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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legislature opens another mostly virtual session

House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, is displayed on video screens as he speaks remotely following opening remarks from House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, during the opening session of the Washington state House of Representatives at the Capitol in Olympia in January.  (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – The opening of the 2022 Washington legislative session Monday was a quiet one.

The House speaker gave her opening-day speech to a near empty chamber with only three other lawmakers attending in person. Only a handful of socially distant senators were present on the floor. As of Monday, four senators had recently tested positive for COVID-19. The halls remained mostly empty aside from a few state troopers.

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 spread in recent weeks, what was going to be a hybrid session with in-person floor debates quickly became a mostly virtual one, almost identical to last year.

Both the House and the Senate altered their plans in the past week to be mostly virtual with only a handful of lawmakers present on the floor in either chamber.

“It’s what we do as Washingtonians,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said on the floor. “We adapt.”

As lawmakers discuss big issues this year, including police reform, the long-term care tax and transportation, most won’t even be on campus – at least to start. Leaders in both the House and the Senate said they will review their policies every two weeks.

Republicans criticized the decision for a mostly remote session, specifically the decision for completely remote committee hearings.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said remote testimony values “quantity over quality,” which he said results in fewer people in the minority willing to testify.

“It’s a disaster for you, your caucus and your state,” Wilcox said.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Denny Heck said COVID-19 continues to be “the dominant feature of the American landscape.” Heck held a moment of silence for Sen. Doug Ericksen, who died last month after seeking treatment for COVID-19 following a trip to El Salvador.

In the time since the Senate adjourned in April, Heck said “much has changed and yet much has stayed the same.”

Heck acknowledged that last year there was not a single COVID-19 case in the Senate and he hoped for a repeat this year. Already, though, that was not looking to be the case.

Four state senators, including Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane, tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days. Newly appointed Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, announced a positive test on Friday.

Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, tested positive for COVID-19 at the Capitol on Monday . All legislators had to rapid-test before they were able to get into their facilities. All three, having been vaccinated and boosted, were experiencing mild symptoms. Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, also tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday .

In her opening day speech in the House, Jinkins pushed for more resources for housing, the working families tax credit and climate change. She also acknowledged the need for changes on police reform and the long-term care tax.

“Here in the People’s House, we come together and we make things better,” she said.

Wilcox acknowledged how many issues were addressed last session – including major police reform legislation and climate change policy – but said “legislation needs to be perfected.” He called on changes to police reform legislation and the long-term care tax.

The Legislature this year has some extra cash on hand from additional revenue and one-time federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Legislators will have to decide how to spend it and how to adjust last year’s $59 billion budget to reflect that.

Gov. Jay Inslee proposed an unusually large $62 billion supplemental budget, which would increase investments in housing, salmon recovery, climate change and other areas. In a statement Monday, Inslee said this session should be anything but quiet.

“These issues cannot wait,” he said. “The scale of these crises demand swift and decisive action.”

Last year’s opening day brought a closed Capitol and a large fence surrounding most of the campus, following the Jan. 6 riots that led to a breach of the governor’s mansion gate. This year, the Legislative Building was open to the public, but almost no one showed up on campus.

The 2022 session is scheduled to end March 4.

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.