OLYMPIA — State lawmakers began their 2021 session Monday socially distanced inside the state Capitol to combat the coronavirus and a gauntlet of law enforcement officers outside to protect against any disruptions.
There was little pomp in the House and Senate as members passed, along party lines, rules clearing the way to switch into all-virtual mode for the remainder of the session.
And there turned out to be not much protesting either.
As rain fell steadily throughout the day, hundreds of Washington State Patrol officers and Washington National Guard members did sentry duty behind temporary fencing erected around the Capitol building perimeter.
Gov. Jay Inslee activated 750 members of the Washington National Guard to help the State Patrol prevent anyone from trying to breach the Capitol, like what occurred in Washington, D.C., last week.
In the moments before the Senate convened at 11 a.m. troopers arrested a 30-year-old Everett man as he attempted to breach their line and walk into an area off-limits to the public.
“He knew he was going to be arrested as a result of that action,” state patrol spokesperson Sgt. Darren Wright said.
Hours later, Wright announced that man, Thomas Hughes, was among protesters who trespassed Jan. 6 onto the property of the governor’s mansion. Hughes will face charges of failure to comply and criminal trespassing, both misdemeanors, Wright said.
Aside from Hughes, no one else attempted to disrupt the proceedings marking the start of an unprecedented 105-day session.
“It’s a good afternoon,” state patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said. “Our goal was to make sure the Legislature was able to meet, no one was hurt, no one was harmed, no one was killed, the buildings weren’t damaged.”
A few dozen protesters gathered at the entry gate into the fenced-off area around the Capitol.
Some wore military fatigues and carried weapons. Few wore clothing in support of President Donald Trump.
They voiced displeasure with Inslee’s response to the pandemic including the mask mandate and restrictions which have shuttered businesses.
There were denouncements of Socialism and the news media.
And frustration with law enforcement.
“How many ‘Back the Blue’ rallies did you go to, off duty?” one man yelled to the state troopers.
“We’re not the ones defunding the police,” another said.
At times, the protesters turned their attention to nearby reporters.
“We’re coming for you next,” one man yelled.
Since April 11, there have been 150 unlawful gatherings at the state capital, Loftis said.
“A couple of those were actually weddings,” Wright said.
The largest event, a protest, drew a crowd of about 2,500 people. Most were smaller.
“We want people to come and express their rights, and we want them to do it appropriately, like they are doing so far,” Loftis said.
Monday could be the only time the entire Legislature congregates at the Capitol this session.
They had to be present to adopt rules allowing for this virtual session. Voting in each chamber required members going on and off the floor to comply with social distancing rules that limit the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings.
While the session will be conducted in unprecedented fashion online, the political dynamics will be unchanged from recent years.
Democrats will control the conversation. They outnumber Republicans 57-41 in the House and hold a 28-21 edge in the Senate. With Inslee, also a Democrat, the party enjoys a trifecta of political power.
The chief task of the Legislature is to enact a new two-year state operating budget to take effect July 1. Lawmakers also will cobble together two-year spending plans for capital construction and transportation.
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic will be the major story line of the 2021 session.
The pandemic’s impact on the public health system will be addressed. So, too, will the pain of families and small businesses struggling to survive months of restrictions on public life and commerce — most of which are in force indefinitely. And the extent to which a governor can operate in an emergency will also be on the table.
This year’s agenda will also include efforts to pass a new capital gains tax, policing reforms, and carbon emission pricing approach.
The crowd is small outside the capitol as folks protest the start of the 2021 legislative session. Mostly just one guy yelling about socialism, the new world order and CNN. #waleg pic.twitter.com/wvxxlLLzvV— Joey Thompson (@byjoeythompson) January 11, 2021
Division emerged Monday in each chamber as majority Democrats defended the virtues of an all-virtual session from criticism of Republicans. Republicans also expressed frustration with the months-long closure of the Capitol to the public — a concern accented by the presence of hundreds of law enforcement officers.
Democrats argued under the rules the public will gain opportunities to make their voices heard in public hearings because they will be able to testify remotely, something they could only do on a limited basis before.
And they said it is necessary to be remote this session to keep lawmakers, staff and members of the public safe by preventing situations in which they could be exposed to the potentially deadly virus.
“I wish we were not in the middle of a global pandemic but we are,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.
Everyone desires a return to normal operation but, he said, “it is clear that today, in early January 2021, it is not safe for members of the public to gather at the Capitol and it’s not safe for staff and members of the Legislature to gather at the Capitol in person.”
Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said his caucus wanted to ensure the public has “maximum transparency” of the process and “maximum access” to lawmakers and the Capitol.
“How on Earth is it okay to shop at a Big Box or small retail store but it is not okay to enter the Capitol,” he said.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he didn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way but not allowing anyone to gather on the Capitol steps Monday was too much.
“Gov. Inslee, tear down this wall,” he said, referring to the temporary fencing
GOP lawmakers also said a lack of high-speed Internet in rural areas will leave those residents unable to fully participate.
“I represent tens of thousands who absolutely do not have access to high-speed Internet,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Wooley. “Those are voices we are not going to hear this session.”
In an emotional moment in the House, Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, said he contracted COVID in October and spent eight days in the hospital, including several in intensive care. Nonetheless, he’s concerned the fully remote session will exclude residents without adequate technology.
“I know what (COVID) is. I know how hard it is. I know how important it is to keep ourselves safe,” he said. “I don’t know how we can do the people’s work if we overload the system.”
On Monday, the House was the scene of calls for unity this session.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the pandemic has brought pain and hardship to every corner of the state. With vaccines and continued commitment to wearing masks and social distancing, there’s reason to be optimistic, she said.
“We are in the hardest of times,” she said in an address to the chamber. “But in these hard times, hope is on the horizon. Our job for every minute of the next 105 days is to not just keep hope alive for the people of our great state, but to make hope a reality.”
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said the “impact of COVID has divided us like never before.” He urged his colleagues to put aside their egos and party agendas and to “reject name calling and shaming” and pursue policies benefiting all Washingtonians.
“I think everyone expects us —even though it is 10 times harder with COVID — to be better,” he said.