By The Herald Editorial Board
Want an idea of what a 60-day legislative session feels like for a lawmaker?
“Ready to be shot out the cannon tomorrow at the circus!” 38th District Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett, posted on Facebook Sunday before Monday’s start of the session.
Even before the pandemic, the state Legislature’s 60-day sessions have often seen a blur of activity, with legislation deadlines starting to fall about a month in. Most years, lawmakers have a tight schedule of meetings, bill hearings, conferences and more, and after a prodigious session last year — despite having to rely on virtual proceedings — state lawmakers this session have loose ends to tie up and unintended consequences to deal with, on top of more typical tasks of a supplemental budget and leftover legislation.
Expect lawmakers in those short 60 days to climb into their cannons, light the fuses and address:
WA Cares: After outcry about the start of payroll deductions for the state’s long-term care benefit program, Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers called for a delay to allow lawmakers to make adjustments to the program, including a way for the benefit — a lifetime maximum of $36,500 for long-term care needs — to be paid to those who move out of state; and what to do for those who retire before they can be vested in the program. Some Republicans have called for the program to be scrapped and a new solution proposed, but the issue has been debated for years and starting from scratch offers only unnecessary delay.
Here’s why the program is needed: About 7 in 10 Americans, 65 and older, will need long-term care services during their lives. The median retirement savings for seniors is about $136,000, but those over the age of 65 can expect average costs of $260,000 over the course of their lives for care services, often leaving family members to provide that care and its financial support. Private insurance, when available, is often too expensive.
Transportation: Lawmakers considered but didn’t complete a major transportation package — and a significant boost to the gas tax — last year. A major package is unlikely, as is a gas tax increase, but the need for significant investments remains. The state currently is spending less than half of the $2 billion it should on maintenance and preservation work, and major projects, such as the U.S. 2 trestle and a new I-5 crossing over the Columbia River can’t be ignored.
Federal infrastructure funding will help, as will better-than-expected state tax revenue and revenue from the state’s carbon pricing and clean fuel standard. Republicans have suggested diverting the sales tax from vehicle purchases from the general fund to the transportation budget, but Democrats are leery of removing that much from the general funds’ support of other programs. Longer term, the Legislature will have to make revenue changes that account for the drop in what the gas tax provides as vehicles become more fuel efficient and electric vehicles avoid the gas tax altogether.
Supplemental budget: Federal pandemic relief and a series of healthy revenue forecasts have eased the worries first feared in 2020 when covid hit. That’s allowed Democratic lawmakers and the governor to consider spending for transportation, homelessness and K-12 education, while Republicans have sought to give back some of that through tax cuts.
39th District Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, in an interview last week, said the state’s revenue windfall offers an opportunity to cut or trim back a range of taxes adopted last year by the Democratic-controlled House and Senate. “The state is swimming in money. It’s time to turn some of the back to the taxpayers,” he said.
But 38th District Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, in an interview last week, warned against using the state’s bonus revenue for longer-term funding of programs and tax package changes, concerned that sustainability for that support wasn’t certain. “We have to be careful not to create too many unreliable expectations,” she said. Still, current funding, can do a lot to catch up on needs throughout the state.
A work group of state lawmakers and others are preparing a report to be released soon that will proposed changes to the state’s tax system, but such reforms are likely to wait for the 2023 session, Robinson said
Law enforcement reforms: The Legislature last year adopted a dozen bills that addressed law enforcement and criminal justice, but many police and sheriff agencies in the state objected to some provisions, arguing the reforms came with unfunded mandates, little guidance regarding how they would be implemented and a lack of consideration for unintended consequences. Lawmakers last year committed to returning to the legislation this year for fixes.
Also on the agenda: Expect a return to the issues surrounding climate change and greenhouse gases; limitations on firearms, including a ban on high-capacity magazines; zoning changes to cities’ single-family residential areas to allow greater density and ease housing prices; and even a proposal to make pickleball — which has its origins in Washington state — the official state sport.
Here’s where you come in: One benefit of the pandemic and the shift to virtual proceedings it required has been an increase in state residents’ ability to participate. While Senate and House were moving toward a process to allow remote testimony for hearings on legislation, the pandemic sped up that adoption and it’s likely to remain as an option once the Legislature returns to in-person proceedings. Long-standing options for writing and contacting lawmakers remain, but trips to Olympia and no longer necessary to testify regarding proposed legislation.
The Herald’s list of area state lawmakers, their contact information and other information is available at tinyurl.com/HeraldTheyRepresentYou.
Tips for participating in the session remotely are available at tinyurl.com/RemoteXGR. The same page offers links to videos on the legislative process and tracking bills and information on floor activity and House and Senate committee schedules.
And the state’s public affairs network, TVW, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, provides live and recorded coverage of hearings and meetings, as well as interviews with lawmakers, officials and others. TVW is carried by most cable and other providers, but also is available online at tvw.org/.
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