With 2020 in the rearview mirror, the Washington Legislature will begin grappling with the pandemic-inflicted damage done to the state’s health system, economy and social safety net when it convenes Jan. 11. Add to that list a strong momentum to forge agreement on policing reforms that work in communities across the state and robust interest in climate-change solutions.
This will be the first chance that lawmakers will be able to get directly involved in pandemic response since March. That’s when Gov. Jay Inslee issued his first executive orders limiting individuals and business activity to head off widespread infections of COVID-19. The governor refused to call a special session through the summer and fall to trim spending as state revenues started to flag, though many lawmakers in both parties wanted to get to work.
While more promising forecasts have improved the state’s revenue picture, the challenges remain dire on many fronts. Many on the left want to raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy. Many in the center and on the right say now is not the time to raise taxes, particularly for businesses trying to rehire or on households hit hard by layoffs.
These leaders from what is often referred to as the “Four Corners” state clear differences. And the Democrats control both houses. But in his contribution, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, emphasizes the importance of bipartisanship effort. And House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, talks about wanting to engage with solutions.
For the good of the state, we certainly need large helpings of both.
Let us know what you think of their priorities and proposals. Send us a letter of 200 words or fewer to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “Legislature.”
– Kate Riley, Times editorial page editor
Sen. Andy Billig: Address economy, health, systemic racism — together
As we prepare for a historic 2021 Legislative session, Senate Democrats are focused on policies that increase opportunity, build prosperity and improve the health and quality of life for everyone in our state. To achieve this goal, our agenda includes strengthening the state’s economy, reinforcing our public health system and addressing systemic racism.
The pandemic has created many new challenges, but it has also exposed and exacerbated societal inequities that have existed for years. We must act to address our current fiscal and public health crisis, but also implement policies that make institutions more resilient and the economic landscape more equitable. Investments in transportation, affordable housing, child care and the environment will strengthen communities and reinvigorate our economy.
This summer we saw powerful protests at home and across our country in the wake of the death of George Floyd. It is our responsibility to answer those calls for justice. Our job as policymakers is to listen to and work with people who are impacted every single day by racism and together develop comprehensive policies that will begin to dismantle institutional racism in policing, the judicial system, education and other aspects of our society. We can reimagine policing in this state and ensure that public safety is experienced equally in all communities.
Washington’s upside-down tax code disproportionately impacts people at the lower end of the economic scale and allows the very wealthiest to pay substantially less in taxes than working families and small businesses. Throughout this pandemic, billionaires and multimillionaires saw their wealth grow while working families suffered and small businesses were shuttered. We can make targeted revenue reforms that would impact a tiny fraction of the state’s wealthiest taxpayers while additional revenue can go toward lowering taxes elsewhere or investments in programs that would benefit everyone in our state.
The one thing that shouldn’t happen in 2021: We must resist the temptation to retreat into partisan corners. It is time to work together to defeat the virus and help Washingtonians build back better. It doesn’t matter what your ZIP code is, what political party you support or which side of the Cascades you call home — our communities need help. Washingtonians expect us to work together to solve these problems. They need us to fight alongside them, not against each other.
Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, represents that city’s 3rd Legislative District. He has been Senate Democratic Leader since 2018.
Sen. John Braun: A better approach to pandemic relief, safety — with no need for more taxes
This past year has been challenging beyond imagination. The struggle continues against a public-health crisis that has taken too many lives. Too many people have seen jobs disappear. Too many small businesses and the dreams behind them are gone. Too many children are being left behind in school.
The 2021 session represents the Legislature’s first opportunity since March to help Washington fight and recover from the COVID-19 virus. It’s been frustrating to be forced to the sidelines by the governor as he imposed sweeping restrictions that shattered key industries and irreparably harmed countless Washington families.
Fortunately, this unrecognizable form of governing is about to end. When legislators convene Jan. 11, Senate Republicans will be focused on doing everything possible to help communities statewide recover.
This will include steps to help employers and workers, which could mean tax relief, regulatory relief, cash relief, or some combination — and it needs to reach all corners of the state, just as the economic shutdowns have. We view the safe reopening of our schools also as a critical form of relief, for the countless children who have been poorly served by remote instruction as well as parents whose livelihoods were put on hold largely because of school closures.
There’s also a need for relief from the collateral damage caused by COVID-19. Domestic violence and suicides have increased dramatically. More families are hungry or homeless. Health-care workers need support. The pandemic has exacerbated known issues concerning the state’s treatment of our long-term care residents, developmentally disabled individuals, foster children and those struggling with mental illness.
At the same time we’re aware of other priorities — the importance of trained and accountable law enforcement, and for protecting victims’ rights. Much will be said about “equity” in 2021, and that should mean policies that are fair toward all people, statewide.
