OLYMPIA — Empty marble corridors in the Washington Capitol. Many state legislators casting votes remotely. The customary public hearings that draw passionate residents conducted instead by teleconference.
When state lawmakers return as scheduled in January, they’ll be conducting the 2021 legislative session for the most part remotely amid a coronavirus pandemic that continues to gain steam.
On Thursday, Democratic legislative leaders for the House and Senate outlined tentative plans for a largely remote session scheduled to begin in January.
Few lawmakers will be on the floors of the chambers. They are instead expected to debate and vote remotely, perhaps while alone in their legislative office or from home.
“Obviously this is going to be a challenging session,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane, adding later: “It really impacts the Legislature in the fact that so much of what we do is relationship-based and coming together to do the work of the people.”
Committee meetings and hearings would be conducted via teleconference, with residents and lobbyists appearing remotely, according to a copy of the tentative Senate plan.
A handful of Washington’s 49 senators would be allowed on the floor at once during debates, according to the plan, which was approved by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee. The others would participate remotely from their legislative offices or from elsewhere.
Members of the media — who usually occupy press tables on the House and Senate floor — would relocate to one of the empty gallery spaces above the Senate floor where members of the public would usually sit.
The Capitol, which has been closed for months to the public amid the pandemic, would remain shuttered to the public.
Lawmakers and legislative staffers working indoors would have to wear masks at all times. Many if not most staffers are likely to instead work remotely.
There are still questions to work out, as well as concerns from some Republicans, who voted against the plan Thursday.
“Too many unanswered questions for me to vote for this,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville before the committee approved the plan.
Earlier in the meeting, Schoesler raised questions about how last-minute amendments to legislation might be put forth if sessions on the Senate floor were being choreographed remotely and potentially in advance.
Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, in response said that he wanted “to work on this particular wrinkle a little bit more and make sure we get it right.”
The House, meanwhile, hasn’t yet finalized its plans, Democratic Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma said Thursday.
But Jinkins described roughly the same approach, except with fewer lawmakers on the House floor.
“We’re moving toward a fully remote session, but we’re in a space where we’re not prepared yet to make that final announcement,” Jinkins said.
Lawmakers in the Republican minority are still discussing among themselves their own thoughts and concerns about a remote session, she added.
“We have to be able to do the people’s work, it has to be able to be done in an accountable and transparent way, and people have to be kept safe,” said Jinkins. “We believe we can do this remotely, which keeps people safe,” she added.
Democratic lawmakers have gone back and forth this year about whether to hold a special legislative session to respond to aspects of the pandemic, and Republicans have pushed for one since spring.
But there will be no special session before January, Jinkins said Thursday.
The regularly scheduled January session will convene during what could be a tough winter. Cases around the country are surging at the same time many Americans spend more time indoors as the weather changes.
On Wednesday, Washington health officials reported a new statewide daily high of 1,469 confirmed cases.
Both Liias and Jinkins acknowledged that the remote session would slow down lawmakers’ usual flurry of sponsoring, hearing, rewriting and debating legislation.
“It is going to take us more time to process through the same amount of bills as before,” said Liias. “I think that means there will be less legislation considered, we’ll have to focus in on priorities.”
“We’re probably going to pass fewer bills on fewer topics,” he added later, “because of these constraints.”