Feb 8, 2022
Senator Rebecca Saldaña of the 37th Legislative District chats with Crystal about legislating with a lens that centers all Washingtonians - whether it be climate resiliency and environmental justice, transportation priorities, public safety resources, pandemic relief and recovery, or voting rights. For those who are candidates or considering running for office, Senator Saldaña offers words of advice on understanding your own strengths and staying rooted and accountable to your values.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Washington Senate Democrats - Senator Rebecca Saldaña: https://senatedemocrats.wa.gov/saldana/
Front and Centered - Health Environment For All (HEAL) Act: https://frontandcentered.org/heal-act/
“Washington Democrats and Republicans want to spend more on transportation. But what will the Legislature get done?” by David Kroman from The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/democrats-and-republicans-want-to-spend-more-on-transportation-but-what-will-the-washington-legislature-get-done/
Front and Centered - Just Transition in Transportation: https://frontandcentered.org/just-transition-in-transportation/
SB 5354 - Addressing traffic control in large cities: https://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=5354&Year=2021&Initiative=false
SB 5597 - Concerning the Washington voting rights act: https://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=5597&Initiative=false&Year=2021
“Democracy Just Got Stronger in Washington State” by Shannon Cheng in ACLU Voting Rights Blog: https://www.aclu.org/blog/voting-rights/voting-rights-act/democracy-just-got-stronger-washington-state
“Ways and Means Committee to discuss addition to Washington Voting Rights Act on February 5” by Jessica Perez for NBC Right Now: https://www.nbcrightnow.com/news/ways-and-means-committee-to-discuss-addition-to-washington-voting-rights-act-on-february-5/article_9823fe96-8617-11ec-9c46-8f7e6fbcd648.html
SB 5796 - Restructuring cannabis revenue appropriations: https://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=5796&Initiative=false&Year=2021
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today we're thrilled to have joining us a senator from the 37th Legislative District, Deputy Majority Caucus Leader Rebecca Saldaña. Thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:00:50] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Thank you so much, Crystal. It's so great to be here. I really appreciate it.
[00:00:52] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Appreciate you being here again and excited about what you've been able to accomplish. So, we're going to talk about what's going on this session, but I wanted to talk more about the HEAL Act, which you were instrumental in helping to pass last session. Can you recap what that is for us?
[00:01:11] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Sure - the HEAL Act puts into statute definition for environmental justice, it establishes a task force that is majority people most impacted by environmental hazards and harms and come from frontline communities, and it covers seven agencies. Let's see if I get this - it's been a minute since I've had to name them - but Department of Ecology, Department of Transportation, Department of Health, Department of Commerce, we're getting close here, and then also Puget Sound Partnership and the Department of Natural Resources. And so they have been tasked over this last - since it became law, the first steps are to establish the Environmental Justice Council. And the seven agencies form a work group to begin to start planning for how they're going to incorporate EJ [Environmental Justice] into their strategies and community outreach plans. And so that is underway. And it's also important to note that the Climate Commitment Act that was also passed last year is subject to the HEAL Act and environmental justice policies.
[00:02:41] Crystal Fincher: Excellent. So, that was such a big push from so many in the community and thank you so much for spearheading that. That is incredibly important. And, as we look forward to what's coming this session and looking at a transportation package - considering all of the impacts of climate change that we're already feeling and what we're going to be feeling in the future, impacts of pollution - how does that frame your approach coming up this session in terms of transportation and what's on the table?
[00:03:20] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Yeah, so it definitely really sets us up from a different perspective than we would have in the past around transportation investment. So, this year what we're looking at is making sure that we move a transportation investment plan that meets the priorities of my Democratic caucus - which is to make sure that we have a more just and inclusive and equitable recovery out of this pandemic. And how we make those investments in transportation should help move that - it's making sure that we're addressing safety, that we're addressing climate impacts, that we're addressing mobility that is centered around all Washingtonians, especially those that are furthest from historic opportunities. So, what that means is that we're going to make sure that we spend and program correctly the Climate Commitment dollars of $5.2 billion, that we are making sure that we are addressing our plussing up pedestrian and multimodal investments, that we are really making sure that we are decarbonizing our transportation as we grow, and taking care of what we've already built into the transportation system - make sure it works better for everyone.
So, that's what we're up to. Chair Liias and myself along with Senator Randall, Senator Lovelett taking the lead on ferries - are instrumental in helping shape this policy and are in active negotiations with both the Republicans on this side for a current law on the supplemental budget and active with the Democrats in the House to come up with a proposal that I think really sets the tone and lays the groundwork for the kind of future investments that we want to see for a transportation system that works for - that's clean, green, and creates more opportunities for everyone.
