Sweeping police reforms, climate change initiatives and COVID-19 restrictions dominated much of the 2021 Legislative session, according to the three state lawmakers who represent Washington’s 9th District.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, and Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, updated the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce on the “best and worst” of what went down this year in Olympia during a luncheon Thursday at the Holiday Inn in Clarkston.
All three said they were pleased to be meeting with constituents in person after more than a year of Zoom calls and online lawmaking. They also appreciate the chamber taking the lead on early morning telephone calls conducted from January to April between them and area residents.
“Those chamber calls are so important to us,” Schmick said. “Your feedback is valued and priceless.”
Schoesler said some of the best things to come out of the session were several relief packages that will help Malden residents recover from a devastating wildfire that destroyed most of the rural Whitman County town.
The worst move was a “cap and tax” plan that creates an artificial bureaucracy, the longtime senator said. The Democrat-backed Climate Commitment Act will punish people and companies by sharply raising gas and diesel prices, Schoesler said, and there’s no guarantee the state’s roads and highways will benefit and no solid proof the plan will help the climate.
On the other hand, a comprehensive two-year state capital budget, which Schoesler helped negotiate, was an example of bipartisan cooperation. The $6.3 billion spending plan provides $413 million toward broadband expansion in the state that will benefit the 9th District, which covers several counties, including Asotin, Garfield and Whitman.
Schmick said the forest management bill made his admittedly short “good list,” because it focuses on investing in forest health and reducing the fuel that causes large wildfires.
Lawmakers also made some progress on changing a proposal that would require agricultural employers to pay workers retroactively for overtime, he said. Schmick supported a bill that will prohibit employers from having to go back three years, before the state changed the overtime rules.
The capital gains tax has drawbacks, Schmick said, along with the reforms aimed at law enforcement. The “litany of bills” on that issue, he said, will make it difficult to recruit police officers and prompt many to retire.
More than a dozen police reform bills include a ban on chokeholds, a higher bar for when police can resort to deadly force and making it easier to decertify an officer. The changes make it more difficult and dangerous for police to do their jobs, Schmick said.
“We’re all going to suffer for that,” he said.
Dye jokingly apologized for being a “Debbie downer,” saying the overall session was “brutal” for the eastern Washington Republican lawmakers.
“We’ve gone a whole year with a governor who has been very controlling and intrusive in what I think is our personal decision-making,” she said, referring to COVID-19 restrictions in the state.
Dye said they were unable to put a deadline on Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency powers, and many Republicans encountered “tone deafness” during the virtual session. Because lawmakers didn’t have to face people, it was easier to hide behind their screens and much more difficult to collaborate and develop relationships across the state, she said.
“I think we put up as good of a fight as we could,” Dye said of the session.
However, the low-carbon fuel standards and complex “cap-and-trade” system that landed on the governor’s desk will hurt average, working Washington residents, she said. The price of fuel and energy will increase significantly, costing the average household an additional $1,400 a year.
Washington’s increased fuel prices could also drive consumers to Idaho in border towns, such as Clarkston and Pullman, the lawmakers said.
During public comments, Clarkston Port Manager Wanda Keefer said she’s thrilled with the attention given to expanding broadband in rural areas.
When asked about the major issues they will address next year, Schmick said he expects public safety and police reform to be in the spotlight again. They were able to make some restrictive bills “less bad,” and prevented defunding of police, but Schmick said the pressure will continue.
Dye expects the natural gas ban to be back on the burner, along with tweaks to climate change bills. “They want to put their thumbs on the scale,” she said of Democrats, “and it will affect prices and consumers.”
According to the 9th District lawmakers, even before the session began on Jan. 11, Inslee and majority Puget Sound Democrats based their priorities on a national agenda that stemmed from the pandemic, protests and a new Democratic Congress and president taking office.
Common themes they heard centered on racial equality, social and environmental justice, changing sentences for criminals, disarming the police, starting down the path for a state income tax, eliminating fossil fuels and the immediate need of addressing the “imminent threat” of climate change, the lawmakers said in a recent newsletter to voters.
“We entered the session under the governor’s emergency rule. It is disappointing nothing has changed as Democrats rebuffed our efforts to reform the governor’s emergency powers and reopen Washington,” they wrote.
A 2021-23 operating budget will spend $58.9 billion in state funds, an increase of $7 billion over the current biennium. The 9th District legislators are concerned about Democrats transferring $1.8 billion from the constitutionally protected rainy-day fund and raising taxes, including a state income tax on capital gains, a new tax on cellphones and doubling document recording fees. Schoesler said those changes came about even though the state’s revenue has grown more than $4 billion over the previous biennium.
On the positive side, the lawmakers noted Schoesler’s Senate Bill 5454 will provide temporary property tax relief for people rebuilding their homes damaged or destroyed by wildfires last September. His other measure, Senate Bill 5198, will allow continued operations of shared ambulance services in Farmington and Garfield.
Schmick’s House Bill 1096 will ensure continued Washington State Health Insurance Pool coverage for medically fragile enrollees, and Dye’s House Bill 1114 encourages utilities in urban heat island cities, such as Seattle, to implement tree-planting and cool-roof methods to reduce heat and provide energy conservation.
Chamber President Kristin Kemak said once the pandemic subsides, members plan to meet with legislators in person at the state Capitol three times a year. In addition, an eastern Washington legislative tour is planned for Oct. 11-12.
Sandaine may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2264. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.