The top Republican lawmakers in the Washington state Senate and House of Representatives sent a letter Thursday asking Gov. Jay Inslee and leaders on the other side of the aisle to take down fencing around the Legislative Building and work on a long-term security plan.
Democratic leaders in the legislature told McClatchy they defer to security experts on that call, such as Washington State Patrol.
State leadership directed the fencing go up around key buildings on the Capitol Campus in January, after then-President Trump supporters breached the gate to the Governor’s Mansion grounds on the Capitol Campus. The breach happened the same day a mob stormed the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Inslee also called in hundreds of Washington National Guard members. While the fencing and an enhanced Washington State Patrol presence remains, the Guard’s presence ended after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The fenced-in area includes the domed Legislative Building and Temple of Justice that houses the Supreme Court. The space between the two, which includes the Capitol steps, is frequently the site of demonstrations and rallies.
There was a protest planned to start just ahead of the 2021 legislative session, against the Legislative Building’s closure, that included plans to attempt to enter the shuttered building. Organizers formally canceled those plans, and, while tensions were high, the start of session went forward with few incidents.
The days leading up to and including President Joe Biden’s inauguration were also uneventful on the campus. State Patrol credited heightened security measures, in part, for that peace.
In their letter, Minority Leaders Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm and Sen. John Braun of Centralia assert to Gov. Inslee, Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane that the fence’s existence “does not respect the fundamental rights of the people.”
“Everyone agrees the security of our Capitol campus — including its buildings, employees, visitors, and the media — is critically important,” the letter reads.
“Everyone also agrees the security breach at the governor’s mansion grounds was unacceptable. However, what is not clear to us is what inputs and assessments are being used to justify the continued use of the fence around the Legislative Building — a barrier that prevents people from experiencing their Capitol Campus and sends the wrong message about their access to the legislative process.”
Senate Majority Leader Billig said in an emailed statement that he doesn’t have a problem with the fencing coming down, as long as that’s consistent with security experts’ advice.
“I believe the smartest approach is to listen to the security experts and go with their advice,” Sen. Billig’s statement reads.
“If the State Patrol, Senate security, and other law enforcement monitoring the situation believe it is safe to remove the fencing, and there is no longer a danger to staff, legislators or anyone else, then I have no issue with it coming down.”
In a phone call with McClatchy Friday, Speaker Jinkins said she has been and will continue to be deferential to the State Patrol, which has more access to intelligence regarding any potential security threats.
Inslee spoke to Sen. Braun about the same topic in a meeting earlier in the week, governor’s spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email to McClatchy. His office had received the letter, she wrote, but she didn’t think they would be issuing a response in this case.
Reached by phone, Braun said his meeting with Inslee was “a good meeting” and that the governor “seemed open to the idea.”
He characterized sending the letter as a way to reiterate the message and bring the issue into focus for the Speaker of the House and Majority Leader as well.
“It’s our attempt to move this dialogue along,” he said.
In their letter, the two Republican leaders request that the Democratic leaders and Inslee work with them to “find security solutions and protocols that safeguard” the campus without relying on fences and preventing public access to the Legislative Building.
“This will likely include both policy and funding considerations,” they wrote. And, it reads, they should consider that Thurston County and its surrounding area are now in Phase 2 of the governor’s “Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery” reopening plan.
The letter closes with a list of specific requests, including that the fencing around the Legislative Building come down as soon as possible, or that they share with the public and press “what inputs and assessments are being used to justify” it staying up.
Governor’s spokesperson Lee wrote that security decisions on campus are made by Washington State Patrol in consultation with the governor’s office as well as tenants on the Capitol Campus, including House and Senate administration and the Lt. Governor’s office.
Other requests from the lawmakers include that temporary security protocols are enacted as the five corners — referring to the governor and the leaders of each legislative caucus — “in concert with” other interested entities such as the State Patrol and State Treasurer, create long-term security protocols.
Speaker Jinkins said that may be “very worthwhile” to consider in the interim, after the current 105-day session.
“I really want to be focused on helping the people of this state move forward,” she said, in a time when people are hurting worse than in any time most people alive can remember.
The Republican lawmakers also requested a clear definition of Phase 3 of the reopening plan. Inslee has so far not offered a timeline for more details on potential future phases.
Asked for an update on the status of the fencing, State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis emailed the following statement:
“Recent events, both here in Washington and in our nation’s capitol, have undoubtedly moved us all into a new security environment. At this point, there are many unknowns and considered uncertainty as to the scope and duration of this new time of unease,” the statement reads.
“Therefore, until we have greater clarity, we will maintain our current security precautions including the temporary fencing on the Capitol Campus. We will continue to monitor security developments on local, state and federal levels as well as work with associated law enforcement, intelligence services, and other public safety partners to constantly evaluate risks and trends.
“We all share the hope that the need for these temporary measures will soon conclude and we will all be able to enjoy thoughtful and secure access to our beautiful Capitol Campus in the days ahead.”