[00:05:32] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. Clean and green, creating more opportunities, serving more of the population is very important. I've heard you talk a lot about the importance of making our transportation work for people who don't drive. Can you share with us your approach on that?
[00:05:49] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Sure. So, there's a couple of things in terms of just really specific investments and asks. This last year, when we went remote, one of the benefits is that more people that can't drive - that have impairments or disabilities - were able to participate in our committee hearings at a level that I've never seen before. And it was very empowering. And out of that came - from the Washington State Disability Coalition - they have made a big claim that over 25% of Washingtonians do not drive and that could be from - for choice - because they want to be kinder to our planet. It could be because there's a disability or an age issue. And so we want to know more. And there's - in the governor's budget and definitely plan to advocate for it to be in the final budget - is a proviso to support the further studying of that data so that we can really understand more about who are the non-drivers, how do they use our right-of-ways, how are they being served currently, and how can we do better.
And there's specific things around - whether it's safe routes to school or looking at our on-ramps, off-ramps, and where the highway interacts - with what we're trying to do around equitable transit-oriented development to give people more choices about engaging with their economy and their community, whether that's staying at home and being in their neighborhoods and being able to do that or whether it's using the roads through public transit, through ride shares or through their individual vehicles.
[00:07:36] Crystal Fincher: Great. And there's been a lot of conversation particularly among people who are interested in making sure that we continue to have a resilient economy and that the investments that we make don't make our climate issue any worse or pollution problems worse. And a real conversation around do we maintain the roads and highways that we have - and I think there's broad agreement that we absolutely need to do that - but looking at not expanding highways and roads. Where do you land on that? Do you support a package that expands highways or do you think we should be limiting it to maintaining what we have?
[00:08:18] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: We definitely need to go back to basics and have our number one priority to make sure that we are actually addressing preservation and maintenance and building in that climate resiliency. We have a lot of bridges that are failing or close to failing, and we need to make sure that we are building in climate resiliency and making sure that we are expanding safety for people that are moving across those bridges for instance. Whether they're walking, biking, riding, or rolling, or in their own vehicle.
And so I think that the piece where I have some nuance around expansion is that we have a lot of our transportation right-of-way has never been completed for all the users. And so in some places where it looks like there's an expansion - in my mind, it's about completing the street and making sure that we're creating a dedicated lane for bus rapid transit for instance - that's a lot of what the investments on 405 are about. It is about making sure that we are adding barriers or dedicated lanes for bike or rollers so that we can improve safety for everyone that's using that system. So, I think those are the places where it's a little nuanced when you're looking at the list of proposals or what comes out in a final budget. But definitely we need to make sure that where we're growing and investment is in preservation maintenance, it's in figuring out a sustainability plan around our ferries, and it's about making sure that we're creating opportunities for safety and decarbonization.
[00:10:11] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. So, what other bills should we be on the lookout for specifically when it comes to transportation?
[00:10:22] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Well, the bills that I have in Transportation - one is really around the budget and that's where you'll see a lot of my involvement - is around making sure that we're planning so that we're not just pushing problems down to the next exit, but we're actually creating more flow and making a system that works better. The bills that I have in Transportation are really about, in large part, making sure that we're allowing badged officers to have their right role in public safety and freeing them up to focus where a lot of our communities want them to be. So, there is a traffic flagger bill - now this is where I'm like, "Let me go do my cheat sheet here for the numbers," because I am really bad at focusing on the bill numbers - but Senate Bill 5354 is in the House now. I'm hoping that they will take care of it this year. But it's saying that when there's large events in the City of Seattle for instance, that instead of having a badged officer on overtime in the middle of an intersection, that we have a professional flagger doing that work and the officer can be there to respond to actual crisis or needs. Similar to that -
[00:11:41] Crystal Fincher: That makes perfect sense.
[00:11:43] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: So, that's SB 5354. There's one around using camera enforcement for intersections and for bus rapid transit right-of-ways - that's Senate Bill 5707. And there's a little towing bill, which I don't remember the number, but again for Sound Transit - if there is a vehicle in their way, rather than having to call the police and then the police call the tower, they can just call the tower. So, these - sometimes you think these are not very exciting, but this is about good governance. It's about putting people in the right place and helping them be successful. And making sure that we're putting our resources in the right place. So, those are my Transportation bills.
[00:12:21] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, no, that makes sense. And it may sound minor, but something like SB 5354 making it so that licensed flaggers can control traffic makes perfect sense and is in line with what many people in the community have been asking for, and just gives folks so much more flexibility in allocating their own resources. I would think that lots of cities would be very excited about that because it gives them more control.
