Legislature to Operate Virtually After Partisan Debate on Day One

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As state lawmakers convened Monday in Olympia — with security amped up to counter threats of protesters breaching the Capitol building — the first debate of the 2021 session centered around how the Legislature will operate against a backdrop of a still-raging pandemic that has so far killed more than 3,700 Washingtonians. 

Last week, all three lawmakers representing the 20th Legislative District, which covers most of Lewis County and parts of Thurston, Cowlitz and Clark counties, expressed concern about a virtual session. On Monday, after a debate along party lines, both Democrat-controlled chambers ultimately passed resolutions to operate mostly virtually until the threat of COVID-19 is stamped out, prompting a statement from Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, that night. 

“For months the people of our state have had to deal with a form of government they didn’t recognize, and now they’re getting a second dose with a lawmaking process that may lead some to question the legitimacy of the decisions that are made,” he said.

Although Democrats insist that a virtual session will increase transparency and access by allowing Washingtonians to testify from anywhere in the state and view proceedings on TVW, Republicans said the opposite, and argued that preventing in-person participation infringes on residents’ constitutional rights.

“The public’s right to fully participate in this process, I mean, that’s the entirety of the process as our constitution has put together,” Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said on the floor.

Braun argued that the move would undercut “the proper role of the minority,” which he described as bringing constituents represented by the minority to the Capitol campus. 

Republican lawmakers also cited concerns over technology issues and unequal access to the internet — a large concern in Lewis County, where a 2019 survey found only 23 percent of households had broadband internet. During the pandemic, the county, cities and school districts have scrambled to address the inequity.

“The new virtual format provides too many situations where technology, and majority rules, could stifle constructive discussion,” Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, told The Chronicle last week. 

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, pointed to rural residents who “absolutely do not have access to high-speed internet.” Lawmakers will largely have the opportunity to work from their isolated legislative offices if they have technology concerns at home. 

But Democrats shot back, saying the rampant spread of COVID-19 would not only put members, staff and the public at risk, but could stall the session if an outbreak occurred. Since March, at least 27 other states have passed measures to allow for some remote aspects of state Legislature due to the threat of the virus. 

“When we consulted with public health authorities, both at the state and local level here in Thurston County, it’s 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 Majority Leader Marko Liias said. “I wish we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic. But we are.”

Republicans also offered a common argument among critics of statewide pandemic restrictions: that certain restrictions are unfair given how many “big box stores” and other establishments are open to the public with arguably less safeguards. But it’s so far been an unfruitful argument. Locally, it’s the same rationale used by Spiffy’s and Farm Boy Drive-in’s lawyer — one that didn’t convince the courts and that an assistant attorney general likened to telling a state trooper that you shouldn’t be pulled over for speeding “because other people are going faster.”

As of Tuesday, the state averages 390.2 new cases per 100,000 people in the last two weeks, with 17.1 percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. 

Democrats also argued that conducting business virtually — something most local jurisdictions have been doing to some extent since Spring — will actually lead to more public participation.

“My constituents, instead of having to drive 10 hours round-trip over a snowy mountain pass to testify for a minute or two, now can do that from the safety and convenience of their kitchen table,” Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said. “And on equal footing as everybody else who wants to testify. And it’s not just people far away. You could be close by but have childcare issues, mobility issues.”

In response to a failed amendment that would allow the public to participate in-person so long as health guidelines are followed, Democrats highlighted the issue of enforcement. Indeed, many individuals gathered outside, some demanding the Capitol building be open to the public, also refused to wear masks despite statewide orders.

Some Republicans expanded their comments on the floor to include criticism of the extra security and fences outside, which were deployed less than a week after Trump supporters forced their way onto the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion, with some lobbing threats at reporters. The incident occurred on the same day that a mob of Trump supporters stormed and looted the U.S. Capitol in an apparent attempt to interfere with election results. 

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, whose 19th District includes some of West Lewis County, called the barricades “the result of cynical, partisan politics” on Facebook Monday. On the Senate floor, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, compared the fences to the Berlin Wall, demanding “Gov. Inslee, tear down this wall,” he said.

By the end of the day, two arrests were made, including that of Everett man Thomas Hughes, who was charged with criminal trespass for his involvement in last Wednesday’s storming of the Governor’s mansion. 

Although the FBI recently warned of plans for armed protests at all 50 state Capitols in coming days, Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said it wasn’t “earthshaking news” given the “very specific threats” being monitored by law enforcement on a local level. 

“We’ve kind of turned a page in history, and people are behaving in ways that they simply have not behaved in our country in a long time,” Loftis said at a press conference Monday. “And they're confusing, sometimes, their passions and their political beliefs with a righteousness that we haven’t seen, and entitlement to do things that they shouldn’t do, including harassing, threatening the members of the press.”

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