Legislators from both parties have already pre-filed numerous bills in anticipation for the upcoming session. Lawmakers will have a lot on their plate when the legislature reconvenes on Jan. 11th, having to manage the state’s continued response to a global pandemic while conducting business remotely. Democratic and Republican legislators discussed some of their priorities during two different panels at the Re-Wire Conference on Dec. 10th.
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Rep. Jake Fey, Rep. Roger Goodman, Sen. Claire Wilson, and Sen. David Frockt spoke on the “Policy Vision: Democrats” panel. In the “Policy Vision: Republicans” panel, Rep. JT Wilcox, Rep. Jenny Graham, and Sen. Lynda Wilson weighed in on their goals for the next session.
Here are the highlights from the Democratic panel:
- Frockt, Vice Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the budget is not nearly as bleak as the Legislature had predicted in the spring. Recent revenue reports on the operating budget have been promising, he said. While he acknowledges there remains a structural deficit, he says it is still not as bad as it could have been.
Hospitality and leisure [sectors] in particular have been devastated because of COVID, because of the public health response we’ve had to make, and the ongoing problems that we’ve had, Frockt said. One of the things that I’m looking to do is to think about ways that we can be more responsive to revitalizing that part of our economy. I think we’re going to need to be really intentional and specific, particularly in those areas, and make sure that as we come out of the recovery we do some things over the long term that we need to do to set us on the right path.
- Frockt believes Gov. Inslee will release a “strong and robust capital budget” in the near future.
- Frockt, Fey, and Goodman believe the state’s 1% cap on real estate revenue should be removed. It is an “arbitrary limitation,” according to Fey. Goodman is “mystified” as to why the cap has not been removed. According to him, this is not about raising taxes; it is about giving local jurisdictions the authority to determine how they raise revenue and maintain it according to demand for services. Fey agreed, saying local governments need the freedom to raise the revenue cap.
- Fey, Chair of the House Transportation Committee, spoke about the changing economics of Washington’s transportation sector. People are not using transportation as much, so tolls, etc., are not as effective of a revenue source as they used to be, he explained. This will lead to a $750 million loss in revenue, he said.
- Fey also believes the state needs to restore the fish passage culverts. This would cost approximately $33.5 to $33.7 million in the upcoming biennium, but there is no revenue source to pay for it, he said.
Projects that people thought were going to happen in a certain time frame are not going to happen, said Fey. Those who have wishes, like for the electrification of our ferry system and creating more vessels, absent a big revenue push in the transportation sector, are not going to happen.
- Fey and Frockt have put together a group of legislators to look at new revenue sources. The Legislature needs to raise taxes to put a transportation package together, which will take COVID-19 considerations into account and be introduced in the upcoming session, Fey said.
Education and childcare
When school is in session, that is the care setting for children, said Wilson, Assistant Majority Whip. Suddenly, on March 13th and beyond, we were set in a position where school was no longer, and home, or wherever children were, became their learning site.
- Wilson said it could be a long time before students can return to regular classroom settings, and the Legislature should work to support students and teachers who continue doing remote learning.
As with so many other things, this was an issue before, and this has been exacerbated because of COVID, Wilson said.
- Wilson and Goodman emphasized that childcare centers are small businesses. They are being impacted in the same way as other businesses by losing income and support, and the Legislature needs to support them along with other businesses, Goodman said. Some childcare services are using their own funds to stay afloat.
- Early education programs are not entitlement programs, Wilson added. They were impacted by school shutdowns and the lack of a tiered support system.
Not only our education committees for both the House and the Senate, but also early learning and human services, have been meeting together throughout the interim with stakeholders, and really have been able to influence and have conversations with commerce, with DCYF, with OSPI, with all of our agencies to really look at how it is we’re supporting the urgent needs of where children are as well as thinking about what that means as we move forward in the session, Wilson said.
- Goodman, Chair of the Public Safety Committee, will focus on police reform and improving racial equity in the next session.
We are coordinating very closely with the House and the Senate, and bringing stakeholders from across the spectrum to talk about comprehensive policing reform, Goodman said. That’s going to be my major activity during the session.
Broadband, internet access, and telehealth
- Increasing broadband and telehealth access is vital during the pandemic, Frockt said. He foresees a lot of work being put toward telehealth expansion in the legislature next year.
The pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide not just in the rural areas, but in the urban areas as well, Frockt said. Also, we’ve seen growth in telehealth in our health care systems.
Here are the highlights from the Republican panel:
Limiting the Governor’s emergency powers
- Wilcox believes the Governor’s broad emergency powers are outdated. Nothing is stopping legislators from meeting now, he said, and the Governor’s authority to make decisions on behalf of the state should therefore be limited.
Legitimate operation of government means that all three branches are involved, and we want to change this so that an extended emergency absolutely requires input by the representatives of the people, Wilcox said.
- Wilcox and Wilson believe the state should have convened a special session to respond to the pandemic — a move that requires Inslee’s permission or a two-thirds agreement in both chambers of the legislature.
People want to know why the Legislature has been on the sidelines for all of this, Wilson said. Frustration about the Governor’s emergency powers is not confined to just the Republican side of the aisle. I’ve heard from others how they’ve been frustrated that their voices haven’t been heard either, and I think this is a question of principal.
- Wilson said she is introducing a bill that would allow the Legislature to review emergency orders issued by the Governor.
Supporting small businesses
- Wilcox said House Republicans will pursue Rep. Drew MacEwen’s pre-filed bills, which aim to improve cash flow for small businesses.
- B&O tax collection should be suspended, and businesses should receive a credit for their B&O liability, Wilcox said.
- The state unemployment system needs to be improved, according to Wilcox. High rates of unemployment claims affect the user experience, and “massive fraud” affects the system, he said.
- Wilson said many businesses don’t need to be closed down. The state’s COVID-19 numbers don’t support the restrictions issued by the Governor for requiring them to close, she said.
Reducing and redirecting budget spending
- Wilson believes, especially in light of the pandemic, the government must reduce what she considers to be unnecessary spending.
No one should be proposing big spending commitments and big new taxes this year, Wilson said. We are not facing a deficit, so we should be well enough alone, and come up with a no-frills budget that will take us through to the next two years.
- The state should direct relief to businesses, she added. She said this could be done either through a tax policy change or from potential money from the federal government.
Addressing COVID-19’s toll on public safety
- Crime has been significantly increasing since the onset of the pandemic, Graham said. This is perhaps due to mental health issues arising from COVID-19.
- COVID-19 is easily spread among prison populations and raises the issue of whether or not to move or release inmates, Graham said.
We’re seeing some issues happening with there being a push, out of fear, to let certain inmates out, and that caused concern for me, Graham said.
- Graham says it is concerning when there is no plan for what the state is going to do with prisoners after their release in terms of housing, access to medicine or mental health services, etc.
It’s almost daily, it seems, that we are hearing about another shooting, Graham said. There are 17 deaths right now, and that is concerning because we’re on pace to have a record, and that’s not a good record to have.
- She says with the rise of high-level crimes, mid-level crimes are becoming overlooked and the government is losing its capacity to effectively respond.
- According to Graham, state law enforcement is frustrated that some crimes are going unpunished because perpetrators are not going to jail due to COVID-19 precautions.
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