[00:12:48] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Yeah, it's actually - the new mayor had a great story about leaving a Huskies game and being yelled at by the officer in the middle of the intersection. And it wasn't a problem for him, but it's these negative interactions that can - that the community has seen. And in a lot of cases, especially when it's young people, that's not the interaction we want them to have. And instead the officer can actually be free to respond to crises instead of being stuck in an intersection.
[00:13:28] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, makes sense. So, we talked about transportation. We are still here in the middle of this pandemic and the middle of an Omicron wave. And a lot of people are anxious about sending their kids to school still, whether their schools are prepared. People figuring out just how they can navigate their workplace safety, which a lot of people are being called back in to the workplace and figuring that out. A lot of just stress and strain, a lot of people getting ill, straining many of our hospital systems. What can be done from the legislative perspective to help people through this?
[00:14:11] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Yes. So, last year, I think that was our number one priority when we were in the legislature, and I think part of it is circling back and saying, "Where do we need to keep things going? Where do we need to make adjustment?" So, last year we made huge investments in making sure that we kept our school districts whole so that staff would be able to be retained, and making sure that we were supporting families on the front lines - whether that was major investments in rent assistance, acquiring more housing so that we can have more affordable housing - that of course takes a little bit of time to show up. And to make sure that we are addressing our essential frontline workers - a big part of that was our Worker Relief Fund for individuals that didn't get any of the federal assistance, don't qualify for local unemployment insurance - and so that was a huge piece for keeping many families afloat.
I think this year we're looking at more about how can we support essential workforce to get the compensation for being on the frontlines, how important it is to retain and support our healthcare workers that are doing incredible work right now. There's a lot of work around apprenticeships to be able to help build the pipeline and support, again, retention and growth for other healthcare workers - whether it's behavioral health, whether it's folks that are working with unhoused individuals and working with folks suffering from substance use and addictions. So, there's that piece as well.
I think what we're seeing is - for families and for neighbors is - again, the kind of rent assistance and support, looking at increasing benefits for people that are living precariously in our communities, and making sure that people have access to food assistance - that has been huge as well. I think we're being responsive to what we're hearing from community in terms of how do we make sure that they have the right kind of PPE, how we make sure that educators and students and families are supported. A lot of the bill numbers I don't have in front of me, but I do know that there's quite a bit of legislation working through the process and I know that our end goal is to make sure that families have real freedom and choice to feel like they can stay in the school system and be safe.
[00:17:12] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. We're also in the midst of lots of conversations about people's access to the ballot nationally and locally. And a lot of legislation in different states and gerrymandering to various degrees - lots of concerns about people's access to the ballot. Here locally, we have done a much better job, in my opinion, of ensuring people have access to mail-in ballots and dropboxes. Is there anything else that you feel we should be working on, or legislation that's making its way through, to help people be able to vote more efficiently, effectively, and for more people to participate?
[00:18:01] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: 100%. There is. So, as you know, we passed a couple of years ago a Washington Voting Rights Act. And given the fact that at the federal level it looks unsure what kind of action they're going to take, and in the meantime we have a federal Supreme Court that has been weakening the historic federal Voting Rights Act. And so here in Washington we want to lead the way in making sure that we are strengthening our residents' access to democracy. And so I am sponsoring a followup bill to strengthen our Washington Voting Rights Act, which is Senate Bill 5597, and it will require certain jurisdictions making changes to cover voting practices to get pre-clearance to make sure that what they're doing is not worsening conditions and it is, in fact, actually improving access to democracy and real representation. We're going to make it, if passed - we'll make it financially easier to bring a claim against a jurisdiction under the Act, and ensuring that those plaintiffs that are brave and courageous to take on their local jurisdiction to get compensated for their work when a jurisdiction voluntarily takes action in response to a letter and a lawsuit ensues.
And also we'll create a data repository at the UW to assist jurisdictions, researchers, and members of the public to understand which jurisdictions should contemplate changing their form of election. And so really trying to get that data to be more accessible and available because a lot of our jurisdictions are very small and don't have the kind of resources that a City of Seattle or King County have. And they want to do right by their constituents but may not have access to that information and that resource. So, this will be a great asset for all to make sure that they are really creating opportunities for people to have representation - to have a voice in their work and in their communities.
There's also a little bill that - I'm so horrible at - that Representative Gregerson is leading. Because right now there are two elections going on that I bet a lot of people don't even realize. One is for King County Conservation District, so if you live in King County, you have the opportunity to vote until now until February 8, but no one knows and they aren't on any ballot that gets mailed to us. And so her bill would have them aligned with the general election cycle so they can also be on the ballot and more people can engage with who represents them at the Conservation District. And of course, I did just turn in my ballot yesterday for supporting the school levies. And that is another really important way that we can make sure that our local school districts have both more operating and capital resources that are really important for matching the investments that we put in at the state level to support our having healthy school buildings for our educators and our youth to really learn and do well.
