When the Washington Legislature convenes Monday, it will be for a session unlike any other in the state’s history.
The starkest change: Jan. 11 will likely be the only day that lawmakers actually convene in Olympia. The COVID-19 outbreak continues to rip through the state — nearly a year to the day after a Washington resident was diagnosed with the first case of the virus in the country — and nearly all the work of government will be conducted remotely in the coming months.
“We in the House will arrive for the purposes of official business that we have to do according to the constitution,” said Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, who will again serve as the House majority floor leader. That business includes electing the speaker, speaker pro tem and chief clerk, as well as adopting a temporary set of rules that will allow the House to govern from home.
“We will reconvene the next day from our remote offices,” Stonier said.
COVID-19 will dominate not just the format of the session, but also the content. The pandemic will weave through most major decisions that the Legislature will need to grapple with, steering discussions around everything from passing a budget to prioritizing a transportation package.
In interviews with The Columbian, lawmakers from both parties said that getting students back on track is their top priority.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said experts are reporting some students have lost up to two years of progress. Rivers, who was recently elected as the Republican Senate caucus chair, added that she’d be open to pursuing a bill that would establish a temporary year-round school calendar or a more robust summer school option once in-person instruction is safe.
“We have to figure out how we’re going to make up that learning loss,” Rivers said. “We cannot just carry on as if nothing happened.”
“One thing that we’ve done already is we’ve applied pressure to move up vaccinations for teachers so they can feel safe in their work environment,” Rivers added. “They’ve now moved up, but we have to make sure they’re verified and have access to the vaccine.”
As to when kids can head back into their classrooms across the state, that’s still up in the air. Stonier, who serves on the House Education Committee, pointed out that there’s little that the Legislature can directly do to get kids back in the classrooms.
“The Legislature doesn’t have the level of decision making there that folks sometimes think they do. The local health departments determine when schools can open,” Stonier said.
State lawmakers can, however, fund programs to create environments that could make classroom learning safer. Stonier said she plans to support legislation that would provide more personal protective gear, better systems for contact tracing, and more school staff so that students can cohort in smaller groups in the case of an outbreak.
She also plans to promote an under-addressed side of the pandemic in the upcoming session, Stonier said.
“You’re going to see investments in behavioral health, mental health services,” Stonier said. “It’s something that’s already necessary, but we don’t have a way to get to kiddos when they’re not already in school.”
Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, who serves as vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, said the group plans to present a 16-year transportation infrastructure plan no later than two weeks into the session.
The plan sprung from 90 remote meetings hosted by Wylie and five other representatives. They heard from stakeholders that included environmental groups, business organizations, cities, ports and unions.
Washington residents should expect to see an ambitious plan this year, Wylie said.
“We are going to try to do as much as possible, because transportation packages are huge economic benefits, both short and long term. They get people back to work in a whole lot of different ways,” Wylie said, pointing to the employment rate that continues to lag behind pre-pandemic levels. “Having all parts of our state working, transportation-wise, is critically important to our recovery.”
Funding for the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Program will continue into the year, though that revived effort to replace the span is still in early planning stages and will require more collaboration with local and federal lawmakers in both Washington and Oregon.
The Legislature may also look to expand broadband access this year, treating internet access as a public utility in the same category as roadways, Wylie said.
Most of the funding in the package will focus on repairing and caring for assets that already exist. Roads and bridges built during the state’s 1950s transportation infrastructure boom are falling into disrepair, and will get more expensive to fix with every year that passes.
Maintenance isn’t as exciting as a shiny new project, Wylie said, but crucial for the state’s overall economy.
“People like to cut ribbons,” she added wryly.
COVID-19 has exposed the cracks in the state’s public health system that leave the most vulnerable populations without coverage, said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver.
Harris, who sits on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, said he favors dipping into the state’s $2.5 billion rainy day fund to fully fund a more robust public health option.
“Public Health has come and advocated funds, and we’ve given them a pittance,” Harris said. “In the last four or five years, they’ve asked for $60 to $70 million. We’ve given them $5 million.”
Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will also top the Legislature’s priorities in the upcoming session. While state lawmakers hold little authority in dose dispersal — that responsibility lies with local health authorities, following instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — they have a role to play in logistics and communication, Harris said.
It’s vital that leaders engender confidence in the vaccine’s safety among the general public, he continued.
