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Five issues to watch in the Washington Legislature in 2021

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 10, 2021

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

OLYMPIA – With a mostly virtual session due to COVID-19 protocols, increased safety concerns over pro-Trump protests nationwide and a long road toward economic recovery, Washington lawmakers have a lot of work ahead of them when the Legislature convenes on Monday.

Leaders have outlined their priorities for the 105-day session, but they have suggested that communication and other challenges caused by a virtual session will force lawmakers to focus on the most important priorities in order to be productive.

The only thing lawmakers must do this session is pass a budget for the next biennium, but that won’t be the only thing they discuss. Here’s what to look out for this legislative session:

Economic recovery Legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee have repeatedly said economic recovery post-COVID is the No. 1 focus this year, but they disagree on how to get there.

Part of the debate will be immediate pandemic assistance, a plan Inslee proposed as part of his legislative agenda and budget proposals. The other part of economic recovery will come from the state’s long-term budget, which must be decided this session for the 2021-23 biennium.

Inslee is pushing the Legislature to pass a relief package within the first two weeks of the session. It would include $100 million in assistance to struggling businesses and $100 million in rental assistance to landlords.

House Democratic Majority Leader Laurie Jinkins, of Tacoma, said Thursday they are preparing for early action but also are trying to understand fully what a federal relief package might look like. Republicans have said the assistance is too little and too late, but likely will support some sort of immediate aid.

Inslee proposed spending $57.6 billion over the next two years to fight COVID-19, improve the economy and fight climate change. In his budget released in December, Inslee proposed using up the Rainy Day Fund, implementing a capital gains tax of 9% on annual investment earnings of $50,000 for a married couple and creating a monthly tax of about $3 on health insurance policies.

Republicans called Inslee’s budget “underwhelming” and criticized his proposed taxes. Still, Inslee said in December he believes he has the support for most of his proposals.

COVID-19 response Jinkins told reporters Monday the Legislature’s response to COVID-19 is “a whole ecosystem unto itself.”

Along with relief for businesses and rental assistance, it includes improving support for vaccine distribution, getting kids back in school and lowering unemployment.

Although what’s in the newest federal relief package isn’t entirely known, Jinkins said state legislators are planning early action to release those funds. Most likely, the federal funds would go toward vaccine planning, contact tracing and testing.

Funding would also go toward food assistance, small business grants, rental assistance and child care grants. Jinkins said Democrats are willing to tap the Rainy Day Fund for some of these programs.

Lawmakers also are discussing providing tax relief for businesses that received paycheck protection program loans, as well as waiving property tax interest fees for businesses.

Jinkins mentioned helping school districts with transportation and enrollment costs, but said it would be an issue that likely would come later in the session as it is “very complicated.”

House Republican Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, said Thursday he looks forward to getting a lot of these aid packages and policies through but he wished they happened sooner.

Police reform and improving equity After the in-custody killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, lawmakers began working on a sweeping legislative package on police reform. In committee hearings throughout the interim, lawmakers on both sides agreed something needs to be done.

A police reform proposals likely to be debated include:

  • A ban or limits place on certain police tactics, such as chokeholds, neck restraints and the use of certain military equipment.
  • Implementation of a decertification process for officers who use deadly force.
  • A new training program for police officers to intervene and report officers they see using unnecessary deadly force.
  • Creation of a database that would collect information on incidents involving use of deadly force.
  • A new statewide body to investigate use of deadly force.

Some of the legislation, such as a change in police tactics, likely will not be as controversial, said House Public Safety Committee Chairman Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. Others, such as the topics of collective bargaining and eliminating private arbitrators, might.

The difficult discussions already began in a Nov. 30 Public Safety Committee hearing where Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, questioned the idea of eliminating the use of a private arbitrator, as well as changing certain police tactics.

“If I choose to pin on a badge, I am giving up my right to constitutional due process,” said Klippert, a Benton County sheriff’s deputy and ranking member of the Public Safety Committee. “Is that what you’re suggesting?”

Along with police reform, Inslee proposed a package aimed at tackling inequities.

His ideas include boosting funding for independent police investigations, a state Equity Office, broadband connection and immigrant relief.

He also is calling for changes in environmental policy to consider the effects of pollution in communities of color or those in poverty.

Democratic Sen. Manka Dhingra, of Redmond, said economic recovery will be front and center, but with that comes improving inequities statewide as people of color are “suffering at a rate that is disproportionate.”

“We have to come out of this pandemic in a way that does not leave people behind,” Dhingra said.

Climate change Climate change was included in Democrats’ top four priorities for this session, along with the COVID-19 response, racial equity and economic recovery.

As part of his proposed budget, Inslee put forward a bill to create a comprehensive climate program that would establish a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, create a climate investment account to support clean transportation and emissions reduction, and analyze policies from an environmental justice lens.

Inslee has pushed in the past for a low-carbon fuel standard for transportation fuel and will continue to do so this year. Inslee also wants to invest in clean energy projects, clean transportation, and clean buildings and homes.

Democrats likely will support much of Inslee’s proposals, although COVID relief and response will take priority.

Limiting emergency powers A priority for Republicans this session will be passing legislation that limits the governor’s powers during emergencies.

Numerous bills already have been prefiled, including limiting the duration of emergency rules and requiring legislative oversight of emergency orders.

Republicans have criticized Inslee consistently during the coronavirus pandemic for not calling a special session so the Legislature could have a say in his emergency orders.

Wilcox told reporters Thursday the governor should have power in an emergency but there should be a limit.

“We would like to see adjustments so the Legislature’s involved so it can not go on in an indefinite way without having the involvement of all of the representatives of the people,” he said.

Democrats, on the other hand, don’t agree that Inslee has overstepped with his emergency orders. Jinkins said the governor has worked with legislators on both sides when coming up with his plan.

In response, Inslee told reporters his emergency orders have reduced the COVID death and transmission rates in Washington.

“I think the most important part of this debate is whether what we’re doing is working or not, and the evidence is quite clear,” he said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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