In even numbered years such as 2020, the legislative session is only 60 days long so that all the House members can get home to campaign.
In 2020, the headline issues were homelessness and affordable housing. This legislative session, they will have 105 days and may need every single hour as it will be like none we have ever seen before.
The only thing worse than being in control of the legislative session during a pandemic is not being in control of the session in a pandemic.
Olympia is about power — who has it and who wants it and who has the votes to pass laws and make policy. The Democrats control the state Senate, House of Representatives and the Governor’s Office. But with power comes responsibility, and minority Republicans are already looking ahead to the 2022 elections as an opportunity to flip one of the Houses in anticipation of the Democrats raising taxes. Both sides are perfecting their talking points.
The coronavirus will affect everything the Legislature does — from their meeting schedule to passing laws. When the Legislature meets next month, it will start with formalities at St. Martin’s University, but most of the session will be done virtually. Many people have become comfortable with Zoom meetings, but managing the whole session that way will be a challenge, and members the Legislature will find a smorgasbord of challenges waiting for them.
In the Senate, their “to do” list has police accountability, criminal justice reform, climate change, the economy, COVID-19 for families and communities, child care and education. In the House, their priorities are equity in all decision making, COVID-19 responses for residents, economic recovery and climate justice.
Gov. Jay Inslee has made COVID-19, climate change and police accountability his priorities. He has also opened the door to tax options to pay for them, but not everyone will agree, and the political positioning from both the left and right has already started.
Last June, the budget had a shortfall of $8.8 billion projected over the next three years. Things have improved a little, but we are still short by $2.4 billion.
There will be some new faces in the Republican leadership in the senate as Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) stepped down as minority leader and will be replaced by John Braun (R-Centralia). Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) will remain, as does House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) in her second session as leader. She will try and manage a new group of recently elected legislators intent upon continuing a movement toward the left. J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) will continue as House Minority Leader.
Inslee’s budget for 2021-2023 is $57.6 billion, but it also has tax implications. It would pay for public health and respond to restrictions that have caused business and schools to close.
One of the most contentious debates is expected to be about police reform. In previous years, local police departments and sheriff’s offices have been able to sidetrack or defeat attempts to change how public safety departments are run, but with a whole summer of controversy and the evening news showing white police officers killing minorities, the topics and the political temperature are up high enough among voters that the Legislature may have to pass a number of reforms, as transparency will become a familiar argument.
Also, police unions lack the clout they relied on previously as the Seattle Police Officers Guild was expelled by the King County Labor Council a few months ago over resistance to racial justice reform.
Inslee has proposed $26 million to create an Office of Independent Investigations to investigate police use of force because most police investigations are done by other police departments. He has also proposed $2.5 million to fully fund the state’s “equity office” and help state agencies develop inclusion plans, and $40 million to fund a COVID-19 immigrant relief fund.
Debate has already started on how officer decertification can be improved and how to treat arbitrations when officers appeal discipline, which can delay the discipline for months or years, and then be watered down. Can a statewide system be established to keep track of police who have a history of behavior issues? Tacoma and some King County cities will provide samples that may be hard to defend.
Inslee proposes to pay for much of the new spending with a 9% tax on capital gains for earnings above $25,000 for a single or $50,000 for joint filers, along with an assessment on health insurers and some health contractors. Inslee’s proposals also include attacking carbon pollution and the establishment of clean air standards along with a cap on greenhouse gas emissions as a way to force political attention on climate change.
Inslee wants to further electrify the state ferry fleet. Inslee included Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s plan to ban the use of credit scoring in auto, homeowner, renter and boat insurance rates to address racism in the insurance industry. It is also likely we will see legislation introduced to create a Juneteenth holiday, and Inslee’s budget would set aside $7.3 million to maintain critical services if the legislation passes.
This will be a long 105-day session, but legislators have been told they can only sponsor a limited number of bills to keep the session moving and focused.
This will be one of the most compelling sessions we have seen in a long time. Major policy changes will be debated and the politics will be memorable. Watch carefully as new stars will emerge, and what the Legislature passes will affect you.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.