“If they would give me the vaccine today, I would absolutely take it. … We need to get over the politics of the vaccine because it isn’t political,” Harris said.
“Our communities that need it the most, who are African American, Black or Hispanic, they are getting the disease disproportionately more than others, and probably they have the least confidence in our system. I think we need to double our efforts in those areas.”
In their last session, the Legislature expanded telehealth options. Since then, Harris said, telemedicine visits have “skyrocketed to the tune of about 700 percent.”
Stonier, who also serves on the House health committee, said the upcoming session will focus on further expanding telehealth options and closing loopholes to ensure that those visits are reimbursed at the same rate as in-person appointments.
Both Harris and Stonier said that improving broadband access in underserved and rural areas is directly related to health care, and another key priority this year.
“The disparity of those who have good broadband access falls along the same lines of those who have experienced the worst of COVID,” Harris said.
Washington is currently bucking apocalyptic predictions that arose early in the COVID-19 outbreak, when budget forecasters told lawmakers to plan for an $8.8 billion deficit through 2023.
Stronger-than-expected returns on tax collections have pared that figure down to a more manageable $2.4 billion. Aid from the federal government as part of the latest round of pandemic relief funds helped further cushion the blow.
In late 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a proposed budget that suggested recouping some of that lost revenue with a new capital gains tax. The tax would collect 9 percent of profits (above $25,000 for single filers) earned from selling assets like stocks and bonds starting in 2022. His office predicts the tax would collect $1.1 billion in 2023, and impact around 2 percent of the state’s households.
“It’s a very limited request to help a lot of people,” Inslee told The Columbian’s Editorial Board in December. “We think it is a reasonable thing.”
The Democratic governor’s budget also proposes implementing a cap-and-trade carbon pricing program. If implemented, it’s too soon to calculate the long-term impact on the budget. The sponsor of its companion bill, Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, has said it could raise up to $1 billion annually.
Both proposals received strong pushback from Republicans in both the House and the Senate. Harris, who also serves as the House minority caucus chair, said that House Republicans plan to present a counterproposal early in the week that would fully utilize the state’s rainy day fund in lieu of new taxes.
Washington’s budgetary outlook is still relatively healthy, said Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and the leftover deficit is small enough that it could be absorbed by the state’s rainy day fund.
Wilson, who serves as ranking minority member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she and many of her colleagues won’t support any tax increases in the coming legislative session.
“They’re nonstarters, for me and for most Republicans,” Wilson said.
That doesn’t mean they’re dead in the water. Washington’s majority-Democratic Legislature could pass both a carbon pricing program and a capital gains tax. Inslee said he expects the capital gains portion to be challenged and upheld in the state’s court system.
Rivers, who also serves on the Ways and Means Committee, has a different prediction.
“The capital gains income tax is unconstitutional,” Rivers said. “Especially with the money coming from the feds, we’re in very good shape. We don’t need to raise taxes.”
Legislators have had limited influence over the state’s pandemic response. Many GOP lawmakers — and a handful of Democrats — have expressed frustration with the emergency executive orders from Inslee that steered Washington’s response to the virus.
Wilson said her top priority in the upcoming session is balancing the governor’s power with a stronger check from the Legislature. She has filed legislation that would require all of the governor’s emergency orders to be approved by the House and Senate after 30 days. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat.
“It doesn’t limit (Inslee’s) powers — it just adds us to the conversation,” Wilson said. “We’ve become largely irrelevant in the last 10 months, and that’s not how our Legislature should be.”
The remote format of the session is also drawing condemnation from some members, who claim that halting all in-person meetings creates hurdles for transparency and government accessibility.
The state’s public affairs channel, TVW, will broadcast the session on cable and online.
Wilson said she worries about the fallibility of the technology needed to broadcast the session. She also wonders about how some less tech-savvy Washingtonians — “Like my mother, her generation, she doesn’t do computers,” Wilson said — will adapt to the new format.
Lawmakers can debate in good faith about how best to maintain transparency, Stonier said. But she disagreed that the remote forum was limiting for government access, countering that it actually grants more people the opportunity to participate and contribute because they don’t need to make the commute to Olympia. Wylie expressed a similar point of optimism.
“I have noticed in the committee meetings we’ve had virtually, we’ve actually had more people able to participate, able to watch live, and offer input,” Wylie said. “In some ways, I’m really grateful for the technology that is allowing us to maintain accessibility.”