OLYMPIA — The first day of Rep. Brandy Donaghy’s first legislative session didn’t go quite as planned Monday.
When the newly appointed south Everett lawmaker arrived on the Capitol campus, her office wasn’t quite ready. She couldn’t hang out on the House floor, either, because the session is starting off virtual due to the spread of the omicron variant.
Her only recourse: back to her hotel room. There she took part in the proceedings via computer, followed by an afternoon of meetings, capped off with her first transportation committee hearing.
“Yeah, I’d have like to have been there,” she said, referring to the House chamber. “It doesn’t diminish the value of the work that gets done. Tuesday I’ll be working out of my office. That’ll be cool.”
Lawmakers will try to pack in a lot during the 60-day session. Three major tasks loom.
One is putting the brakes on WA Cares, the long-term-care insurance program to be funded by workers with a payroll tax. It was supposed to start Jan. 1.
Concerns about who would benefit, who would not and the overall financial viability has Democrats pushing potential legislative fixes that delay the program and collection of the payroll tax until July 2023. Republicans would like to see it repealed but also offer a solution of their own.
Another is clearing away confusion around policing laws that impose new restrictions on tactics and use of force. Law enforcement officials say the changes are putting a crimp on their abilities to serve and protect. A House committee on Tuesday will consider three bills aimed at resolving questions.
The biggest chore will be crafting a supplemental budget. It will spread $1.3 billion in federal COVID aid and several hundred billion dollars of new tax collections across a host of programs, including housing, health care, human services, mental health, transportation and education.
“Our state currently finds itself in a strong fiscal position,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said in her opening day remarks. “Let’s make sure that those who have been knocked down during this pandemic don’t just get back on their feet but are able to move forward, that they end up further along than they were before.
“Let’s do the things in our power to reduce the cost of living and keep goods moving fast,” the Tacoma Democrat said.
The ongoing pandemic is affecting lawmakers for a second straight year. Most members will be working remotely — some in their legislative offices, others at home — to reduce the risk of exposure. When it’s time for floor votes in the House and Senate, only a handful of lawmakers will be present.
Since Friday, four Democratic senators — Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane and Sens. John Lovick of Mill Creek, Mark Mullet of Issaquah and Yasmin Trudeau of Tacoma — announced publicly they had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Our hearts are heavy with his passing,” Lt. Gov. Denny Heck said as he called for a moment of silence in the Senate Monday.
Remote legislating may not last the entire session. Democratic leaders vow to reassess the situation every two weeks. Republicans, and some Democrats, think adequate safety measures can be put in place for in-person floor action.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said the absence of “quality human contact” played a role in the making of “too many mistakes” last year. He was referring in part to issues with the police reform laws and the WA Care program.
“I think the process is breaking down,” he said. “It’s a disaster for you, your caucus and the state if, as you’re winning, you’re not allowing the minority (party) and the citizens of Washington to help you avoid making mistakes.”
Gov. Jay Inslee marked the start of the session with a statement that said “it should be anything but a quiet few months. This may be a short session, but we have a long list of unprecedented crises facing our state.”
He’ll outline those Tuesday in his State of the State address at noon.
Inslee won’t deliver it to lawmakers, however. Rather, he will do it in front of a room of reporters and staff, each of whom must provide proof of a negative COVID test to attend.