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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Legislative session nearly a month away, but some lawmakers are eagerly filing bills

The Washington Legislative Building.  (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
The Washington Legislative Building. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

Mid-December is the time when some people prepare for upcoming holidays by shopping and some legislators prepare for the upcoming session by proposing bills.

Just as Christmas gifts often reflect the sensibilities of the season – look for designer face masks in stockings and more diversionary activities for quarantining at home under the tree – the early legislation, known as pre-filed bills, often reflect the tenor of the times.

Not surprisingly, some are pandemic related. There are several efforts to rein in the emergency powers of a governor and health officials, something Republicans in the Legislature have been clamoring for since late spring. Current law allows a governor to suspend certain laws and regulations for 30 days and get that renewed by the Legislature if it’s in session or by the leaders of both parties in both chambers if it isn’t.

One bill would require any emergency order by the state health secretary or a local health official to be “the least restrictive means necessary” and be renewed after 30 days by the Legislature in session or the four leaders when out of session.

Another would strengthen that 30-day rule and require unanimous consent by the four leaders when the Legislature is gone. It also would knock disobeying an order down from a gross misdemeanor to a misdemeanor, significantly reducing the penalties.

Another bill would allow three of its four legislative leaders to limit any health emergency order from a local health office, or from mayors, city councils, county commissions or county executives after 30 days.

The pandemic also has spawned at least two proposals for relief from the business and occupation tax, with one calling for an exemption for COVID-19 grants a company might have received and another calling for a one-time $5,000 tax credit. Another proposal would give employers a break from rising unemployment fees and spend $500 million from the Rainy Day fund to shore up the Unemployment Trust Fund.

Perhaps inspired by Monday’s Electoral College meeting, Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, has proposed a new way to elect the governor. Instead of just giving it to the person who gets the most votes, he’d like to divide 147 electoral votes – the combined number of state senators and representatives – among the state’s 39 counties based on population.

But each county would get at least one electoral vote, so it wouldn’t be as simple as making the legislative districts the same as the electoral districts. Counties in Eastern Washington and the Olympic Peninsula, which currently share legislative districts with other counties, would be guaranteed at least one elector while the more populous counties with multiple districts like King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane would have fewer. A candidate who wins in the county would get all of those electoral votes, regardless of how close the tally.

This could solve the Republicans’ frustration over a string of gubernatorial losses that started in 1984 because it will enhance their strength in small counties that they typically win, like Asotin, Garfield and Columbia, and turn smaller wins in Spokane County into total victories. But it might run afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s requirement of “one person, one vote.”

Another proposed change by Klippert, who currently leads the pre-filing sweepstakes with 10 bills, would require mailed ballots to have watermarks to help enhance their security.

There are some familiar ideas, such as a proposal to allow marijuana to be grown at home for personal use; to make Juneteenth, the day slaves in Texas learned of their freedom, a state holiday; to dedicate the sales tax from car sales to transportation projects; to restrict some abortions; and to give medical marijuana patients exemptions from taxes if they are registered with the state.

A proposal to divide Washington at the Cascade Crest and form a 51st state often shows up in pre-filed bills, only to be ignored in the session. One hasn’t surfaced yet, but it’s not clear yet whether someone else is ready to take up that crusade now that former Rep. Matt Shea has left office.

Electoral College has new temporary quarters

The Washington Electoral College usually convenes in the marble-walled State Reception Room for delegates to cast their votes for president and vice president. Because of COVID-19, however, it will move down the hallway, to the larger and even more ornate state Senate Chamber to allow more social distancing between delegates.

The ceremony also closed to the public because access to the domed Legislative Building is restricted. But it will be carried live on TVW at noon, both on its cable broadcast and streamed on the website.Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 879-7461 or at jimc@spokesman.com

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