On April 19, 1977, the state House of Representatives approves, by a margin of 81 to 13, a bill that will ensure Washingtonians do not need to pay to use public toilets. Although originally introduced and generally referred to as a ban on pay toilets, the bill does not outright prohibit pay toilets. Instead, it requires that at least half of all toilets in any public restroom must be free – and that there must be "proportionate equality of free toilet units available to women" as to men in any establishment that has coin-operated toilets. The bill will become law after being approved by the state Senate and signed by Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994).
John Bagnariol (ca. 1932-2009), a powerful Democratic Representative from Renton, first introduced legislation to ban pay toilets during the 1975 legislative session after stopping at a Snoqualmie Pass service station that had a coin-operated toilet-stall lock. Later accounts suggest that "Baggy," as he was often known, did not have the right change at his time of need, but he told reporters at the time that "he had a dime -- but wondered what would happen if he didn't" (Hannula).
Although observers assumed that Baggy’s pay toilet ban would pass easily, in 1975 it never made it out of the Senate Social and Health Services Committee chaired by Democrat William "Big Daddy" Day of Spokane. While Bagnariol's proposal was viewed favorably, attracting more attention -- and inspiring more jokes -- than most bills, it had no organized support. And there was organized opposition. Nik-O-Lok, an Indianapolis company with a Bellevue branch, which earned about $25,000 annually from coin locks at nearly 100 restrooms around Washington, hired vending-machine association lobbyist Dick Matheson to work against the ban. The bill died in committee.
Two years later, in the next Legislative session, Bagnariol tried again. By then he had risen to become Speaker of the state House of Representatives. Since the speaker does not sponsor bills, Bagnariol's fellow Democrat, Representative John Fischer of Everett, introduced House Bill No. 675, which would have made it "unlawful for any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement located in this state to have any pay toilet on its premises." Thirty-two representatives joined Fischer in sponsoring the bill.
"Equal Potty Rights"
Despite the large number of co-sponsors, an outright ban on pay toilets did not pass. Instead, in what may have been a compromise with the pay-toilet industry, the House Committee on Social and Health Services recommended a substitute bill that allowed coin lock controls on toilet stalls if at least one half of the "toilet units" in any public restroom were free and mandated that if coin locks were placed on restroom entry doors, keys be provided without charge when requested, with notice as to their availability posted on the door.
The substitute bill also ensured that public restrooms "shall not discriminate in charges required between facilities used by men and facilities used by women" and mandated "proportionate equality of free toilet units." The bill specified that "toilet units are defined as constituting commodes and urinals," thereby addressing what many saw as one of the driving forces behind the legislation: situations where women had to pay to access toilet stalls while men's urinals were available without charge. Indeed, Senate committee chair "Big Daddy" Day dubbed the bill the "Equal Potty Rights Act of 1977" ("Lawmakers For ...").
Passed at Last
On April 19, 1977, the House of Representatives accepted the committee recommendation to adopt the revised bill. Substitute House Bill No. 675 passed the House by a vote of 81 to 13. Exactly a month later, on May 19, Senator Day's committee, where the bill had died two years earlier, recommended that the Senate pass the substitute bill. The official Senate Journal reported that "debate ensued" and duly recorded an exchange between Democrat Al Henry of White Salmon and committee chair Day on a "point of inquiry":
Senator Henry: "Will Senator Day yield to a question? Would you say that the philosophy ... behind this [is that if] Mother Nature call[s], she shouldn’t have to call collect?"
Senator Day: "That is correct" (Senate Journal).
A majority of Senators evidently agreed that calls of nature should not be collect. They passed the pay-toilet bill by a vote of 27 to 18. Governor Dixy Lee Ray signed the bill into law on May 28, 1977. Thirty years later it remains on the books, ensuring that, in the words of journalist (and Seattle City Councilmember) Jean Godden (b. 1931), "you’ll never pay to go" in the state of Washington.