OLYMPIA – It was a legislative opening day unlike any other, filled with pandemic protocols and heavy security, marking the beginning of a session that will likely focus on a COVID-19 response.
“Our job for every minute of the next 105 days is to not just keep hope alive for the people of our great state, but to make hope a reality,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said in her opening remarks.
Both chambers met in-person to pass new emergency rules that allow for a remote session.
Among the new rules:
• Those who wish to testify must do so virtually.
• Only eight Democrats and seven Republicans can be on the Senate floor at any time. In the House, only party leaders and some staff members are allowed on the floor of the chamber. House and Senate members not on the floor can vote virtually. Democrats have a majority in the House and Senate.
• Committee hearings must be conducted virtually.
Outnumbered Republicans opposed changing the rules, arguing that it limited participation and transparency in government.
The state Constitution requires the Legislature convene in person on the first day of the session. In both chambers, members were required to complete COVID-19 screenings and wear a KN95 mask before entering. In the House, members were required to complete a temperature check.
Voting was slow under rules governing Monday’s session. In the Senate, eight lawmakers were allowed on the floor at one time. Others sat socially distanced in the galleries and the wings. Members rotated in to vote. In the House, four different groups rotated in to vote.
In the Senate, members lined up in the wings alphabetically, filed in behind security who carried two-way radios that echoed “Roll call group 1” and followed “ONE WAY” arrows to a mic at the back of the chamber. Some members scoffed at the ONE WAY arrows as they passed. Others showed up wearing cloth masks with words or symbols, which were quickly exchanged for plain white KN95 masks.
To abide by COVID-19 protocols, the presentation of colors, the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer were all prerecorded and played at the start of the session. Newly elected lawmakers were sworn in virtually on Friday.
The new remote rules did not pass without debate. In the Senate, Republicans objected to the new rules, arguing that creating a virtual session limits maximum transparency. Senate Republican Minority Leader John Braun said Democrats worked “in good faith” but that more could be done.
“I think we still fall short in what we could do safely during the session,” Braun said.
All Senate Democrats voted in favor of the rules; all Republicans were opposed.
“I think we ought to examine this and make a reasonable decision,” Spokane Valley Republican Sen. Mike Padden said. “I don’t want to do anything that would put people in harm’s way, but there can be overkill.”
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, shared concerns from constituents who feel they cannot participate in government with the new rules.
“I feel it’s necessary to be that voice today,” she said.
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane said the session will be “extremely transparent” because constituents can access the session and testify from anywhere. He said time was a big factor in deciding how many people could be on the floor at once, as many debates can take hours.
The House had similar debate, with Republicans also opposing remote rules.
Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, shared his experience with COVID-19, which left him in the hospital for eight days. He said he takes the disease seriously, but that it’s not something to hide from.
Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, said some legislators and members of the public who live in rural areas with spotty internet may have issues participating. He said the new rules “fall short of” the principles outlined in the Constitution.
The new rules passed along party lines, with Democrats supporting them and Republicans opposing.
Protests remain small outside Capitol
As the Legislature convened for its opening day session, three dozen protesters stood across the opening in the fencing from a double line of state troopers in black rain gear and helmets, backed up by more than 100 National Guard members in vests and helmets equipped with face shields. Some carried long batons, and curved plexiglass shields were propped against the fence.
Safety concerns for this week’s opening arose last Wednesday after a pro-Trump mob in Washington, D.C., stormed the U.S. Capitol and protesters in Olympia hopped the fence of the governor’s mansion.
On Friday, fences were put up around the Legislative Building, marking strict areas where protests would be allowed.
Gov. Jay Inslee activated 750 members of the National Guard to work with Washington State Patrol and Capitol security on Sunday and Monday, days when large protests were scheduled.
Guard spokeswoman Karina Shagren declined to say how many were on the Capitol campus this morning, or whether they were armed.
Guardsmen called up for violent protests in Seattle last summer did not carry firearms, causing some to criticize that deployment.
Shagren would only say they were equipped “based on the level of the threat to protect themselves and others.”
Republicans criticized the security measures.
“I say today, Gov. Inslee, tear down this wall,” Padden said from the Senate floor, echoing President Ronald Reagan’s demand to Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
On Monday, a protester carrying a bullhorn sometimes hectored the troopers and Guard members about whether they were socially distancing, but most other protesters milled around the area between the Insurance Building and the fencing, clustered under umbrellas or walking around with placards carrying a variety of messages.
One arrest was made Monday morning after a driver used an RV to block a roadway and refused to comply with orders, according to the state patrol.
WSP Sgt. Darren Wright said passengers in the RV complied with orders of the officers and moved the RV so it wasn’t impounded.
Shortly after the session started, one protester was arrested for trying to cross the opening secured with a double line of troopers. The 30-year-old man was arrested for failure to comply with a lawful order, Wright said.
“He made his intentions known ahead of time and knew he would be arrested,” Wright said.
The man, identified as Thomas Hughes of Everett, was also found to have attended protests on Wednesday and breached the gate at to the governor’s mansion. He will be charged with criminal trespassing and is the first arrested related to Wednesday’s incident in Olympia.
On social media platforms, some protest organizers had threatened to “take the building” during the opening of the session Monday.
Asked about such comments, Wright replied: “We’re not going to let that happen.”
Chris Loftis, a WSP spokesman, dismissed any suggestion that surrounding the Legislative Building with temporary chain- link fencing and restricting access might be overkill: “We want to take this down as soon as we can.”
Standing near the gathering of state officials discussing the Capitol security measures was Kelly Stewart, a Vancouver woman who said she drove the two and a half hours to see the security measures for herself and to “stand up for the rights of the public.”
“I think it’s egregious, and I think it should come down,” Stewart said. “Everybody should be saying ‘We have a right to be here.’ ”
People should be able to watch their legislators in person to hold them accountable, and should be allowed to protest peacefully, she said.
She compared the difference of watching the Legislature live and watching it on TVW or online to the difference between “watching porn” and “engaging in human relations.”
But Stewart said she’s never attended a session of the Legislature in person.
“Before this year I never really got involved in politics,” she said. “This is the most important year to be involved.”
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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