Legislative Game Plan 2021: 20th District Lawmakers Discuss Session Amid Pandemic

From left, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and state Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia. 

By Rick Bannan

For The Chronicle 

The 2021 Washington state legislative session began Monday, Jan. 11, and it’s the first time lawmakers have been back in session since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The Chronicle reached out to 20th District legislators ahead of the session’s start to see what they would be doing to address the pandemic, as well as other priorities during a budgeting year.

 

John Braun, Senator:

Committees and leadership positions: Senate Republican Leader; Ways and Means; Labor and Commerce.

How has COVID-19 changed your typical approach to legislating for the coming year?

Senate Republicans have been more focused on public health for the past 10-11 months. We’ve been ready for many months with policy improvements aimed at better protecting the residents and staff at long-term care facilities and other populations that are most at risk from COVID-19. Unfortunately, until now the governor made it impossible to work with our colleagues across the aisle on solutions. Also, we’re familiar with issues about K-12 education, but the question before us now is literally about getting students back into classrooms. That’s different, and it’s purely due to the pandemic.

Another example is the need to take early action to refill the trust fund “bucket” from which unemployment payments are made to people. It’s just not right for government to tell people they can’t work, which means more unemployment claims, then turn around and tax employers more to make up for those additional claims. Besides, there are far fewer employers now to even pay the unemployment insurance tax. What we can do is shift money from the state rainy day fund to the trust fund, and there might be other avenues to consider. We also should address the idea of rental assistance to get out from under the rental moratorium. These are investments the Legislature can make, and they should be made sooner than later.

 

What legislation related to COVID-19 or the response to the pandemic do you plan to either author or support?

We know enough about taking precautions to reopen our economy and reopen our schools safely. I’ve just filed Senate Bill 5114 in response to the governor’s latest “Healthy Washington” restrictions; it would automatically move those affected to phase 2 of that plan, and it would also give the legislative branch a say in reviewing both the public health data and the other restrictions that exist due to the pandemic. It has bipartisan sponsorship. So does Senate Bill 5037, which I filed to establish clear and simple metrics for determining whether school districts will offer in-person learning, a hybrid or remote-only model. Students, parents, teachers and staff all deserve better answers to that than they’ve gotten from the executive branch.

 

On the state’s prior COVID-19 response:

Since the end of March the people of our state have had to endure a form of government none of us recognized. I’ve concluded that the governor did some political calculating and decided the risks of allowing the legislative branch to engage, through a special session, outweighed the risks of keeping us on the sidelines. The result has been continuous rule by proclamation, declaring some workers and businesses were more “essential” than others, and poorly written “guidance” that came from behind closed doors. Our caucus had more than a dozen bills ready to go before summer that would have taken things in a better direction, and helped minimize future job losses. Some opportunities have been lost as the months ticked by but the basic focus on providing relief to families and employers remains our priority going into the session.

 

On non-COVID-19-related legislative priorities for 2021:

The only thing we’re required to do this year by law is to adopt a new operating budget, a new transportation budget and a new capital/construction budget. For all practical purposes, there is no budget deficit in spite of the downward spike in revenue we saw six to eight months ago, and the latest numbers suggest the operating budget situation will be stable for the next four-plus years. That means the existing revenue or projected revenue is enough to keep things balanced, and allow for some modest new investments. 

More importantly, there is absolutely no justification for new taxes, although the governor wants to charge ahead with a state income tax, a carbon tax and a healthcare tax to support a big increase in spending. To me, the last thing our families and employers need this year is more financial pressure.

I must point out that the people’s access to democracy is being severely limited this year, and for that reason it would be appropriate to limit our work in 2021 to the new budgets and the things that are directly related to pandemic relief. It’s frustrating that people can go to big-box stores but they’re not being allowed into the big-box buildings that make up the “people’s house” where bills are debated and laws are made. If we’re going to have to work virtually, as the majority party is requiring, let’s focus on the essentials. Those don’t include controversial and unnecessary tax proposals. But already I see the Senate budget committee has a public hearing on the capital gains income tax bill scheduled just four days into our session.

 

Peter Abbarno, House of Representatives Position 1

Committees and leadership positions: Capital Budget, assistant ranking member; Environment and Energy; Civil Rights and Judiciary.

 

How has COVID-19 changed your typical approach to legislating for the coming year? 

This year’s legislative session will begin virtually. Virtual sessions and meetings may increase viewership; however, concerns remain over the decrease in “active” participation during floor debate and committee testimony. The new virtual format provides for too many situations where technology, and majority rules, could stifle constructive discussion. This should raise concerns for all citizens and legislators, it certainly does for me. I will continue to fight for more open and transparent government.  

