OLYMPIA – The state House of Representatives and Senate chambers were packed Monday with legislators, family members and guests – a stark difference to last year’s near-empty chamber.
Loud applause, cheers and hugs spread throughout the House chamber as members walked onto the floor for the Washington State Legislature’s first in-person session since 2020, following back-to-back sessions of mostly remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her opening remarks, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the last two years were “a historic first, and hopefully last, in our state.”
The Legislature should be proud of how it handled the last two years, Jinkins said. It did not shut down and instead passed sweeping Democratic polices including a historic transportation package, climate change initiatives, child care legislation and larger-than-normal operating budgets.
“Even with our strong economy, there are families across Washington who are struggling, and there is still more work to do to fully deliver on our successes,” she told her fellow lawmakers.
Both chambers on Monday passed temporary rules that move the chamber away from the remote sessions of the past but keep some precautions. One provision allows members to vote remotely if they are sick.
In the House, both Republican and Democratic members approved the changes. House Majority Leader Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D- Seattle, said he hopes the provision will only be used when members really need it, but that it will allow members to still participate without the risk of getting others sick.
Republican Deputy Leader Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said he was happy with how the temporary rules turned out, adding he was looking forward to an in-person session.
“It is so good to see this floor full again and the galleries full,” Kretz said.
In the Senate, the provision led to some disagreement between parties.
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, sponsored an amendment regarding attendance of Senate sessions. The amendment would have prevented senators from participating in Senate floor sessions remotely, unless the Facilities and Operations Committee determined otherwise on the basis of health and safety.
The Senate did not adopt this resolution. Votes were split along party lines, with the Republicans voting for it and the Democrats voting against.
Short introduced the amendment in the name of returning to the tradition of in-person sessions that existed before COVID-19.
“This isn’t about making sure we have a chamber of sick people coming to do the business of the state of Washington,” Short said. “This is about, you know, votes they take.”
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, represented the dissenting opinion, saying the Senate should take advantage of the technological tools at their disposal and provide an option for participation when senators are sick.
“We don’t want to put members in a position where they have to make a very difficult choice about whether they might put everyone else’s body at risk, or whether they’re going to leave their constituents without a voice,” Pedersen said.
After Monday’s opening ceremonies, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, called an in-person session “a real positive development,” adding he was looking forward to working in person this session with other lawmakers as well as constituents.
Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Spokane, told The Spokesman-Review that so much of the legislative process happens in the halls of the chamber, which can’t be replicated remotely.
Conversations in person with constituents and fellow lawmakers is “so valuable and completely missed when you’re not here,” he said.
Legislators have 105 days to address the state’s most pressing issues, including a housing and homelessness crisis, inflation, new drug policies, proposed gun reforms and public safety. That’s on top of their most important task: writing a budget to fund state programs for the next two years.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed $70 billion budget focuses on housing, homelessness and behavioral health.
In his opening -day floor speech, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, pointed to affordability, housing and police reform as some of the top priorities for Republicans, but he encouraged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to work together throughout the session.
“We do have a lot of work to do, and there’s going to be a bunch of stuff we don’t agree on,” he said. “Let’s work on the things we have in common first.”
One issue lawmakers on both sides already have indicated will likely touch everything else this year: workforce shortages.
Some ideas to address shortages include expanding apprenticeships, addressing child care gaps and changing licensing requirements for some jobs, especially those in health care.
In her speech, Jinkins pointed to the diversity in the room, noting there were more women and people of color in the House than ever before.
“We will deliver,” she said. “We know we can because this Legislature delivered during some of the most challenging, unprecedented times our state has ever experienced.”
S-R reporter Elena Perry contributed to this report.