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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Washington’s 2021 Legislative session will be virtually unrecognizable

The Washington state Capitol building in Olympia, photographed on Jan. 5, 2017, features the classic dome architecture and houses the governor's office and the Legislature's two chambers.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Washington state Capitol building in Olympia, photographed on Jan. 5, 2017, features the classic dome architecture and houses the governor's office and the Legislature's two chambers.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

Like most daily life in 2020, the 2021 Legislative session will be significantly changed by COVID-19.

Access to the domed Legislative Building – a significant tourist attraction as well as the seat of government – will be tightly restricted.

Protesters will be allowed on the Capitol Campus, but not inside the Rotunda or up in the galleries. Junior high school “pages” won’t be wandering the halls; the program is on hold.

Stopping by a legislator’s office for a chat or to argue for or against a bill won’t be allowed. Access to other state office buildings also will be limited, plus lawmakers and their staff might be working from home.

A limited number of legislators and some staff will be allowed into the buildings each day but the public and lobbyists won’t. The House and Senate committee meetings will all be “virtual” as they have been since the 2020 Legislature recessed in March and the pandemic began to take hold. Members of the public who want to testify will be given access to a “Zoom room” where they can wait until they are called on.

“It is going to expand access,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said Thursday. Although the Legislature has allowed remote testimony for some hearings in the past, witnesses could only testify from designated locations. The new system will allow people access from their home or office or even coffee shop with decent Wi-Fi.

Deciding who gets to testify will be up to the committee chairman, which is the way it has always been.

The Senate will likely vote on fewer bills, covering fewer topics. They’ll stick to a stricter “no surprise” schedule for debating and voting on bills, released at least a day earlier, Democratic Floor Leader Marko Liias said during a meeting of the committee that controls Senate operations.

In the Senate, a limited number of members – still to be determined – will be allowed on the floor and the rest will debate and vote from home or office through a special system.

The House could have a fully remote session, although leaders are still working on the details, Speaker Laurie Jinkins told reporters. Aside from one lawmaker presiding over the chamber and a limited number of staff, most legislators will likely work from home or office.

Jinkins also said the virtual committee meetings also would allow more people to testify: “I think this will be a great thing for the public coming out of this.”

The plans are subject to change later this year, depending on what the disease and risk look like in January and February. Lawmakers could return to larger gatherings or more in-person work in March if conditions improve significantly. Or it could restrict activities even more, if the pandemic gets worse.

RIP Sally Jackson

As reported earlier this week, Democratic activist and lifelong Valley resident Sally Jackson passed away on the eve of the election. Jackson was such a source of anecdotes that almost everyone in local politics has their favorite Sally story.

One of mine involves our first meeting during her 1986 campaign for a 4th District legislative seat. She called, objecting to being described solely as a tavern owner when she first filed for office just because she and husband Ron operated the Jackson Hole in the Valley. She was a businesswoman and coach, a civic activist, a swimming instructor, a mom, she said.

I told her that as a reporter, I considered tavern owner an honorable profession not a slight, but would try to add a bit more context.

Then a few weeks later I saw her use “tavern owner” as an asset to her qualifications.

The Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce was holding an early morning candidate forum. She and Rep. Mike Padden, her opponent, were talking about the lagging business climate with Padden saying the state should cut spending and eventually eliminate the hated business and occupation tax.

It’s not the taxes, it’s the economy, Jackson said. She never needs a fancy study to know if the economy is bad, she added: “I can tell you in three days. If they aren’t buying beer, they don’t have any money.”

Then she looked out into the crowd, picked out familiar faces and reminded them that when their businesses were struggling or their employees furloughed, the tavern extended credit and carried their tabs until times got better.

She didn’t win the race, but she showed how a plain-talking candidate can turn a perceived negative into a positive.

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