Reopening gripes, fence frustrations and a wage freeze

Here’s what’s happening on Day 26 of the 2021 session of the Washington Legislature.

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2021 Washington Legislature, Day 26 of 105

Everett Herald political reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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OLYMPIA, Feb. 5, 2021 — As another week concludes, the subject of reopening remains a hot topic.

Last Friday, three Democratic lawmakers declared publicly they had “lost faith” that Gov. Jay Inslee “is on a course to safely open Washington and beat COVID-19.”

They blistered the governor’s latest approach to reopening the state by regions. Only seven counties punched their ticket into the second stage. Since then others, including a Whatcom County public health officer, issued their own criticisms of the strategy.

On Thursday, Inslee pushed back, firmly but diplomatically noting, “We always listen to these insights and critiques. But we’re not making changes at the moment.”

He went on to say there are “10,000 legitimate criticisms” of what they’ve done. And, he said, be assured that any plan they put forth that “did not fully open” every last restaurant and gym would get criticized.

Early exit

A major criminal justice reform initiative of Democrats cleared the Senate on a party-line vote this week. Senate Bill 5121 broadens eligibility for a re-entry program allowing inmates to spend the last few months of their sentences in partial confinement on electronic home monitoring rather than behind bars.

Supporters, including the Department of Corrections, say the approach, over the past couple years, is saving state dollars without endangering public safety and that only a fraction of participants violate terms of the program while out.

Republicans aren’t convinced. They are worried about the public and tried to dial back some changes. A fiscal note estimates an additional 2,300 inmates could be eligible for this program in the next year if the bill becomes law.

“Is it really worth the risk to our communities to take such a big, big leap?” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said in the floor debate.

Take it down

Also Wednesday, Braun asked Inslee to remove fencing erected around the Capitol last month as a safety measure — unless there is a continuing security threat justifying its presence.

“Respectfully, it is time to take down the fences which are separating the public from their elected officials in the Legislature,” Braun wrote in a letter to the governor. “Nearly one month after being banned, the people should at least be allowed to return to the traditional public forum on the steps of the Legislative Building.”

Read the full letter here.

Tick Tock

Senate Bill 5061 delaying a massive spike in unemployment insurance taxes paid by businesses and increasing the size of benefit checks for jobless workers sailed through the Legislature with strong bipartisan backing Jan. 29. It carried such importance that House leaders bypassed committee hearings and moved it straight to the floor. That’s end-of-session kind of speed.

As of Thursday evening, the bill had not made its way to the governor, who is ready to sign it. “I think it’s a win for everyone in Washington,” he said Thursday.

This story by colleagues Rachel Riley and Janice Podsada is a reminder why business owners are going to be anxious until he does.

Pay freeze

Gov. Inslee won’t be getting a raise this year. Neither will state lawmakers or Supreme Court justices.

Economic uncertainty wrought by the continuing pandemic led a citizen panel on Wednesday to freeze pay for the state’s executives, legislative and judicial branches in 2021. But a majority of the Washington Citizens Commission on Salaries felt confident enough about the future to give them a 1.75% wage increase on July 1, 2022.

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