Thursday’s virtual town hall allowed Republican state Sen. John Braun, Rep. Peter Abbarno and Rep. Ed Orcutt to repeat their condemnations of a capital gains tax, new environmental regulations and the governor’s executive powers.
But at the behest of callers, the 20th Legislative District lawmakers also weighed in on stickier issues: masks, secession and the prospect of Lewis County becoming a Second Amendment “sanctuary” county.
When Darla Ridilla, a self-proclaimed “strong anti-masker,” asked lawmakers if there’s anything “in my back pocket besides the constitution” she could use to defend her refusal to mask up, Braun told her he expects Washington’s full reopening to happen even sooner than Gov. Jay Inslee’s June 30 plan.
“Now, that being said, I think legally you have to understand that just like … all of us have rights, individual businesses have rights,” said Braun, the Senate minority leader. “And we don’t have to like it or agree with it, but they have some right to say, ‘You have to wear a mask if you want to come into my facility.’”
The Centralia Republican said he doesn’t think lawmakers will pursue a “vaccine passport” policy, saying “even Democrats know that’s a loser.” But he added that as fully vaccinated individuals are allowed to remove their masks in many situations, he doubted Ridilla’s vaccine status would be checked. Unvaccinated Washingtonians are still required to wear masks in most settings.
“I don’t think there’s going to be vaccine police. Keep in mind there’s 7.5 million of us, there’s only 70,000 state employees. There aren’t enough of them to enforce it themselves,” Braun said. “It’s going to be done because we, individually, make wise decisions to keep ourselves, our families, our communities, our coworkers, our customers safe. That’s what’s going to make the difference. Not some rule from Olympia.”
On the question of secession, Orcutt stepped up to the plate. Caller Lizzie Barnts pointed to several Oregon counties whose residents this week voted in favor of joining Idaho. The secession movement has long had a place in the Washington state Legislature as well, including the push to transform Eastern Washington into a new “Liberty” state.
Orcutt said he understands why people would want to join “another state that does adhere a little more to the Constitution and does believe more in personal freedoms.”
“There’s a lot of folks on the west side that disagree with Puget Sound and wouldn’t mind departing ourselves and being out from the control of some of the folks in Seattle. So if you’re going to do something, include us,” Orcutt said of some Eastern Washington proposals. “But I think we’re going to continue to work to try and bring our state back, to try and stop bad policies.”
Regarding the new “Second Amendment sanctuary” proposal being considered by Lewis County commissioners, Orcutt threw his support behind the idea, although he used the term “constitutional sanctuary.” In county meetings, Commissioner Lindsey Pollock similarly said she’d prefer a sanctuary resolution focused on the whole constitution, rather than just one amendment.
“I know there’s been a lot of sanctuary cities and sanctuary counties for other things. Why not have one for the constitution?” Orcutt said. “Seems like the most appropriate one to have. More appropriate than some of the ones we’ve seen in the Puget Sound region.”
Income Tax, Emergency Powers and the State Budget
District 20 lawmakers also used the virtual event to echo concerns voiced by the state GOP throughout the legislative session. All three legislators lambasted the state’s new capital gains tax, a contentious tax aimed at wealthy Washingtonians and estimated to affect about 7,000 people. Republicans have condemned the tax as unconstitutional and the start of a broader income tax.
While the new law’s language prevents voters from overturning it via a referendum, Braun hinted Thursday that a 2022 ballot initiative would give voters the opportunity to shoot it down. In 2010, 64% of voters similarly rejected an income tax on the wealthy.
“Culturally, Washington state is different,” Braun said. “We just don’t want an income tax.”
And lawmakers who voted to approve the tax, he said, “are going to have to go back to their districts and explain themselves. And voters should make them explain themselves.”
While Orcutt raised concerns that the courts will uphold the tax, Braun said he has some confidence that it will be found unconstitutional.
Abbarno said he’d be following lawsuits against the tax closely, and argued that to fix the state’s regressive tax structure, “you cut regressive taxes … you don’t just add another layer of tax on.”
Centralia City Councilor Rebecca Staebler pushed back, however, calling in to ask lawmakers how they would cover state expenses for a growing population “without an increase in taxes, especially among those that are the wealthiest businesses and individuals in our state.”
In response, Braun pointed to a growing state budget, saying Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem, but “a spending problem.”
Lawmakers also spent a bulk of the 90-minute town hall discussing the governor’s emergency powers and decrying Democrats for failing to limit them. Republican attempts to call a special session last year and to reign in executive power fell short this session.
Braun called it a “failure” by Democrats, arguing that the party is fearful to “let their votes be seen” on measures that restricted businesses.
“We’re not going to let up, just to be clear,” Braun said.