick. If you need help, we're going to help you. I think the - my mantra for this year is, Just help people and do it fast. I think that's fair. And what's interesting 'cause you pointed out that it may or may not be a coincidence that this is the most diverse legislature in the history of Washington State. And now these issues are coming to the forefront. I don't think it is a coincidence. I think - I think you know that as well, right? 

In Olympia, you know, we see about 2,000-3,000 bills in any given year - 2,000-3,000. Yet we only pass about 200-300ish. So a lot of times people think politics is about right or wrong, good or bad, Republican or Democrat. That's actually not the case. It's making sure that your issue is worthy of being discussed. And for a long time, people like us haven't been at the Legislature, at the table. So those issues don't rise to the top. Now that you're seeing such tremendous champions - Senator Nobles in the Senate , folks in the House - you're seeing tremendous amount of talent and energy behind these issues. And that's why it's being brought to the forefront - juvenile justice, criminal justice reform, things that I care deeply about. We have a whole package of stuff that the Department of Corrections is actually partnering with us to help pass. That would have been unheard of even a couple of years ago. So bringing those new voices to the Legislature doesn't just bring that representation, it brings champions who are going to fight for issues. And I think that's why we're able to have this conversation about investments and not necessarily austerity, because the folks who've been impacted by it, like you said, are now at the Legislature and understand the implications. And because of that, you know, we get to help decide now too.

Crystal Fincher: [00:07:35] Right. And I think that's healthy. And I think another area where we are having a more robust conversation than we've had before, and certainly there are people motivated to go further than we have before - in changing the way we approach public safety. So what is being worked on to specifically address the issue of police brutality, abuses , racism and violence and, and public safety overall. What are you guys looking at getting done to move in that direction? 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:08:06] Yeah, there's a whole suite of bills that kind of work in tandem, so it's been great. One of the benefits, candidly, of having this dynamic where things are more remote in nature is that we've been having these conversations with legislators since this past summer. And usually what happens is that - you get to session, people drop bills, and you kind of quickly try to figure it out. But this has been a very holistic and multi-pronged effort by the House and the Senate and candidly, even Republican Democrats in certain cases to figure out what this looks like. Right? 

So you have everything from Senator Pedersen's decertification bill. So you can't just have bad apples moving across different departments . Representative Jesse Johnson and Representative Entenman have a whole suite of bills as it relates to no-knock warrants, as it relates to uses of chokeholds and other things as well. And you're really seeing people try to tackle this problem holistically from the spectrum of issues as well. Senator Kuderer has a bill to raise the standards in which law enforcement officials can become law enforcement officials, so that they're not just necessarily, you know, kind of, out of high school and then go straight into it , and having more training associated with it.

And then one of the things that I really wanted to tackle that we've been talking a lot about in the Legislature is the arbitration piece, right? So like we also know that you need to have a quality pipeline of people coming in, people need to be held accountable. And then how do you reform arbitration? And what's interesting is during that process, I started off very much - we should just remove arbitration from collective  bargaining . Which is tough because you have a lot of folks and friends in labor who - this is the cornerstone of the labor movement. Being able to have power to not necessarily allow just the bosses to make the decisions is one of those key pieces. And we've kind of had some nuanced conversations and gotten to the point where there's a couple of bills, but I'll tell you about the one that I have is modeled after Minnesota. So after the incidents over this past year, after George Floyd, Minnesota acknowledged that the arbitration piece is in fact a problem in Minnesota and they had a method to fix it, at least on the first step. And ours is, is trying to, you know, remove the bias associated with potentially the arbitration process, streamline it so that way it doesn't drag on for months and months and months and potentially years, which then leads to all kinds of negative things. But also increases transparency. One of the hardest parts that we had about arbitration specifically is that we just had no data for Washington State. All of the numbers and all the quotes that we would receive about arbitration were national numbers because nobody was really tracking it in Washington State. 