What won’t help is for our majority colleagues to agree with the governor that more taxes are “absolutely necessary.” Between what has been a very robust budget, a healthy rainy-day fund and positive revenue projections, the budget writers have what they need to develop a no-new-taxes budget for 2021-23 that maintains critical services while allowing new investments in social services, support for struggling employers and pandemic relief.
The 2021 session won’t be easy. But Senate Republicans work for all of Washington, and we’re ready to work together with our colleagues to help our state recover while caring for our most vulnerable and promoting equity, equality and individual opportunity for all.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, represents the parts of Thurston, Lewis, Cowlitz and Clark counties in the 20th Legislative District. He is Senate Republican Leader.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins: Health, economy and climate change
These are the most challenging times our state has seen in a long while.
Hospitals and first responders are pushed to the brink. Families and small businesses struggle with the pandemic’s health and economic consequences. Climate change threatens livelihoods, communities and health. Schools are closed, teachers are struggling to teach via Zoom, and students are falling behind.
Nationwide, people are demanding an end to systemic racism.
House Democrats are committed to protecting Washington’s families and communities during these tough times, and to ensuring an equitable and inclusive recovery.
To protect families in our state, we will prioritize your health and well being through a focus on COVID-19 response, economic recovery, climate change and addressing systemic racism.
We begin this year with a sense of hope, as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines reaches our health care workers, first responders and congregate-care residents. But the end to the pandemic will become a reality only if we invest in our public-health infrastructure, which will lead to reopening of schools, child care and businesses.It’s clear the state’s economy cannot maintain its reliance on taxes that disproportionately impact small businesses and the poorest in our communities, while giving a pass to those who made soaring profits during the pandemic. We must address the burdens in our tax code stopping families and small businesses from getting a fair chance. Our economic recovery will be made real only if we confront systemic issues that benefit the wealthiest and leave the rest of us behind.
Climate change continues to threaten our state’s families, farms and businesses. We cannot lose our focus on addressing these threats. House Democrats have led the way on passing policies to reduce harmful emissions and protect our clean air and water, and we are ready to do so again.
Undoing the grip that systemic racism has on every part of our lives begins by rebuilding communities’ trust in law enforcement through police accountability, reform and justice. House Democrats will place racial equity front and center in decision-making about legislation and budgets while including diverse voices to ensure solutions are inclusive and help Washingtonians move forward.
With so much to do, there is one thing we cannot pursue: An all-cuts budget. We are still living with the deep cuts from the Great Recession, which hindered our recovery and hurt working families and the most vulnerable. No matter what happens with federal aid or the next state economic forecast, we cannot slash the budget to the bone and hope for the best.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, represents the 27th Legislative District. She became speaker of the Washington House of Representatives in 2020.
Rep. J.T. Wilcox: Solutions for all and resistance to bad policy
As the calendar turns on a difficult year, there is much work to be done in the 2021 legislative session. House Republicans are ready. For months, we have called for a special session, provided solutions to safely reopen the economy and advocated for the rights of Washingtonians. By and large, Gov. Jay Inslee has ignored our ideas and sidelined the Legislature in his coronavirus response.
The state’s lack of a multifaceted response to the pandemic has left parts of our economy devastated and people feeling hopeless. Time will reveal the extent to which shutdown orders exacerbated problems related to mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, foster care, domestic violence and students falling behind academically. We will bring these forgotten voices and this larger context of public health to the legislative arena.
As families and employers attempt to recover, the Legislature should not ask more from them. Unfortunately, the governor is again pushing for regressive tax increases — including proposals that would make health care, gasoline and home energy more expensive. He also wants an income tax on capital gains, which is unnecessary, unpredictable and likely unconstitutional. House Republicans will again oppose these bills.
The Legislature has enough revenue, including the rainy-day fund, to pay for state priorities. State lawmakers can balance the operating budget without raising taxes. House Republican budget lead, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, will produce a framework to show how this can be doneSmall businesses and the people who rely on them need help. To assist in their recovery, we will propose unemployment insurance tax relief, suspending B&O tax collections and allowing interest-free payments over a time period, and providing a $5,000 credit for businesses on their B&O tax liability. However, more relief will be needed.
The Legislature must also hold the governor and state government accountable. The Employment Security Department’s (ESD) problems, including the failure to prevent massive fraud and inability to deliver unemployment benefits, are unacceptable. Mistakes of this magnitude should not be accepted in the public sector or the private sector. Republicans called for an ESD audit in June. While it is terrible ESD could not prevent fraud, it is even more outrageous that the agency initially interfered in the state auditor’s investigation.
Finally, House Republicans will propose legislation to limit the governor’s unilateral emergency powers. Washingtonians should not be ruled by one person’s executive orders for months on end ever again.
As the minority party, we will provide solutions, offer contrast and resist bad public policy. Our most important job is to represent the voices of millions of Washingtonians who feel like they are being ignored by the governor and majority party.
Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, represents the 2nd Legislative District. He is the leader of the House Republican caucus.