In addition, the governor and house majority appear to be limiting their policy issues and focusing their efforts on new taxes, such as income tax on capital gains. I was elected to find solutions and fight for “everyone;” not limit my legislative efforts. My strategy will be to use my experience in local government; as a small business owner; attorney; and husband and father; to advocate for real solutions for my neighbors, community and the 20th Legislative District.  

 

What legislation related to COVID-19 or the response to the pandemic do you plan to either author or support? 

COVID-19 magnified many existing needs in our community that require real solutions for working families and small businesses. First, I support reducing tax and regulatory burdens that limit growth and reinvestment at the local level. Second, I support infrastructure investments like water, sewer and broadband that hold back many communities from reaching their full potential. Lastly, as a former Centralia City Council member, I will continue building partnerships at the local level to help create opportunities for success.   

 

On the state’s prior COVID-19 response:

Initially, medical experts did not know much about the virus’ transmission or mortality rates. Quick and decisive action was needed and well within the intent of RCW 43.06. As time passed, science and data was released about the virus’ impact, as well as the negative effects of stay home orders. Many of us quickly witnessed family businesses close, children suffer and increased rates of substance abuse, depression, divorce, domestic violence and poverty.  

As governor, I would have maintained the Bipartisan Business Recovery Legislative Task Force, which was disbanded by Gov. Inslee in May after only five meetings; I would have called a special session to proactively, rather than retroactively, address the economic, health and social needs of our state; and I would have held agencies like the Employment Security Department accountable for failing to protect $600 million ($350 million still unrecovered) from fraudulent claims that were intended for unemployed Washington residents impacted by the shutdowns. 

I do not believe a special session would have been too late. The emergency powers under RCW 43.06 were never meant to be a long-term system of governance. Constitutionally, each branch of government has their own authority that is being monopolized by the executive branch. Practically, the ideas and unique perspectives of 147 legislators are being muted by one voice through executive orders. I believe there is interest from both sides of the aisle to restore balance in our government.    

 

On non-COVID-19-related legislative priorities for 2021:

I am sure my appointment as assistant ranking member on the Capital Budget Committee, as well as appointment to the Environment and Energy Committee and Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, will keep me busy working on a lot of legislation. One issue in particular I have been working on for several years that has been magnified during COVID-19 is the need for more early education, early learning and childcare opportunities.  

A recent study conducted by a collaborative task force of child care organizations found that roughly 550,000 kids in Washington do not have access to childcare services, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced capacity even further. Of the parents surveyed, 18 percent reported turning down a job over child care issues.  

Children enrolled in early learning and childcare programs have increased graduation rates; increased adult income earning capacity; decreased adult dependency on government programs; and reduced crime and incarceration rates. 

This is an economic issue as much as it is a social and education issue.

 

Ed Orcutt, House of Representatives Position 2

Committees and leadership positions: Finance, ranking member; Rural Development, Agriculture, and Natural Resources; Transportation.

How has COVID-19 changed your typical approach to legislating for the coming year?

COVID restrictions will make in-person meetings with staff, fellow legislators and — most importantly — my constituents difficult or impossible. However, I will spend a great deal of time listening to constituents via other means of communications, such as email, phone and electronic meetings. These, along with my past representation of the district and in-person meetings with constituents, will help me provide the best representation possible. With or without a pandemic, we are obligated to balance budgets and we should do so within existing revenues.

 

What legislation related to COVID-19 or the response to the pandemic do you plan to either author or support?

Legislation to provide tax relief to employers and homeowners; legislation to ease restrictions on individuals and employers to maximize personal freedoms and an employer’s ability to operate while protecting against the spread of COVID-19; legislation to assure legislators have more input and authority in making decisions with more limits on what the governor can do without legislative approval.

 

On the state’s prior COVID-19 response:

I would have supported efforts to provide equity of opportunity for employers; remove unreasonable, unnecessary and unworkable restrictions; assure that those affected in each area of our economy were included in developing protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in their sector of the economy; and adjust budgets to address lower revenues resulting from reduced economic activity. I also believe we need more protections to assure legislators have more input and authority in making decisions with more limits on what the governor can do without legislative approval. While some businesses have already closed permanently, we should still enact changes to protect those which are struggling to survive. Doing so will give them a better chance to survive and a faster path to recovery/rehiring of employees once the pandemic ends.

 

On non-COVID-19-related legislative priorities for 2021:

I will continue to work to: protect taxpayers from higher taxes and will seek tax relief — especially regarding property taxes; protect constitutional rights; assure citizens have the greatest opportunity to thrive in our state as an employer or employee; and provide a safe place for citizens to live, work and play. These are core principles of representing citizens no matter the circumstances.

 

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