Washington’s 2021 legislative session was already bound to be as challenging as any in state history.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers have arranged Zoom-powered proceedings, with a limited number of legislators allowed at any one time on the House and Senate floors, and the Capitol closed to the general public.
Their task list is packed. It includes: adopting a 2021-23 state operating budget; relief for businesses and individuals struggling through coronavirus-related shutdowns; speeding vaccinations; debating new taxes and a sweeping clean-fuels proposal; and efforts to transform policing and promote racial equity.
That would be a tall order to start with. Then came last week’s deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists, and a smaller breach by conservative protesters at the grounds of the governor’s mansion in Olympia.
Those incidents have heightened tensions in the state Capitol, which had already seen violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing demonstrators in recent months, including a Dec. 12 shooting leaving one man injured. Last week, a man with a gun threatened to shoot and kill journalists outside the Capitol.
Additional demonstrations are expected at the start of the 105-day legislative session Monday, with some organizers explicitly stating they’d push to enter the domed Capitol building — though some have since called off such plans.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic and Republican lawmakers are pressing ahead with the session, pledging security will be tight. Fencing has been erected, and Inslee on Friday called up as many as 750 Washington National Guard members to protect legislators, their staff and the general public.
“We have to be able to do our business and not be intimidated and scared because people are going to show up,” said state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, speaking at an Associated Press legislative preview last week.
State Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, Stevens County, agreed, noting the Legislature regularly sees throngs of people demonstrating. She drew a distinction between those who want to peaceably object to the Capitol closure and others who would use the situation “to bring anarchy.”
“If we kowtow to that intimidation, then they’ve won,” Short said.
Monday’s order of business is largely administrative, with the state House and Senate convening to adopt rules that will govern the remainder of the session, including frameworks for remote voting and testimony. But those proposed rules are expected to draw objections from some Republicans who say the public should be allowed to participate in person.
There appears to be broad support to pass an early relief package to sustain businesses, workers and families hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic and Inslee’s emergency public health orders restricting business openings and in-person gatherings.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said she wants to see action in the first two weeks of the session, including more than $300 million for rental assistance and $125 million in small-business grants.
Democrats will run the show, as they control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. That has raised expectations among party activists, labor leaders and environmental groups for a bold, progressive agenda.
Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, the House Republican minority leader, understands his party cannot block legislation on its own. “We’re going to lose votes,” he said.
He said he’s been “obsessed” with ensuring the Legislature has made adequate arrangements for public input in the remote environment. He recalled two years ago, when hairdressers descended on Olympia to protest a proposed regulatory change that could have increased their taxes. The Legislature ultimately changed course.
“That’s not going to be possible anymore,” he said. “Public access to the process is important and not everybody has great internet access.”
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said Democrats have worked hard to ensure the public can participate, pointing to efforts even before this year to expand remote testimony.
“Our goal is to have a legislative session that is safe for members, for the staff and the public, that is as transparent or more transparent and accessible than before,” Billig said.
The difficult nature of the mostly remote session, and skepticism about tax increases, could actually splash cold water on some of the majority Democrats’ plans.
Legislative leaders caution the 2021 session will inevitably produce fewer new laws than usual, as they slog through a cumbersome and unfamiliar process of remote committee hearings and piped-in public testimony.
“There is no question that it will be slower than our normal session,” said state House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. House Democratic leaders have asked members to sponsor no more than seven bills each.
Inslee and other Democratic leaders say they’re confident in prospects for top agenda items, including a capital-gains tax aimed at the wealthiest Washingtonians.
Inslee has pushed for a capital-gains tax since 2014, when he broke a 2012 campaign pledge to veto any new taxes. But it consistently has failed amid opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats.
In an interview, Inslee said he has “an extra high level of confidence” his plan will finally pass, saying the public “has had a bellyful for our unfair tax system.” He dismissed a recent Crosscut/Elway Poll showing just 41% support for the tax.
A public hearing on the proposal, Senate Bill 5096, is set for 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The measure would tax capital-gains earnings above $25,000 for individuals and $50,000 for couples, with exemptions for sole-proprietor businesses, home sales, retirement accounts, farms and forestry, and income from salaries.
Inslee’s 2021-23 budget proposal would spend $57.7 billion — an increase of more than 10% over the last biennium. It includes a nearly $400 million boost for COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, vaccine distribution and boosts to the state’s strapped public health system. The governor also wants $400 million in new schools funding.
Republican leaders stressed they think the budget is not in dire shape and that there’s no need to raise taxes. If revenue estimates don’t continue to improve, they said, there’s plenty of money in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
“I’m not a fan of new taxes in any year, but this year in particular,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the Republican minority leader. “We don’t need them to balance the budget, we don’t need them to make additional investments to help with COVID.”
Inslee disagreed. “Governments are kind of countercyclical. When you have more people in need, state governments don’t have less to do, we have more to do,” he said.
Washington lawmakers also return after a year of widespread protests in the wake of killings by police of Black people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma.
The protests over the deaths and other law enforcement uses of force have invigorated a movement seeking to transform policing and push more broadly for equity across society.
A new statewide advocacy group, the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, plans to push lawmakers for change.
“We kind of see it as our mission to take the energy and pressure that is on the streets and connect that energy to the halls of power,” said Livio De La Cruz, who sits on the alliance’s steering committee and is a student at Seattle University School of Law.
The alliance is advocating for reforms to law enforcement, more funding and attention to health care and education for people of color, and ending the state ban on affirmative action.
Inslee has unveiled his own slate of equity proposals, as well as legislation to ban chokeholds by police and create a new, statewide office to investigate police killings.
Another longtime priority for Inslee and environmentalist allies is a clean fuels standard, which would require steady reductions in climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.
Oregon, California and British Columbia all have adopted such standards. But in Washington, opposition from oil companies, truckers, Republicans and some Democrats has killed clean-fuel bills in recent years.
“We got so close the last two sessions. I really feel like this session we can get it over the finish line,” said Leah Missik, transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions.
Leaders from both parties said they hope to stop legislating via Zoom as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic is sufficiently beaten back.
Wilcox said he’ll push for a return to a regular session, or at least some sort of hybrid, as soon as conditions improve in Thurston County.
“We can’t wait to meet in person,” said Sullivan.
Staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.