Asian American advocates say 2016 legislature offered political mixed bag

Mohan Gurung of the Washington Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (center) and other attendees listen at a recent forum on Washington state legislative bills affecting people in the Asian American community. (Photo by John Stang.)
Mohan Gurung of the Washington Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (center) and other attendees listen at a recent forum on Washington state legislative bills affecting people in the Asian American community. (Photo by John Stang.)

In her head and heart, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, had given up on her education bill — despite the feisty front she displayed publicly.

Her passion in the 2016 legislative session was her bill to close the so-called “education opportunity gap” in schools, which would addressed the differences in communication, discipline and opportunity facing students of color and their families in the state’s public schools.

It was the fourth time that the bill had passed the House. And in previous years, it died quietly in the Senate.

“I had given up hope before it was adopted,” she said.

Santos’s educational opportunity bill was one of several bills in the 2016 Washington Legislative Session discussed at a community forum last week in Seattle organized by the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and Asian Pacific Islander Coalition.

The meeting covered several dozen bills and the legislative agenda for 2016 that the groups felt were important for Washingtonians of Asian descent. The bills met with mixed results — including the eventual passage of Santos’ education opportunity gap bills after four years of trying.

After the House passed Santos’ bill, word drifted to her that the bill was finally going to a Senate floor vote.

Santos told the crowd of about 50 people an image popped up in her head of Lucy continually holding a football for Charlie Brown — and always yanking it away when he tried to kick it.

She snuck unseen in the Senate chamber, fearing that if someone saw her, that would jinx the bill. To Santos’ surprise, the Senate passed her bill 38-10.

The Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs identified 22 bills that it believed would affect the communities it represents. Sixteen of the bills became law and six failed or are in limbo.

But passage of any of the bills of interest did not guarantee that the final bill matched the appropriate legislator’s original intentions. People at Thursday’s forum were critical of changes made to a bill about police body cameras bill, because they felt the version that passed was too watered down by legislative compromise.

Meanwhile, the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition had its own legislative agenda of 12 items — which included individual budget requests and support for Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive branch push to cap industrial carbon emissions, and states its opposition to voter Initiative 732. The passage of Santos’ education opportunity gap bill appears to have been the APIC’s biggest victory this year.

Santos remarked on the length of time it took her education bill to get through.

“That represented years of hard work in this community and so many communities across the state,” Santos said.

Santos’ bill includes prohibiting long-term suspensions and expulsions as punishment, requiring school staffs to go through cultural competency training, analysis of student and teacher data to examine racial and ethnic disparities, and other teaching and support issues. Democrats and Republicans compromised on a requirement for schools and a pupil’s family to meet when a suspended student re-enters a classroom.

Meanwhile, the Washington Voting Rights Act died in the Legislature for the fourth straight year. Senate Republican leaders said they worried that passage would increase the likelihood of lawsuits against local governments in state courts.

But Shankar Narayan, representing the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, voiced cautious optimism that the Washington Voting Rights Act could get traction in the 2017 session.

The 2016 session “was the first time that there were serious negotiations,” Narayan told the crowd at Thursday’s forum.

This year’s talks followed the city of Yakima’s loss in a lawsuit saying the city violated the federal Voting Rights Act. New district elections imposed by a federal judge resulted in the city’s first elected Latina councilmembers. Both the city council and former mayor backed this the 2016 Washington Voting Rights Act.

Narayan also criticized a police body camera bill that passed for not going far enough in setting up universal statewide standards. He also said the bill could allow police departments to be selective in which recordings they choose to release.

Meanwhile, the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition’s budget requests did not do well.

The coalition wanted $1.5 million for an Asian Pacific Cultural Center, and received $200,000. It sought $250,000 to help with dental care for immigrants, and that request received nothing. Bills to set up automatic voter registration did not go anywhere. And a proposed $1 million appropriation to help immigrants become citizens also received no funding at all.

Seattle resident Sam Le remarked on how bills of interest need sustained support — sometimes over years.

One thing that I learned is that it takes time,” Le said. “It seems like impatience is our greatest enemy,” he said.