OLYMPIA — State lawmakers kicked off the 2023 session on Monday, starting a 105-day marathon of bill-passing and budget-writing in their first fully in-person gathering since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago.
The return of lawmakers seated side-by-side in chambers, overlooked by galleries loaded with family members and other observers, stood in marked contrast to the mostly empty Capitol of the past two sessions.
“It’s wonderful to be back in person,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, in an interview. “I’ve described the last couple years to some people as all of the tedium and none of the joy.”
The state House and Senate officially convened shortly after noon for opening ceremonies, swearing in new members and electing leaders. Few wore masks, in another sign of an effort to return to pre-pandemic routines.
After her colleagues re-elected her to lead the chamber, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, walked up the aisle to the dais, exchanging hugs and handshakes with lawmakers of both parties.
“The last time I delivered remarks to a packed House, with actual visitors in the galleries, was on the opening day of the 2020 session, my first as Speaker of the House,” Jinkins said. “At that time, none of us knew within weeks, in fact I researched it, within seven days, of us kicking off our legislative session, would we be faced with a global pandemic that completely changed how we work, how we socialize, and how we live our lives.”
She called the remote sessions “a historic first and hopefully, last.”
Jinkins’ uneventful reelection Monday contrasted with the prolonged spectacle in “the other Washington,” where last week U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy struggled to win the post, enduring 15 rounds of voting and days of stalemate.
Washington House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, urged cooperation between lawmakers in a speech on the floor, describing the past two years of remote lawmaking as a struggle.
“I don’t think there’s any enterprise in life that is more about being human than politics,” he said. “And a legislature is the place where human contact is the most important.”
Over the next few months, state legislators will debate the two-year state budget, and plan to address some of the most significant issues facing Washington, including the housing shortage, gun laws and how the state handles drug possession.
While in-person meetings are back, Washingtonians from all over the state can still testify without a trip to Olympia, as the Legislature is continuing to allow remote testimony on bills.
Democrats hold the reins of power, with solid majorities in the state House and Senate, as well as every statewide elected office.
Gov. Jay Inslee, with an ambitious agenda of his own, including a $4 billion housing-construction proposal aimed at easing the homelessness crisis, will address lawmakers on Tuesday in his annual State of the State address.
After opening the session Monday afternoon, lawmakers began meeting in committees, where legislation is developed and members of the public can weigh in.
Bills under consideration this week include a proposal to prohibit employers from requiring applicants to be screened for cannabis use and a proposal to set up relief centers for people experiencing a mental health crisis. Legislators also are considering a tax break for wineries and a bill restricting solitary confinement in state prisons.
Majority Democrats are fast tracking plans to repeal “advisory votes” on tax increases approved by the Legislature. The nonbinding votes have been an annual feature on Washington ballots since passage of a 2007 initiative by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman.
But bills scheduled for hearings this week in the state House and state Senate would eliminate the advisory votes “making ballots more meaningful.” The Senate version, SB 5082, is already scheduled for a potential committee vote on Friday.
Lawmakers will also hear testimony on Inslee’s 2023-25 operating budget proposal on Tuesday in the Senate Ways and Means Committee and on Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee.