OLYMPIA – The Washington Legislature will open its 2022 session Monday.
It will be mostly virtual – the second year the COVID-19 pandemic has forced lawmakers to convene behind their computer screens.
The 60-day session is expected to bring discussions on big issues such as police reform, climate change and the long-term care tax.
The backdrop to the session for the second year in a row will be the COVID-19 pandemic and how the state recovers.
Here’s what to look out for:
Long-term care taxOne of the first items to be discussed is likely to be the long-term care tax, which went into effect Jan. 1.
Although Gov. Jay Inslee delayed the tax collection from the Employment Security Department, employers across the state could still collect the 0.58% tax from their employees paychecks.
Only the Legislature has the power to delay the policy altogether, and proposals to do so have already been filed and received dates for hearings.
One proposal, sponsored by Democrats, would delay the implementation of the tax until mid-2023, giving lawmakers enough time to fix issues with the program.
That proposal is scheduled to receive its first hearing on Tuesday and is likely to make its way to the floor within the first few weeks.
Critics of the program have raised concerns in recent months over the sustainability of the tax and the fact that Washington workers who live out of state pay the tax but can’t access its benefits. The state estimates that’s about 150,000 people. People who work in Washington but retire in another state also can’t bring the benefits with them.
While Democrats focus on delaying and fixing the bill, Republicans have said they want to get rid of the program altogether.
Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, told The Spokesman-Review he didn’t think there were “fixes” to the problem and the whole program should go.
Economic recovery will continue to be a top priority for legislators as they work to bring the state out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the state has significantly more money than last year – both in revenue and one-time federal COVID relief dollars – lawmakers likely won’t agree on how to use it.
Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget is ”unusually large,” spending almost $62 billion on housing, climate change, salmon recovery, transportation and COVID relief.
Republicans have called for tax relief, but while releasing his budget last month, Inslee said he didn’t know whether he’d support a sales tax cut if the Legislature passed it.
Democratic leaders have not ruled out a tax break, but Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said Thursday they should prioritize making “strategic investments” statewide. House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, agreed, noting that most of the additional money remains one-time. One thing they may look at is expanding the Working Families Tax Credit.
The state still has about $1 billion left of federal COVID-19 relief funds that it did not spend last session. Those are one-time funds that the state can use toward any number of COVID-19 related costs.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said Thursday they’d want to see that money go toward health care, education and housing, but it’s unclear how that money will get split up.
The Legislature will also likely look at how it can assist the worker shortage hitting the state, specifically among nurses and health care workers. Inslee has proposed funding grants to train nursing students and creating a pilot program to improve the work environment in long-term care facilities.
As Washington looks to a third year in a state of emergency, Republicans are again pushing for emergency powers reform.
Republicans have criticized Inslee throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for overstepping with his emergency proclamations and refusal to call the Legislature into special session.
Republican leaders have said they will push for some sort of reform again this year, after multiple attempts last session failed. Their proposal would require the Legislature to be involved in extending or terminating a state of emergency.
Democrats have said they support Inslee’s use of his emergency powers and that the Legislature was involved in his decisions.
At a Seattle CityClub legislative preview on Friday, Jinkins said she anticipates the Legislature will hear bills regarding emergency powers reform. The theme of this session will likely be “seeking balance,” she said.
After passing a sweeping set of police reform bills last session, the Legislature is back to make “fixes” to bills that have caused controversy over the past few months.
Republicans are making public safety a top priority this session, claiming the police reform bills last session have resulted in increase crime and less safety for police officers. They want to either change or completely repeal laws that define the use of force standard, require officers to intervene when they see use of force, ban vehicle pursuits and others.
“We continue to be focused on how to make communities safer,” Braun said, at the Associated Press legislative preview Thursday.
Democrats are looking to refine those laws passed last session, including two bills from Democrats that would update the use of force standard.
Jinkins said Thursday her caucus’s priority will continue to be “addressing and achieving that balance in legislation that was passed last year.”
Climate change policy is still top of mind for Inslee and other lawmakers.
After passing two of the most consequential climate bills – cap-and-trade and low carbon fuels – last session, Inslee is proposing more legislation to tackle the climate crisis.
His focus this year is clean buildings and electric vehicles.
Inslee wants to offer rebates for customers who buy new or used electric vehicles. He’s also proposing a number of policies to make buildings cleaner, requiring building codes to be “net-zero ready” by 2034 and requiring utilities to submit decarbonization plans.
Work will continue on the cap-and-trade program, making sure it is ready to go into effect next session. Part of that will be determining how the money generated from the program will be spent.
Democrats have said they don’t want to determine the use for that revenue until they know how much will come in.
Republicans, on the other hand, set out a plan for how to use the money, focusing on improving access to state parks by making them free and preparing the state for climate change.
One question remains this session: Will legislators finally agree on a transportation revenue package?
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have indicated the state needs a package to pay for dire transportation needs, but they have yet to agree on what that package looks like.
Lawmakers continued to work throughout the interim to reach a deal, saying they would call themselves into special session if they reached one.
Part of that package could be a gas tax increase to pay for new projects, but the new Senate transportation chair, Marko Liias, D-Everett, said Friday his proposed package will not include a new gas tax.
“In light of these challenging times, it is imperative that we put people first to invest in communities and projects across the state without punting the cost to those struggling the most,” Liias said in a statement.
A transportation revenue package could mean speeding up the North Spokane Corridor and funding a bus rapid transit line on Division Street.
The state will also receive funds from the federal infrastructure package that passed last year, but what those funds can be used on and how the Legislature will want to use them remains to be seen.
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