Washington Legislature set to meet amid pandemic, unrest

Washington State Patrol troopers and National Guard outside the Capitol Campus in Olympia, WA on Sunday. Photo courtesy: Washington State Patrol

When Washington lawmakers finished their legislative session last spring, COVID-19 response dominated their work. Nearly a year later, the economic and social impacts of the virus once again will be center stage as the Legislature convenes for the first time in person in nearly a year.

Lawmakers are meeting amid concerns about potential efforts by armed groups to occupy the Capitol, which is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic.

A right-wing militia group had initially encouraged its members to occupy the Capitol when the Legislature meets to kick off its 105-day legislative session Monday, and that intention was echoed by several of those who broke down a gate outside the governor’s mansion Wednesday and stormed the porch and front yard. That breach came hours after the siege of the nation’s Capitol building.

While an organizer of the planned occupation canceled the event in a Facebook post Wednesday night, he acknowledged Thursday he did expect some individuals to try to enter the Capitol despite the cancellation.

The Washington State Patrol, which oversees security of the Capitol campus, has said there will be a strong law enforcement presence. And on Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced he activated 750 members of the National Guard to help protect the Capitol campus.

Democratic Sen. Manka Dhingra said while she was concerned about the opening day of session on Monday, she said she had faith in law enforcement officials who have been working with the Legislature to address security concerns.

"I think we have to be cautious but I also think it is important that the state see their elected leaders do the job that they were elected to do in a safe way," she said during an online preview of the legislative session hosted by The Associated Press on Thursday.

Lawmakers are meeting in person Monday largely to adopt rules that will allow them to meet virtually during the rest of the session. After that, in the Senate, regular floor votes will be conducted in a hybrid format, with a mix of senators present in the chamber and others participating remotely.

The House has decided to do the rest of its work remotely. All committee hearings, in both chambers, will be held remotely, with public participation. As before the pandemic, hearings and floor votes will continue to be broadcast or live streamed by TVW, the state’s government affairs channel.

Lawmakers’ agenda includes dealing with pressing issues related to the pandemic, such as support for struggling businesses and renters, and police reform.

Here is a look at just a few of the things that lawmakers are expected to address during this unusual session:

COVID-19 RESPONSE: The last bill approved by the Legislature before they adjourned their 60-day session on March 12 was a measure drawing $200 million from the state’s emergency "rainy day" fund for coronavirus response. The state has received and spent about $2 billion in federal money allocated to the state during the pandemic, including $135 million in grants, loans and other assistance to help businesses and workers announced in November by Inslee. Inslee has urged the Legislature to move quickly this month to pass legislation to approve an additional $100 million in grants for businesses affected by the state’s coronavirus restrictions and $100 million in rental assistance. Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said she expects the House to vote in the next few weeks on spending ranging from vaccine distribution, contact tracing and for testing, to food assistance, rental assistance and grants for small businesses affected by the coronavirus restrictions.

STATE BUDGET: The most recent state revenue forecast in November showed that while the state has made some gains since the first round of business closures at the start of the pandemic last year, revenue projections through mid-2023 are about $3.3 billion below what they were projected to be before the pandemic hit. In his budget proposal last month, Inslee put forth a new capital gains tax and a tax on health insurers as part of his two-year, $57.6 billion budget plan. Republicans insist new revenue is not needed. Republican Sen. Shelly Short said that lawmakers have a duty to set priorities and that "last thing we should be doing is raising taxes on our family owned businesses and our job creators in the state of Washington." Dhingra said that the pandemic has exposed several inequities ranging from education to health care.

GOVERNOR’S EMERGENCY POWERS: Republicans, frustrated by Inslee’s refusal to call the Legislature into a special session during the pandemic, have introduced several bills that seek to curb his emergency powers, including a constitutional amendment that would make it easier for lawmakers to call themselves back into a special session. Democrats hold strong majorities in both chambers, and Jinkins, the House speaker has said she was comfortable with the governor’s powers, but Republican House leader J.T. Wilcox disagreed, saying while the governor needs to have the ability to respond to emergencies, he "shouldn’t have no limit."

POLICE REFORM: Galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement, lawmakers and activists have set an ambitious agenda for police reform, saying they hope to make it easier to decertify officers for misconduct, to rein in controversial police tactics, and to create an independent statewide agency to investigate police killings. Among the measures set for hearings this week is one to preclude police unions from using collective bargaining to negotiate disciplinary processes for serious misconduct and use-of-force incidents; to end officers’ ability to appeal discipline to private arbitrators; and to require that officers be fired for certain kinds of misconduct.

CLIMATE CHANGE: Inslee is pushing for several climate related proposals, including fully reinstating a plan to cap carbon pollution in the state. The Democratic majority in the House has said that climate is one of the areas they will be prioritizing this session beyond COVID-19 recovery. Inslee is also seeking a measure that would require fuel producers and importers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with gasoline and other transportation fuels.

AP writer Gene Johnson contributed from Seattle.