OLYMPIA — The administration of state government revolves around detailed statistics and dry budget numbers, and the first day of this year’s legislative session offered its own niche data befitting the era: 10% of Washington’s senators have announced they have COVID-19.
State lawmakers Monday opened the year’s legislative session in a low-key fashion amid the omicron variant, with five of Washington’s 49 senators having tested positive in recent days.
Three of those positive tests in the Senate surfaced Monday. Their numbers were added in quick succession after Democratic Sens. John Lovick and Andy Billig — the senate majority leader — announced positive tests in recent days.
The infected lawmakers underscore the latest pandemic surge as lawmakers gather and attempt to confront a range of issues.
Democratic lawmakers this year are expected to work on changes to laws on policing and the state’s new long-term care program, and to address transportation projects and funding, and solutions to Washington’s housing and homelessness crisis.
Republicans, in the minority, are offering their own ideas on such issues, and are calling again for the Legislature to change the breadth of Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency powers.
On Monday morning, however, the focus was as much on getting in the door and getting a negative test. A rapid testing site has been set up inside the Capitol, where lawmakers, staffers and members of the media dropped in Monday.
Under its scaled-back omicron plan, the Senate is allowing a maximum of 15 lawmakers on the floor, as well as up to three staffers for each party in nearby spaces. Those attending must have a negative test regardless of vaccination.
The House has switched to a nearly full remote session, with only four of 98 House members on the floor Monday. Representatives and staffers must verify that they are vaccinated, and anyone working in person must be tested regularly.
Lawmakers who haven’t verified their vaccination status — such as the 15 Republicans who hadn’t shown proof of vaccination — can access their office if they have gotten a negative COVID test.
For now, members of the public aren’t allowed in the viewing galleries above the House and Senate floors, as the Legislature had originally planned. Members of the media — who would usually sit at tables near the House and Senate floor — have been given access to the galleries if they have met the COVID policies.
Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, confirmed he tested positive Monday morning shortly after 7 a.m. while taking a test at the Capitol, which is required for those going into Senate spaces.
“Just headed back to my car and drove home,” Mullet wrote in a text message. “My wife had it last week so even though I was negative on Saturday was not totally shocked to be positive this morning.”
“Vaxxed with a booster last month,” he added. “Very mild cold symptoms — nothing that has me nervous.”
Later on Monday, Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, announced she had tested positive, though she was not in Olympia, according to a spokesperson.
“This isn’t the way I wanted to start my first session, but I’m no less excited and ready to do the work our community wants done,” Trudeau said in prepared remarks. “After a full isolation and recovery, I plan to go to Olympia when it is safe and possible to do so — but whether I’m there or here at home, I’m ready to work.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, also tested positive but was not in Olympia Monday, according to a Senate Republican spokesperson.
To begin the 60-day session, more than a dozen senators — out of 49 total — gathered in person donning masks to hear opening remarks by Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, who serves as president of the chamber. With the rest of the senators participating remotely, lawmakers voted to approve Sarah Bannister as secretary of the Senate.
The top nonpartisan official in the chamber, Bannister replaces Brad Hendrickson, who retired after working almost all of his career at the Legislature in different jobs.
Across the Capitol, the House chambers stood nearly empty for the opening session, with just a handful of the 98 representatives in the room.
Standing at the rostrum, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, began her speech with condolences for Sen. Doug Ericksen, who died last month after testing positive for COVID, and lauded the health care workers slogging through their second year of the pandemic.
Jinkins also appeared to reference tweaks lawmakers are set to make on two big Democratic priorities of recent years: changing policing laws amid the killings of people of color, and a new social insurance program aimed at helping people pay for long-term care.
“There are some who think … that if we don’t get something done, fully done, the first time, we should just give up, get rid of it entirety,” she said. “That is not my belief, that is not why I am here. We serve this chamber to tackle hard problems.”
In remarks in response to Jinkins, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said Republicans planned to not simply obstruct, but to offer alternative policies, including one to replace WA Cares, the long-term care program.
Wilcox — like many conservatives — has remained concerned that the broad emergency powers used by Inslee for nearly two years in order to curb the pandemic need to be overhauled.
The minority leader called on Democrats to give committee hearings to Republican proposals on WA Cares and emergency powers. If the bills aren’t given public hearings, House Republicans will take action in committee meetings to try and bring them up for consideration, he added.
“These are critical things,” said Wilcox. “And I think it’s important that we all exercise our responsibility to vote on these things.”