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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘You’re on mute’: How a virtual session changed the dynamic in the 2021 Legislature

State Rep. Jim Walsh R-Aberdeen, is displayed on video monitors as he speaks remotely during a session of the House on April 21, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia Wash. Walsh was speaking against a proposed new tax in Washington state on capital gains that would be imposed on the sale of stocks and bonds in excess of $250,000.  (Ted S. Warren/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

OLYMPIA – When lawmakers began thinking about the 2021 Legislature, they had no idea if a virtual session was even possible.

In practice last winter, many said they weren’t ready for floor debates, and virtual systems weren’t yet set up . But after 105 days, dozens of Zoom backgrounds and too many “You’re on mute” utterances to count, the Legislature finished what many are calling a “historic” session. And not one COVID-19 case was noted during the session.

It left big wins for Democrats, who came away having passed major climate, police accountability and tax bills that they have been pushing for years. They passed a $59 billion budget and policies they said would help the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How much a mostly remote session had to do with all of that isn’t quite clear, but with a campus closed to the public and only about a dozen lawmakers on the floor at once for debates, the political dynamic was changed.

At a session wrap-up news conference last week, Republicans criticized the majority for pushing through highly partisan agenda items.

House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said the policies passed this session were “further from the center” than in the past.

“The circumstances in which we operated made it much easier to implement an agenda,” Wilcox said.

Republicans argued a virtual session meant less casual interaction among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and no constituents in person to add pressure on lawmakers.

“The majority came to town with a caucus that is further to the left than they had been in the past and with a very clear agenda to get certain things done that were highly partisan and the knowledge that there wasn’t a lot of interaction with the public to stop them,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, told reporters.

Democrats, however, credited their success on a more diverse Legislature and a pandemic that put a lot into perspective for many people.

“The pandemic pressed us to do bigger things,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said last week.

Members were told to prioritize the bills they sponsored this session, she said, and many prioritized consequential bills. That focus helped big bills move, she said.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the last year forced lawmakers to focus on institutional problems in health care, criminal justice and policing. The pandemic helped build public and legislative momentum, he said.

“We could more clearly see what needed to be done to fix them,” he said.

More accessible

An upside to the virtual session was the number of people who were able to testify remotely or sign in to show support or opposition to a bill.

For example, the Legislature allows people to register in support or against a certain bill, even if they don’t want to testify. In 2019, 4,850 people registered with a position on a bill but did not wish to testify. This year, that number swelled to 31,899 people.

This was the first year the Legislature allowed written testimony on a bill, which could be submitted online. Nearly 11,900 people submitted written testimony in the Senate.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, told reporters more people were paying attention to what the Legislature was doing this year. Democracy is not a “spectator sport,” she said, and more people this year were involved in the discussion than before.

“When you have individuals demanding the government act, that’s what we did, and that’s what we delivered,” she said.

The virtual option proved especially useful to people in Eastern Washington who normally have to trek across the mountains to testify in front of legislators, said Lynn Ciani, who works at Numerica Credit Union in Spokane.

Ciani has testified in previous years in person, representing the credit union on bills. In previous years, she has had to fly to Seattle, rent a car, drive to Olympia and back – all in one day.

This year, Ciani was able to testify in her own home, which saved her time and money. She said she also felt lawmakers were more attentive during the remote session because she said she could more easily see their faces. While in person, lawmakers were further away, and large crowds and noise in committee rooms made it difficult to hear testimony.

“There is an expense and a time associated with the travel,” she said. “Testifying virtually does give the opportunity for people in Eastern Washington and central Washington to testify more easily.”

A downside to the virtual session, however, is being unable to connect with others testifying on bills, Ciani said. Before hearings, people on all sides of the issue were able to share ideas, she added.

Virtual committee hearings also put lawmakers in better control of the time. For big hearings, those testifying only had a minute to speak. After a minute, they were either told to wrap up or were muted.

The remote nature of the past year played a part in how groups organized as well, said Sakara Remmu, founder of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance. The statewide coalition formed last summer as protests erupted across the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

People across the state became “hungry to engage in the democratic process,” Remmu said.

The alliance began organizing online and creating an avenue for people to take part in the Legislative session. The group came up with clear policy goals for the session and supported dozens of bills to improve “the whole of Black life,” Remmu said.

What aspects of a virtual session are here to stay?

No one wants to repeat a remote session, Jinkins said, but there are some benefits that may stay, especially when it comes to testimony.

She said the ability to access people via video, even other lawmakers, was useful and could cut down on travel.

Republican leaders said they hope to see more remote testimony as it made the Legislature more accessible to people in Eastern Washington. Braun said he expects some form of remote testimony to continue but said it is “not a substitute for the allowance of in-person testimony.”

Wilcox agreed, saying there needs to be a way to balance in-person and remote testimony.

Another unintended consequence of a virtual session was the budget process. The 1,100-page budget did not have to be printed, saving the Legislature 747 reams of paper. That’s the equivalent of 37 trees, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, said on the floor last week.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, said it was a lot more efficient when lawmakers could rely on the same electronic budget document. He said there may be some budget paperwork moving forward but “a significant reduction.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of the side bar in this story had the wrong number of members of the Freedom Caucus.

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.