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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Rules for 2022 session call for ‘virtual’ work first, may change

No session of the Legislature is totally predictable, but most start the year with a set of rules that give lawmakers and the public a pretty good idea how things will unfold in the coming weeks and months.

This is not such a year.

Because of the surge in the omicron strain of COVID-19, the 2022 session will open with most activity “virtual.” The number of legislators allowed in the chamber for early floor activity will be limited, and they’ll be subject to strict rules on vaccination reporting and testing. Rules for reporters covering those sessions and the public hoping to view them in person from the galleries will be similarly restrictive.

All committee hearings will be held online, as they were last year.

Legislative leaders say those rules will be reviewed every two weeks to see if they can be relaxed, holding out hope that floor debates and votes, which generally are relatively infrequent early in the session, will go back to pre-COVID times.

But even if the entire 60-day session remains on virtual rules there are some advantages for people around the state who want to keep track of or participate in some parts of the legislative process without having to cross a mountain pass or fight through Interstate 5 traffic.

As it has for years, TVW, the state’s public affairs network, will carry committee hearings and floor action online, as well as on its cable channel, which is Channel 25 on Comcast in Spokane but may be a different channel in communities with other cable networks.

One thing that will likely be the same, whether the Legislature is online or in person, is that some days nothing much will happen and other days many things will happen at the same time. In the early weeks, there may be as many as nine committee hearings underway at the same time. Although TVW has only one cable channel, it can show all the committee hearings on its website.

To find out what’s happening on any given day, go to TVW.org and click on “Schedule” in the line of links across the top right. TVW also archives every hearing and floor session, so if two committees are holding hearings on bills you are following at the same time, you can watch one live and catch the other one a couple hours – or days – later.

One advantage of the virtual hearing that some people experienced last year was the increased opportunity for people at home to testify. Some legislative committees allowed “remote” testimony for several years before 2021, but usually required a potential witness to go to a designated location with a special a video link to the committee room in Olympia where the hearing was taking place.

At least for the start of the 2022 session – and possibly for its entirety – legislators won’t be in those rooms and neither will witnesses. This year, anyone should be able to sign up to testify for a House or Senate committee hearing by going to the Committee Sign-in page at happ.leg.wa.gov/csi/

You’ll have to pick the committee, supply certain information and sign up at least an hour before the hearing starts. The committee staff will email each registrant a unique link to testify when called on. The link can’t be shared and you must obey rules like the announced time limits that can be as short as one minute for crowded hearings.

There’s no guarantee you’ll be called on because, just like the old days, committee chairmen have schedules they have to meet. Unlike the in-person hearings, you can’t tell when committee members are yawning or paying more attention to their cellphone than you.

Virtual hearings did allow for a greater range of testimony from around the state last year. But it also expanded the number of people trying to have a say on certain issues.

How do you know what committees are hearing what pieces of legislation? The Legislature’s homepage at leg.wa.gov has a link to the committee schedules and you can get the lineup for that day or the week ahead.

Or you can subscribe to an email service that tells you what’s coming tomorrow or next week. Click on the email updates link on the schedule page and fill out the form.

Remember that schedules change. Just because a bill is on the schedule for the upcoming week doesn’t guarantee it will be stay on the agenda. Check the daily schedule to make sure the bill you planned to address hasn’t been moved.

Also remember there are more than a thousand bills introduced in a typical session and only a fraction of them ever get a hearing. A fraction of those come to the floor in the first chamber before starting the winnowing process over in the other chamber. Lawmakers seem unable to curb their natural tendencies to introduce lots of bills even in a session restrained by a pandemic. More than 100 bills have been filed in both the House and Senate before the session start and hundreds more could pop up in the coming weeks.

It’s possible to keep track of a bill by its number, if you know it, by clicking on the bill information link on the Legislature’s homepage. If you don’t, you can usually find it by clicking on “search the text of a bill” and entering some information about the topic or the sponsor. It’s also possible to follow the actions of a particular legislator, or particular bills or topics, at washingtonvotes.org, which is put together by the Washington Policy Center.

Conservative and liberal groups, and environmental and business groups also keep track of legislation. If you’re a member, check their websites or newsletters for information on bills that might interest you and then follow their progress through the Legislature.

And as always, The Spokesman-Review will provide full coverage of the session, both online and in the pages of the daily paper.

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