Monday, July 26, 2021
July 26, 2021

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In Our View: Coronavirus outbreak dominates legislative session

The Columbian

The accomplishments — and the failures — of the 2020 legislative session were quickly eclipsed by the coronavirus outbreak. As COVID-19 began to take hold in the waning days of the session, lawmakers found themselves adjusting to daily changes in the prognosis for what has become a pandemic.

Lawmakers approved $200 million from the state’s reserve fund to combat the virus. Whether that proves to be adequate or whether a special session will be needed remains to be seen as the virus wreaks havoc with public health and the economy while dominating news reports.

With the Legislature having closed up shop two weeks ago, it is prudent to take a look at what happened and what didn’t happen during the 60-day session.

Perhaps most notably, lawmakers boosted last year’s transportation budget to $10.3 billion from $9.8 billion. That was partly in response to voters’ approval of Initiative 976 last fall, which will reduce vehicle license tabs to $30 and diminish the state’s ability to pay for transportation projects. The increase is designed to continue projects already started.

I-976 remains in legal limbo, facing court challenges. The state has continued to collect license fees but has held them while awaiting a ruling from the court. Republicans — the minority party in both the House and Senate — unsuccessfully sought to enact the lower fees now.

Passage of the transportation supplement was a wise decision that will be particularly important for sustaining Washington’s economy. As Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said, “Particularly with what we’re seeing now, it’s going to be important that those jobs be there.”

For Clark County residents, the more crucial transportation debates will take place next year. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens and Transportation Committee chair, has outlined a 10-year wish list that includes money for a new Interstate 5 crossing at the Columbia River. “My hope is that we can come together … next year to pass something that funds our transportation, fixes our culverts and gets Washington moving forward again,” he told The (Tacoma) News Tribune.

Renovation to culverts that hamper fish migration has been mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court and should be a priority. So, too, should the I-5 Bridge.

Assessing wish lists and accomplishments from just two weeks ago seems archaic now, in the wake of COVID-19. There is no telling how long the pandemic will last or what the state’s economy will look like months or years from now.

The chaos could sidetrack Gov. Jay Inslee’s hopes for a clean fuels standard, which passed the House for the second time but again did not advance to the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, several bills spearheaded by local lawmakers made their way to Inslee’s desk. Among them:

• A bill long sought by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, would remove sales tax on menstrual products. Wilson also sponsored a successful bill that would enhance monitoring of domestic abusers.

• A bill introduced by Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, will allow the Washington State Charter School Commission to hire an executive director. “Now that the governor has signed this into law, I’m confident that Washington charter schools will take several positive steps forward,” Harris said.

• A bill introduced by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, would toughen animal cruelty laws and provide more options for where people can take abandoned animals.