And the hard part about the Legislature is that there's 147 people that I have to work with, right? So not only do you need to have their issues kind of well worked and baked, you have to have the information that's available out there to convince 147 people or the majority of them that your issue is worthy. So when you have something that's as controversial or as politically difficult as arbitration, one of the first things we needed to do was first off, you know, make some systemic changes, but also collect that data in order to guide our decision making going forward. So that's something near and dear to my heart. We've been working with the House on their suite of bills, with the Senate, obviously, on ours. And really I wanted to plug in on the arbitration piece because I knew that that was probably the most politically difficult because you're going to get folks that want a certain thing and other folks want another thing. And oftentimes they're diametrically opposed so that's where we're engaging at the moment. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:11:31] Well, and one issue that we certainly have have talked a lot about here and locally is - is that of collective bargaining and the role that the Guild contract plays in the local disciplinary process. Because it seems like, Hey, even, even when they make the decision to fire an officer, sometimes that's overturned. And so there can be situations where an officer can actually turn in another cop if they see something that looked wrong to them. And that's investigated - they say, You know what? That was wrong. This is not compatible with our culture and community and what our priorities are. You know, this officer was fired and then they go through the arbitration process or appeals process and wind up being appointed or placed back in their job. And all the local decision-making authority is overruled. And it seems like as long as that's the case, it's going to be hard to shift any conversations about culture or real accountability, if the final authority doesn't rest locally. Is there any work being done on that? I guess, how do you see that? How do you feel that needs to be addressed?

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:12:45] Yeah, I think the hard part about that - is that what we don't want is enforcement by geography. Meaning I would feel very confident for the City of Seattle, which has the Office of the Inspector General, it has the Community Police Commission - to give oversight over that authoritative body. And kind of where we ran into some of the open questions was say, for instance, what if you were talking about Republic, Washington. And if the management necessarily wasn't as sympathetic as they would be in Seattle . We saw this past summer, and this is anecdotal and I want to - I'm making that point on purpose, is that we saw one of the corrections officers was fired from the DOC because he was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and he was fired because of it. Where a person who was wearing a Blue Lives Matter shirt was okay, right? In those cases, should we take away arbitration in that case and give them, right? So there are certainly cases that I believe certainly warrant , you know, reforms to the arbitration piece. But if you were to wholesale remove it, you feasibly might run into situations where if management in that specific jurisdiction isn't as sympathetic as it relates to racial equity, you could potentially get worse outcomes. And that's the part that we were having a hard time struggling with because there was no data being captured about what is bad, or what is good - is because there's no way for us to understand how many arbitration cases were out there, what those outcomes have been, and is this a systemic issue? And that's why one of the provisions in the bill was to move basically all arbitration for law enforcement discipline under what's called PERC. It's our state level employee relations board. And by doing that, you first off are able to collect all the data because now all the reports have to live there, but then we are also requiring that arbitrators not just have experience with law enforcement discipline - must undergo racial equity training as well. So they must be reviewing these cases with the lens of racial equity in addition to law enforcement. So that was one of the pieces that we're trying to take out, because I completely agree. There are definitely cases where folks should not be put back on the force and they are and largely because it's a technicality or largely because that arbitrator maybe has a history of being sympathetic toward certain cases and we want to remove a lot of that bias. So in lieu of having substantial information to say that this is a pattern of abuse, this is a good first step to say, Well, I think we're going to remove a lot of the bias because in a lot of these contracts, you're able to pick and choose who the arbitrator is, which then means you can pick who has been sympathetic in the past. So we're taking that away. We're making it that it's a random list and then we're making them be mindful of the racial equity impact. And then also by shedding light on it, by having it at the forefront at the state level , we can see these outcomes more clearly. And I think what likely could happen is that you might see more mediation cases. So they don't actually go to arbitration because they know that they may not necessarily be able to game the system. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:15:41] All right. So it looks like it is moving forward from where we are today and collecting the data and setting things up to - if the data shows that there is a systemic problem, which many of us kind of look at the system and say, Yes, there is, repairs --

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:15:58] Oh, I believe it. I think there is a systemic problem . It's a matter of just proving that and then using that to guide our path forward. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:16:06] That makes sense. And another bill that you just were speaking about yesterday in a press conference, does - looks at decriminalization and reducing the - what we're asking police to be responding to and taking low-level possession - and for drugs that are illegal today and saying, You know, this is actually not a legal problem. If anything, this is a public health problem, but we have tried to use the police and the criminal justice system to address this issue and it hasn't done anything to fix the problem. In fact, makes it worse in many ways. So you're trying a new approach. You want to talk about what that --

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:16:47] Yeah, the treatment and recovery bill. No, first off, I think we're - to the point earlier by having representation and diversity and key experiences - Representative Davis is amazing. She's worked in this space - the treatment and recovery space . Representative Kirsten Harris-Talley is amazing in this space as well. So it's been awesome to see these leaders step up and tackle such a huge problem. We know that the way that we're handling recovery is not good. It's not working very well. We know that the War on Drugs was racist, right? So we need to first off fix the wrongs of the past, but also put resources and services in place to truly help people. Criminalizing people doesn't help them. In fact, it makes it worse because then you have a record, you have legal fees, you have a hard time getting access to services and jobs to stabilize you after the fact. So instead of going the route of criminalizing people for what is a substance or behavioral health issue, we give them the support to address their substance or behavioral health issue.

