The unusual nature of this year’s legislative session will be on display Monday. Before agreeing to hold remote meetings in the age of COVID-19, lawmakers must meet in person in Olympia.
The opening day might be the only relatively normal day of the entire 2021 session. Beyond that, legislators will address pressing issues mostly through virtual meetings.
The issues are, indeed, pressing. With the coronavirus pandemic causing an economic slowdown, state revenue over the next three years is projected to be $3.3 billion less than previously expected. That will require some combination of tax increases and budget cuts. “We must invest in the relief, recovery and resilience of Washington,” Gov. Jay Inslee said last month. “We cannot cut the things that we need most during a pandemic. In my proposed operating, capital and transportation budgets, I am investing in the people of our state.”
Devising a two-year budget for state operations will be the primary duty for legislators during the 105-day session. But several other items also will be prominent:
• Inslee is seeking $100 million for struggling businesses in the wake of the pandemic, plus $100 million for rent assistance. Late in 2020, he used federal funds to create a $100 million pot for businesses. Lawmakers certainly will approve additional relief, with the only debate being over the size of the package.
• Inslee has proposed a capital gains tax, a suggestion that has been floated and has crashed numerous times over the years. While there are strong merits to the proposal, it is unlikely to gain much traction this time around. But in opposing a capital gains tax, budget writers must recognize that a revenue shortfall and the need for pandemic relief require new streams of revenue. Austerity will only harm Washingtonians and delay the economy’s eventual recovery.
• Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, has teamed with a Democratic senator to pre-file a bill that would subject all emergency orders from the governor to legislative approval after 30 days. Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have bristled at the governor’s shutdown orders for businesses and schools, and a rethinking of the balance of power is warranted.
• The immediate needs presented by the pandemic should not result in shortsightedness. Washington must forcefully address climate change; claiming that “now is not the time” will only delay necessary actions and will fail to position the state for the economic benefits that come with clean energy. “Climate change continues to threaten our state’s families, farms and businesses,” Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, wrote in an op-ed for The Seattle Times. “We cannot lose our focus on addressing these threats.”
• For Clark County residents, few things will draw as much attention as progress on a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge. Advocates are hoping that a new presidential administration will result in more federal attention to infrastructure needs. “It is the future of Vancouver, and we are optimistic that the federal government is going to be a good partner for the city going forward,” city lobbyist Joel Rubin said.
• While taxes and spending will dominate the proceedings, the Legislature also must address police reform amid a national focus on racial injustice. Inslee has proposed the establishment of an Office of Independent Investigations for looking into allegations of excessive force by police.
There is no telling what eventually will come out of this year’s Legislature. The only certainty is that it will be a most unusual year.