When the Legislature convenes on Jan. 11 — for the first time in 10 months — the coronavirus will be at the top of the agenda for both Democrats and Republicans.
The COVID-19 outbreak will dominate the session, both in format and content. For the first time ever, the Legislature will come together remotely, using video conferencing and virtual document sharing to do the work that would normally be done at the state Capitol.
“Everything is going to move much more slowly, because it’s all going to take so much more time,” said Rep. Monica Stonier, the Democrat from Vancouver and House majority floor leader. “A lot of what I’m doing is making sure that we can have floor action, actually do the work of the people in the state.”
Sen. Ann Rivers, the Republican from La Center who was elected minority party caucus chair last week, said she’s planning on being extremely selective in the legislation she plans on pursuing next year. Rivers said she and her colleagues were told six weeks ago “to pick our favorite child” to champion over the course of the session.
“Our bill numbers will be limited this year,” Rivers said. “They’re also looking at ways to do an omnibus bill, so everyone gets a little something.”
The remote format will also change the way the public engages with the two governing bodies. Instead of testifying on a bill from the House or Senate floor, members of the public can patch in virtually from their homes. As a few Democratic legislators told Crosscut last month, that could ultimately make the process more accessible because it means people can participate in government without trekking to Olympia.
Some lawmakers on the right, however, have expressed concern about public access. Upon her election as caucus chair, Rivers released a statement that said Republicans “have tried to protect the public’s access to the lawmaking process during the 2021 session,” with “very limited success so far.”
Stonier said she’s heard the calls — mostly from across the aisle — for the Legislature to find a way to meet in person. It’s just not worth the risk right now, she said, especially with COVID-19 spreading faster than at any other point since March. An outbreak in the state government would grind the session to a halt, and not only risk the health of elected officials but their staff and volunteers, as well.
“It makes sense to me to try and do it remotely, and if things get better and we can return to campus, then we have not lost time,” Stonier said.
COVID-19 trumps all
With time for only a limited quantity of legislative action, COVID-19 relief will take center stage.
Members of both parties have projected that education — specifically, finding a way to get students back into the classrooms — will be a top priority.
Sen. John Braun, a Republican from Centralia and the party caucus leader, announced that he’s drafting a plan that would require schools to offer in-person instruction if their virus positivity rate is below 5 percent (no districts in Clark County currently fall under that threshold).
Rivers said she plans to focus on getting teachers, administrators and school support staff included in the first wave of vaccinations, bumping their spot in line to be on par with that of health care workers.
She’s not sure how many doses that would take to accomplish, she acknowledged.
“My hope is that we move educators up to frontline providers, because really that’s what they are,” Rivers said. “Having been a teacher myself, I believe our kids are probably a year behind.”
Stonier, who currently works as an educator with Evergreen Public Schools, said the Legislature will need to find a way to stabilize school funding. State support is based in part on enrollment, which plummeted this year. If lawmakers don’t step in, districts might have to make some painful cuts that reverberate even after students return.
“As enrollment starts to increase again, and kids need to come back,” Stonier said, “we need to try to smooth that out as best we can and make funding more predictable for districts.”
Small business and unemployment assistance will also top the legislative agenda in January.
A jobs report released Friday indicates that hiring nationwide slowed dramatically last month as coronavirus cases spiked. In Clark County, new unemployment cases filed with the Employment Security Department more than doubled immediately after Gov. Jay Inslee announced new restrictions on bars and restaurant on Nov. 15.
Ensuring that unemployment assistance from the embattled ESD makes it to individuals and families is among Stonier’s top concerns. So is funneling direct cash assistance to small businesses through a statewide grant program.
Rivers said she wants the Legislature to focus on regulatory relief to try and reduce the burden on businesses, like offering restaurants a onetime waiver on their liquor license renewal fee.
“Small business often leads us out of economic downturn,” Rivers said. “We have to take extraordinary members to keep those businesses in business.”