The COVID-19 pandemic is a recurring theme as Washington state lawmakers prepare to convene their 2021 legislative session. Some legislators are raring to get started and have already drafted and filed the proposals they plan to formally introduce once the opening gavel falls on January 11.
Besides the coronavirus, other high-profile topics teed up for 2021 lawmaking have to do with voting, climate goals and racial equity.
The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines has excited lots of people who see mass vaccination as the ticket to ending the pandemic. But state Reps. Brad Klippert and Carolyn Eslick along with state Sen. Doug Ericksen want to make sure no one is forced to get the vaccine if they don't want it just to keep their job, travel, go to school, or whatnot. The trio of Republicans has drafted three separate measures to block government entities and private employers from requiring people to get a COVID vaccine shot.
"From all over the state people are thanking me for running this bill because they want their individual rights to be protected," Klippert said in an interview.
New guidance from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers can require COVID vaccination to ensure safety in the workplace. However, it is unclear if any in-state businesses will impose such a mandate.
Schools are unlikely to require COVID vaccination of students anytime soon because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines now in use are not authorized for children under 16.
Other proposals aim to put a time limit on the governor's emergency powers. Were this to pass, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee would have to get legislative approval after 30 days for things such as ordering business closures during the pandemic or targeting COVID-19 relief.
"As the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the health and well-being of men, women and children across our state over the past ten months, constituents from every region are wondering why the Legislature has remained on the sidelines," Republican state Sen. Lynda Wilson said in a prepared statement last week.
Republican leaders and a few Democrats repeatedly sought to convene a special session in the latter half of 2020 to work on pandemic response, as happened in Idaho and Oregon. But neither the Democratic governor nor the Democratic leadership in control of both houses of the Washington Legislature were amenable.
"We do have a system of checks and balances," Inslee insisted during a year-end interview on the TVW cable channel. "I have conferred with legislative leadership on these decisions. We do talk on a regular basis. I do listen to them."
The long tail of the 2020 election
Controversies about voting in the recent presidential election prompt other upcoming bills. Klippert said he would author legislation to bring back the option of in-person voting in Washington. The state switched to vote-by-mail more than a decade ago.
Klippert is also the prime sponsor of a novel proposal to elect future Washington governors using a state-level Electoral College modeled after the U.S. presidential election system. Klippert said his intent is to give voters outside the greater Seattle region confidence that their votes in statewide elections matter.
"I’m trying to do the same thing for them that we’ve done for the election of our president so that all citizens’ votes across the state of Washington count and not just one large populous area will control the vote for Washington state," Klippert explained.
Under Klippert’s proposal, 147 electoral votes would be allocated among Washington’s 39 counties mostly by population, but with each county receiving at least one electoral vote. The top gubernatorial vote getter in each county would earn all of that county’s electoral votes and then whoever secures a majority in the state electoral college becomes governor. The end result is to give small, rural counties slightly more clout and to dilute the votes of people in the most populous counties.
"Had it been in effect in 2004 and 2012, Republicans Dino Rossi and Rob McKenna would be on the list of Washington governors," wrote political newsletter author Paul Queary of the Washington Observer. "It’s an interesting thought exercise, but remember, it’s just not to happen."
Another aspect of the 2020 presidential election motivated Democratic state Sen. Sam Hunt to propose making it a misdemeanor to set up a ballot collection site that mimics the official drop boxes maintained by county auditors. His bill is a direct response to a short-lived controversy sparked when the California Republican Party set up unsanctioned ballot drop boxes in some communities last October.
Juneteenth, tax breaks and hydrogen cars, oh my!
Among the more than 130 “prefiled” bills so far, there is a measure to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. Democratic state Rep. Melanie Morgan sponsored this measure to designate June 19 as a day to honor the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War. In 2020, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Virginia observed Juneteenth as an official state holiday.
Tax breaks never go out of fashion. This year, Republican state Sen. Brad Hawkins wants to extend the favorable tax treatment battery electric cars get to vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Not coincidentally, a public utility in his north central Washington legislative district is exploring whether to branch into hydrogen production.
Conversely, lawmakers will consider multiple pieces of legislation that would raise the price of fossil fuels to incentivize lower greenhouse gas emissions. The first out of the gate by Seattle area lawmakers and Gov. Inslee would require oil refiners to blend biofuels into motor fuels or purchase equivalent carbon offsets.
"Climate change continues to threaten our state’s families, farms and businesses," Democratic Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins said in an op-ed in the Seattle Times. "We cannot lose our focus on addressing these threats.”
Passing a new two-year state budget is a must-do task in this session. In odd-numbered years like this one, the Washington Legislature is scheduled to meet for 105 days. This year's session will be largely virtual to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. The clunky mechanics of debating, amending and voting on legislation with 98 participants in the state House -- or 49 members in the case of the state Senate -- is widely expected to throttle the number of bills heard in committee and voted on the floor. More bills than usual may fall by the wayside over the course of the three and a half month long session.
In her op-ed, Jinkins said the House majority would focus on four broad priorities: COVID-19 response, economic recovery, climate change and addressing systemic racism.
A guidance memo emailed to members of the Democratic caucus in early December urged them to limit bill introduction to the core themes and critical needs because of the constraints of conducting a legislative session during the pandemic.
"First and foremost, bills should only be introduced if they are urgently needed and important to pass during the 2021 session. If that is not the case, please wait to introduce your bill until next year," said the memo sent to members by Alex MacBain, chief of staff to House Democrats.