It's not actually rocket science. And what's funny is that the conversations have been pretty interesting across the coalition. And obviously this is gonna be a tough lift, but if you take a step back and you look at like any of the movies or the TV shows that you've seen, whenever there's like a rockstar or a wealthy person who has a drug issue, they go to rehab and everything's fine. So in my mind, it's like, well, how is this different than what a rich person would do? 

Crystal Fincher: [00:18:09] Exactly.

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:18:10] Right? Like you don't criminalize them and you give them the support that they need to get better. So this isn't actually a unique concept. This is something that has been done for, you know, maybe communities that can afford to do it. And all we're asking is to lend that same grace and service to everybody else who may not necessarily have that ability. And we know that substance abuse and mental health issues are not systemic. I'm sorry - is not unique to just low income communities. We know that it is across the spectrum. We just believe that if that is the case, we should also treat people the same as you would if they were, say for instance, wealthy. So, and that's kind of why I signed on is first off, this process is broken. Second, we know that there's a better path. We've been doing it in wealthy neighborhoods. Let's extend that service to everybody else. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:18:55] Absolutely makes sense. Long past due and our neighbors to the south in Oregon just passed similar legislation with broad support of the public. It seems like the public is ahead of many governing bodies. And fortunately with your representation and like you said, colleagues like Representative Kirsten Harris-Talley in the 37th , have pushed this to the forward and made this a priority. And again, does do more to , you know , both on the accountability side - it is a positive thing when we're asking police officers to be responding to fewer things and to put a more appropriate intervention in place. Handcuffs has not been helpful. It has not done anything to solve the substance use disorder problem. The War on Drugs has , you know, only criminalized people and led people, as you said, to deal with the issues of having a hard time getting a job, being stuck in poverty, having a hard time finding housing for the rest of their lives. So, I am happy that this is moving forward in particular and have done work on it - full disclosure. So and excited to see that moving forward. 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:20:10] Well and the cool thing too is that this in conjunction with other bills that are out there, right? So everything from expanding graduated re-entry, everything from increasing earned time, everything from investing in what's called iCOACH where you basically are trying to make sure that we reduce recidivism in a very supportive way. I think that's like, you know, it's hard to see on the surface, but like the body of work being done in this space is, I mean, I'm new, but like, from what I can understand, this is not normal to see so much energy and effort in a very thoughtful way, in a collaborative way, right? Like I think you may see some bipartisan support where you would not expect it because I think there are folks who agree that there's a problem that needs to be solved. And this is potentially the path forward. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:20:51] Yeah, it definitely appears to be. And you know, you say you're new, but you seem to have definitely hit the ground running and are leading on a wide variety of bills. You talked about income inequality, you talked about needing revenue and bringing some equity to the situation. You know, looking at listening to a conversation from some legislators the other day that Washington has around a hundred billionaires - billionaires - that we, you know, kind of know the publicly available list of a dozen or two, but they're actually many more here in the area. And so wealth is concentrated, not just nationally, but here locally, just in the hands of a few while we can look around and see so many needs that have only been made bigger by the pandemic and by this recession -  you know, the jobs crisis and eviction crisis that people are looking at. So what is on the table and how can people support?

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:21:56] Yeah, so here - one of the first things. So that's also a positive thing too, is that I think the Legislature, the majority of the body, understands that we need to have progressive tax reform. And one of the things that I will ask the listeners is that we need to stop talking about the budget, right? So our job as legislators is not just to balance a budget. If that was the case, it takes, whatever, a couple of emails, we'll work through it with our staff and we drop the bill and we vote and we go home. But that's not our job. Our job is to take care of the economy and the people inside of it as well.

So for me, the important thing for us and for our listeners is to start shifting that conversation where I don't care if we have a budget deficit or not. Are we doing a good enough job supporting the people in Washington State and the residents who are here? That's my goal. So when you look at it from that broader context, you're talking things like childcare, you're talking things like healthcare, access to education, access economic opportunity. Those are the things that we need to invest in. And honestly whether we have a 100 billionaires or 99 billionaires, I don't think that that actually materially makes a difference for the workers that we care about. But those billionaires need us. They need workers to help drive the value for their businesses, right? So for me when you look at the impacts of what they could potentially face if you were to have a capital gains or a high-earners payroll or something else, or a wealth tax that you'll see with Representative Frame . If you look at the trajectory of tax rates since the 1960s, it's nearly half of what they were paying before. When I say them, I'm talking like the top 400 families in the United States. While the tax rates for those at the bottom - the bottom 50% has gone up. So we're not even asking them to pay more than what they should be paying. We're asking them to pay kind of what we're paying, right?

