A very unusual legislative session is underway
Just as 2020 will always be remembered as the “COVID-19 year,” the 2021 legislative session already is being recalled as one in which nearly everything was done remotely, preventing the public from accessing the Legislature in person and hampering citizens' ability to fully connect with the legislative process.
This year's 105-day session began Jan. 11. Legislative sessions typically begin with plenty of excitement and activity, as legislators, staff members, lobbyists, reporters and the public are visible inside the Legislative Building or around the Capitol Campus.
But this is not a normal year. The Legislative Building is closed to the public, as only legislators and authorized staff are allowed inside. The governor expressed concerns after protesters in both Washington, D.C., and Olympia got through security and into the nation's Capital building and on the governor's mansion lawn. Many of us thought it was like using a sledgehammer to knock out a mosquito when Gov. Inslee called in the National Guard and had fencing laced with crime tape erected around the state Capitol building that greeted us when we arrived on the first day of session, Jan. 11. We wonder why the governor didn't take the same approach this past summer with the violent protests in Seattle.
While we appreciate the need for safety at our state Capitol, we feel citizens should not be shut out of the People's House and locked out of participating in the legislative process.
During the first week of session, both the House and Senate held floor sessions, but, thanks to COVID-19 concerns, they were far from normal. In the House, all members were allowed to be in the House chambers to vote, socially distanced, of course.
Reps. Schmick and Dye joined with fellow Republicans to oppose new rules in the House that set up this legislative session to be primarily conducted remotely. We want a more transparent and open process. A virtual format provides far too many situations where technology, and majority rules, can stifle constructive discussion. Unfortunately, the majority party adopted the rules for what many are now calling a “Zoom” session.
On opening day, many senators were on hand to deliver floor speeches or to vote, but they were required to wear masks and stay far apart. Only a few senators were seated at their desks on the floor. Later in the week, when senators voted on a measure, the vote was done electronically instead of the traditional voice vote done one senator at a time.
Last Wednesday, Gov. Inslee delivered his annual state of the state speech. Instead of giving it in front of a joint legislative session in a packed House Chamber, the governor this time gave a prerecorded speech. His speaking approach may have been new, but his message was the same – more spending, more government.
While many legislators are required to work remotely from their homes to avoid catching COVID-19, exceptions were made for some members. All three of us have been given the go-ahead to working from our Olympia offices for session. There are strict protocols to allow us to do this, including wearing masks and practicing safe distancing. In the House, members are prevented from having in-person contact with constituents, lobbyists, and staff in our offices. And for the first week, the John L. O'Brien Building, where Rep. Dye's office is located, remained off-limits, leaving her working from a computer at a Lacey hotel. Eventually, she returned to Pomeroy where workspace was made available at Garfield County Hospital.
Although the beginning of this session has proven chaotic, the bottom line is, we want to do everything we can to represent you and the 9th District as well as we possibly can. If that means being in our Olympia offices, we will be there. If we have no access to our buildings in Olympia, we will find ways to secure quality internet so we can be effective in defending our district's citizens. You have a voice.
We encourage your involvement and testimony during session. Go to www.leg.wa.gov and look for the link, “Accessing the Legislature Remotely.” This will tell how you can testify from your home and provide needed input.
If you need to reach any of us during session to ask a question, seek help for a problem with state government, or offer an idea for legislation, please do so. Here is how you can contact us: Sen. Mark Schoesler (360) 786-7620, email@example.com; Rep. Joe Schmick (360) 786-7942, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Rep. Mary Dye (360) 786-7844, email@example.com.
We look forward to hearing from you!