[00:21:20] Crystal Fincher: I mean we're discussing this while there is an active federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit in the re-districting process here, where there's been tons of conversations in various counties and cities about whether they've drawn their boundaries fairly, whether their systems of government and elections are fair, and a history of them not being fair. And especially when we don't know if we're going to be able to count on federal help when it comes to keeping people in line, you leading on the local level certainly makes a lot of sense and is appreciated. What other bills should we be paying attention to? Are there any issues or things flying under the radar that you think people should know about?
[00:22:12] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Well, there's definitely big things to look at. I'll say in terms of what I'm introducing and then I'll try to speak to some other big things if we have time. So, I mentioned the Worker Relief Fund last year, so that is, but there's a coalition of many of our neighbors that are actively working to recognize that - before the pandemic, there was a need for folks that are undocumented to be able to have access to unemployment insurance program - because they are excluded from the federal program and that has a huge impact both to those individuals, but really to our communities. Because we continue to have a broken immigration system that creates no opportunities for so many of our neighbors to be able to regularize their status here, and yet they contribute so much to our economy and to our communities. And so, Senate Bill 5438 - we will have a hearing on that this next week to consider how we, as a state, could stand up an unemployment insurance program for undocumented individuals that work in our economy.
The other is there's been a huge conversation going on around the fact that during the pandemic we've seen revenues in cannabis increase. And there's been a long - and more reckoning of the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs and our state policies. And when we legalized cannabis that there were embedded barriers put in place. And so what we're seeing is that we see this cannabis revenue growing - it's a lot of our communities that were most impacted and harmed both by the War on Drugs, by our enforcement and policies - and then really felt banned and excluded from being able to participate in the new legalized market, are not seeing those revenues come back into their communities. And so there's been a call to make sure that our cannabis revenues are more transparent, accountable, and that they start investing in our communities that have been most historically harmed as well as creating new opportunities for Black and Brown community members to participate and be part of the regulated economy through licenses and other retail licenses primarily. So, I do have two bills that try to tackle that. One is really around just restructuring our current cannabis revenues - 5796. And then one that establishes a community reinvestment account and program, Senate Bill 5706, which we hope that the House bill will be the vehicle, and that is being championed by Representative Melanie Morgan. But those are two big things.
I think there's, in terms of what else is going on, the transportation package is huge. But the other big conversation is around how do we make sure that those investments actually mean affordability for more Washingtonians - for their housing, for their transportation? And, in our communities, making sure people aren't displaced - just as investments are coming, how do we make sure that the communities that have always been here can benefit from that and strengthen their roots in their communities? And so there's a bunch of housing policies that need attention. There are definitely continued conversation about how do we support folks that are suffering from being unhoused, folks that are suffering from substance use, and how do we make sure that we're building real supports and investments in supporting how we, as a state, make sure people have access to housing and resources when they need them.
[00:26:38] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, that's very, very important, and appreciate you briefing us on all of that. I'm wondering in the final couple moments that we have - a number of people are considering running for office right now to become your colleague. And so as people consider - from someone who a lot of people in the community look up to, who has worked in community and understands organizing and mobilization - what advice do you have for people considering running or people who are candidates right now? What wisdom would you impart upon them?
[00:27:20] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Thinking about what your strengths are and who you're accountable to, and have you talked to them about what it will take to run and win? And what it will take to govern. And can you count on their support? Because I think it's really important to make sure who - at the end of the day, you're going to have hundreds of bills come before you, dozens and dozens and dozens of interests, there's things that you will never have considered before. And so it's really important to know what's going to root you, and what's going to ground you, and how are you going to make sure that you have the support around you to be supported and successful on all the things you don't know once you get here.
But I think that's really important because they're going to be all everyone trying to get you to be a certain thing. You need to know who you are and what you're going to bring because this is a team sport - that's the one thing I love and hate maybe about the state legislature. It is a team sport. You need to make sure that you understand what is the value you're going to bring to the team, and how are you going to make sure that you get the rest of them to move with you. Because it is organizing, it is relationships - and anyone can do this job, it's just a matter of are you the one now feeling called and compelled to do this work? Because we need people with fire. We need people with heart. And we need people with values that are going to really wrestle with difficult things and find our way forward together.
[00:29:07] Crystal Fincher: Well, thank you so much. Certainly excellent advice, and I hope people listen to and think through that on their own. Thank you for taking the time to join us - sincerely appreciate it and we'll talk to you again soon.
[00:29:21] Senator Rebecca Saldaña: Sounds fantastic. Thank you so much. Have a great day.
[00:29:24] Crystal Fincher: I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcast - just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in. We'll talk to you next time.