Like we're not even saying, Hey, you should pay a disproportionately amount more than what everybody else is paying. We're saying, please pay the same thing, at least, that we pay. And we're not billionaires. So I know that people are always nervous to talk about taxes. It's very easy to talk about slippery slope, but I will put out that if you don't own a private island or a spacecraft that can take you to Mars, you probably don't need to worry about these things that we're proposing from a tax policy.

And if you do, Congratulations, because you're literally one of the wealthiest people to ever exist in humanity. So, you know, I think as a society that should be focused on taking care of one another,it is okay to ask the wealthiest people ever to exist in the history of humanity to pay what we're paying and use that money to invest in things like childcare and education and healthcare, so that way we can all be successful. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:24:25] Yeah. Absolutely. You know, I definitely agree. And I think, you know, you are representing our community on this. We all - when you look at support for policies and where people are at, you know, through polling and other votes, people are there . You know, this is - has been in some ways, a tougher sell within the Legislature than it has been outside of it. And especially as people now are - right now, people are in crisis or closer to crisis than they ever have been before for a large percentage of people. And more people struggling now than have ever been. And you know, being homeless, housing insecure, on the brink of homelessness, you know, without a job, and having to make decisions between, Okay, do I go to work and put my life at risk and while not having, you know, stable or adequate health care, or do I risk not paying my rent or feeding my kids? And these choices that people are being made to make, because the system keeps saying, We don't have enough money - sorry. We can't take care of everyone. 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:25:40] And it's untenable. It's not an accident that the highest rates of positive COVID testing is in my South King County - parts of my district, right? Communities that have historically been marginalized because they don't have access to healthcare or economic opportunity where they can stay at home. Like it's exacerbated those. And I, and I think for us - and this is what we've been talking about before the pandemic, but for us to truly achieve recovery, you have to provide economic relief for the families who need it the most and economic opportunities as well. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:26:09] Well, and I completely agree. And you brought up, you know, communities that are part of your district - looking at Burien . And looking at some of the disproportionate impacts of climate change and pollution on communities here and needing to, you know, Hey, well, we need to try and recover and address this economic crisis and this pandemic. We also have the crisis of climate change that we have got to deal with too. So, you know, I know cap and invest and Washington STRONG are two proposals on the table that look interesting and are garnering support. Where does action on climate and pollution and addressing  those issues stand? Are you making progress on those too? 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:26:55] Yeah, I think those two are - so just for context, the cap and invest, obviously, is an option. Washington STRONG is a carbon fee similar to what we've seen in the past. What I will add is that transportation is 44% of the emissions in Washington State, meaning for us to truly tackle climate change, we also need to make sure that our investments in transportation is also forward thinking as it relates to climate. So that's going to be one of my main focuses is that - how do we make investments in our infrastructure? Whether it's more multi-modal - getting people out of their cars - how do we, you know, maintain the infrastructure that we have and not necessarily just build more roads. Things like that, where it may not be overt but that also does a big part of alleviating climate change. So to pile on - there's a lot of work that needs to be done. Not enough people doing it, and that's why I appreciate you and your work and everybody else out there to make sure that we're holding our elected officials accountable, but also supporting candidates that we believe are truly in a fight for the things that we need to fight about as well.

Crystal Fincher: [00:27:53] Well and appreciate that. And so how can people best support the work that you're doing, the bills that you're working on? How should they get involved with it? 

Senator Joe Nguyen: [00:28:02] Yeah - I think the easiest thing to do absent being able to tell you everything right now, is that if you follow us on Facebook or Twitter and Instagram, the handle is @SenJoeNguyen and also if you want to testify, I think that's so important. And if you go to, it's called CSIRemote. But being able to testify is powerful. Legislators love hearing from regular people. We spend most of our time talking about, you know, stuff that lobbyists want to talk about, like, I'd rather talk to regular people. So if you were to contact me on social media, follow us so that you see kind of, what's going through the pipeline, be able to testify on that, talk to your legislators. I think that's one of the more effective things that we could be doing. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:28:40] Absolutely. And so we'll include all of those links in the show notes. So you can just turn to the podcast show notes or the website and get linked up there if you didn't already have that, or aren't already following him. And he is active and informative on social media, so I definitely recommend following and paying attention that way.

Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones, Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, and now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at and in the podcast episode notes.

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