2004 legislative session in review

Public policy
Phil Jordan

The 2004 Washington State Legislature met for 60 days this winter, adjourning in mid-March.  Now that the dust has settled, we can look back over the activity and look at the results.  A legislative session usually has high points and low points and this year is no exception.

People with disabilities won a stunning and important victory with the passage of House Bill 2663 - the Respectful Language bill.  The bill was sponsored by the Self Advocates In Leadership (SAIL) coalition, and their persistence paid off at the very end of the session when the bill, which was thought to be dead, was surprisingly brought to a vote on the Senate floor and passed unanimously.  The bill requires that when new laws are made, or old laws are amended that relate to people with disabilities, "people first" language must be used.  From now on, new laws in the state of Washington will have to refer to people with disabilities, rather than the disabled.  No longer will the words handicapped, crippled or mentally retarded be found in new Washington statutes.  Lawmakers and staff will have to start thinking about people with disabilities as people.  Congratulations to SAIL and to people with disabilities throughout the state!

Mental Health Parity is an issue that Washington state disability advocates have been working on for seven years now.  The bill (House Bill 1828) did not pass this year, although it came mighty close!   The bill passed the House and was about to be voted on in the Senate (where it likely would have passed) when the Senate unexpectedly was adjourned.  The Washington Coalition for Insurance Parity is optimistic that the 8th time will be the charm.

An important bill that got bogged down is the "DD Community Trust" bill.  Senate Bill 6442 would have harmed nobody and would have raised millions of dollars to provide services for people with developmental disabilities who are waiting for services.  The opponents of the bill never testified publicly, but put pressure on key legislators to stop the bill.  Advocates will be back next year to pursue this important issue.

People who need personal attendant services (PAS) were dealt a cruel blow this year in House Bill 2933.  Three years ago, Initiative 775 created the Home Care Quality Authority (HCQA), a board that was created to represent the interests of people with disabilities and others who use PAS.  One of the ways that they were supposed to represent people with disabilities was in contract negotiations with the independent providers of PAS.  House Bill 2933 takes this responsibility away from the HCQA, and from now on the Governor will take over those negotiations.  The Governor will not be representing people with disabilities, but will instead be focusing on how much money the state will have to spend on any new contract.

House Bill 2943 would create an exception to hearsay rules in court cases when people with disabilities are victims of crimes.  Currently, when people with disabilities are assaulted or abused it is often difficult to prosecute the perpetrator.  Prosecutors often decline to prosecute cases, or cases that are prosecuted are sometimes unsuccessful because the victim is not considered a credible witness.  Consequently, the crimes go unpunished and the abuser is free to strike again.

House Bill 2943 would allow hearsay evidence to be admissible in court when vulnerable adults are assaulted or abused.  The bill would allow a judge to permit hearsay testimony from a credible witness (usually one to whom the victim has confided).  There are potential difficulties in developing such a bill.  Accused persons have a constitutional right to confront their accuser.  It is difficult to craft a bill to meet constitutional requirements - the courts in other states have struck down similar bills.  Consequently advocates did not expect to get this bill passed this year.  The bill was given a positive reception by the House Judiciary committee and advocates expect the bill will reappear next year.