Plans for the Legislature to meet remotely in January are not yet finalized, but they are moving in the right direction. The coronavirus pandemic inevitably will cause difficulties for the legislative session, and protecting the health of lawmakers will be essential for a smooth session.
With Democrats maintaining control of both chambers of the Legislature, party leaders have floated plans for remotely conducting most debates and testimony. “Obviously, this is going to be a challenging session,” Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane and the Senate Majority Leader, said. “It really impacts the Legislature in the fact that so much of what we do is relationship-based and coming together to do the work of the people.”
Republicans have raised questions about how last-minute amendments to legislation will be handled and about other issues. Those questions are valid and must be addressed before plans are finalized. Meanwhile, the move to remote work could bode well for the public and the prospect of making remote testimony permanent.
The Senate has embraced remote testimony, setting up 16 sites throughout the state to allow for members of the public to weigh in on legislation. Previously, stakeholders would have to travel to Olympia, often making an hourslong drive for testimony that might last five minutes. As lawmakers further embrace technology, we encourage the House of Representatives to establish remote testimony parameters that will continue after the pandemic has passed.
Next year’s legislative session will be historic for the challenges it presents, with public health and economic recovery topping the list of priorities. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has been elected to a third term, but Republican challenger Loren Culp has declined to concede the election despite the fact that Inslee has received 57 percent of the votes counted by Saturday — a margin of more than 500,000.
Culp has claimed, without offering proof, that there have been irregularities in the counting of ballots. It is a grossly irresponsible tactic that echoes the national leadership of his party, undermining the public’s confidence in our election system with conjecture rather than evidence. Inslee said: “We need public officials to help the public exercise patience and respect the integrity of the system.”
Inslee has said his first priority is to “knock down COVID-19” in order to fully reopen the economy. He correctly views the election results as a mandate to continue encouraging people to wear masks, maintain social distancing and “respond in a scientifically credible way.” Despite those actions, Washington — like most states — has seen record numbers of reported coronavirus infections in recent weeks as fall weather drives more people indoors.
Knocking down the virus will be essential to reinvigorating the economy. So will the actions of the Legislature, with the most recent economic forecast projecting a $4.5 billion budget shortfall between now and mid-2023. Lawmakers first must evaluate where they can cut expenditures, particularly new spending that was approved before COVID-19 wreaked havoc with business activity throughout the state.
That work will be affected by the pandemic. As Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood and the Majority Floor Leader, noted: “It is going to take us more time to process through the same amount of bills as before. I think that means there will be less legislation considered; we’ll have to focus in on priorities.”
Meeting remotely will help lawmakers achieve that focus, even if it is an imperfect solution.