OLYMPIA — Keith Wagoner won’t soon forget his first day in the state Senate.
The Sedro-Woolley Republican had just finished taking the oath of office when protesters started chanting in the public gallery overlooking the chamber floor.
“We have a climate crisis,” some shouted, to which others responded, “We need to act now.”
The disruption lasted less than a minute and the disrupters were escorted out. Then Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib formally introduced Wagoner to the chamber.
His colleagues rose and, with a little extra energy, applauded Wagoner who was named last week to replace Monroe’s Kirk Pearson.
“I’ll certainly remember it. I certainly wasn’t expecting it,” Wagoner said afterwards, adding he wasn’t bothered by the protesters since he knew he wasn’t their target.
The outburst punctuated the opening hours of a 60-day session which promises to be a sprint.
Democrats are at the helm of the legislative process this year with a two-vote majority in the House (50-48), one-vote edge in the Senate (25-24) and a Democratic governor, Jay Inslee. The last time Democrats achieved this trifecta was 2012.
They’ve made no apologies about wanting to advance policy initiatives which stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Those include issues such as a voting-rights act and gun-control measures.
But there is unfinished business from 2017 that all 147 citizen legislators will seek to address this session.
They’ll be enacting a supplement to the current two-year state budget and in the course of doing so figure out how to put more money into public schools to satisfy dictates of the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. They thought they did it all last year but the court indicated in the fall that legislators need to speed up their investments.
Lawmakers also will be working to pass a capital construction budget, resolve disagreements on water-related policy ignited by the high court’s Hirst decision and provide relief for payers of car tabs in the Sound Transit taxing district. Votes on capital budget and car tab rebate proposals could be taken in the House this week.
Another hot topic will be establishing a new tax on generators of pollution-causing carbon emissions. Inslee plans to unveil his carbon tax proposal Tuesday and discuss it in his State of the State address to the Legislature. There are other versions to be introduced by lawmakers.
In the Senate, Democrats are going to be flexing their new found political muscle from time to time. On Monday they rewrote some of the operating rules crafted by the GOP but they didn’t succeed without a little bit of embarrassment.
Two Democrats, Sens. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Bob Hasegawa of Seattle, voiced concern about proposed changes they viewed would limit the ability to offer amendments to budgets. Democratic leaders tabled the bill, went into a hurried caucus, agreed to strike the language their members found worrisome, and returned to the floor to pass the rules.
Another revision erased a requirement barring a tax increase bill from coming to the floor unless it has support from two-thirds of senators. Such a restriction has been deemed unconstitutional but the language remained. It will now only take a simple majority to bring a tax bill up for a vote.
Also, senators now will be allowed to use their cellphones on the Senate floor, in the chamber and in hearing rooms. Until Monday, Senate rules prevented such use although it was rarely enforced as senators routinely operated their phones in all of those places.
Monday also brought a change in rules for those wanting to watch the Senate in action from the public gallery.
Habib announced in November a ban on all firearms in the seating area overlooking the chamber floor whether openly carried or concealed. Security officers enforced the ban Monday by asking visitors if they were carrying any firearms and asking some men to open their coats so they could be visually inspected.
Also, you won’t be able to wear large overcoats or carry a large bag into the chamber if either could reasonably be used to conceal a gun. Habib said in November that his concern is about assault weapons being hidden and brought into the galleries. On Monday, a small pile of coats and bags were on the floor outside the gallery doors.
The session is scheduled to end March 8.