What a difference a border makes.
When Idaho and Washington convene their 2021 legislative sessions Monday, lawmakers in both states will face a common slate of challenges, ranging from budgets and taxes to health care and other pandemic-related needs.
That’s where the similarities end, though.
East of the border, Idaho’s Republican supermajority has already announced its intent to roll back the governor’s emergency powers and “review” — i.e., limit — local authority regarding public health orders.
Lawmakers will debate various tax-relief plans as well, and in all likelihood take as little notice of the coronavirus pandemic as possible.
West of the border, a more closely divided Washington Legislature will consider Gov. Jay Inslee’s call for more than $1.15 billion in new taxes, plus a long list of climate change and equity initiatives.
And far from ignoring the pandemic, the Democratic majority is recommending wholesale changes to combat the spread of the virus, including remote voting and restricting public access to the Olympia Statehouse.
Surprises and “out-of-the-blue” controversies pop up every year, but heading into the 2021 sessions, here are some of the top issues Idaho and Washington lawmakers will consider:
Lawmakers in either state could change their procedures at any time, depending on the status of the coronavirus pandemic.
At this point, however, it appears Idaho lawmakers want the session to be as close to normal as possible. Face masks will be recommended, but not required. Some adjustments in seating arrangements have been made, and limitations placed on committee room capacity, but in-person public testimony will still be permitted. Online testimony will be subject to the committee chairman’s approval.
Gov. Brad Little has no say over legislative rules. However, he told Idaho Education News that his State of the State Address won’t be delivered from the overcrowded House chamber Monday, as is the tradition. Instead, he’ll be in the Statehouse auditorium, and the speech will be broadcast to members in the House and Senate, as well as online to the public.
Democrat leaders in Olympia, by comparison, are placing greater emphasis on remote participation throughout the session. Subject to approval by the House and Senate, public access to the Statehouse will be restricted. Reporters are exempt, but lobbyists aren’t; most staff members also will work remotely. Committees will take testimony via phone and online, subject to limits approved by each chairman. Voting will be something of a hybrid, with some members present in the House or Senate chambers, while others participate online or by phone.
“It’s an attack on open government,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, of the proposed changes. “The fact that the public won’t be allowed on the (Statehouse) campus makes it easier to hide what’s going on.”
Given the lack of adequate broadband services in many rural parts of the state, Schoesler said, about half the Senate Republicans will still be in Olympia, regardless of what procedures are adopted.
Go big or go home?
With all the public health considerations in play this year, lawmakers could do the bare minimum and call it a day, rather than pursue an aggressive agenda of major policy changes.
“That’s an outcome I think many people (in Washington) would prefer, because they’re going to be shut out of the process,” Schoesler said.
He thinks the Legislature should pass a budget, address any critical policy issues arising from the pandemic and then go home.
“But that’s not what’s coming from the governor’s office,” he said. “He’s proposing a very broad, radical agenda.”
When Inslee released his 2021-23 budget proposal in December, he described it in different terms, saying it’s a “historic commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the $57.85 billion spending package is ambitious.
“We’re (committed) to making investments to help all Washington communities thrive, especially communities of color that have been marginalized for too long,” he said. “These proposals are important steps in the right direction, but we acknowledge the massive work that needs to be done to right decades of inequity.”
Little, by contrast, says he’ll take a “cautious” approach to budgeting this year, despite prospects for a record surplus in fiscal 2021, which ends June 30.
Much of the surplus, which is currently projected at about $600 million, represents one-time versus ongoing revenue. For example, nearly $250 million comes from budget holdbacks the governor imposed on all state agencies — including public schools — before the fiscal year even began. Another $60 million comes from lower-than-expected Medicaid costs last year.
Nevertheless, Little also hinted at possible tax cuts and transportation funding initiatives in his fiscal 2022 budget, which could keep lawmakers in town as they try to reach consensus.
Republican leaders are at least open to the idea of a scaled-back session, but say it will depend on the situation with the virus.
“We still have the same responsibilities we had last year. We just need to find a way to do it,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “Unless something drastic happens, I don’t see (the session) going into April.”
During Idaho’s three-day special session in August, House and Senate Republicans both expressed displeasure over executive branch actions taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Of particular concern was the governor’s ability to approve rolling emergency declarations and spend more than $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds without legislative input or oversight.
“I think the governor has done a great job responding to these unprecedented times,” said Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee. “But my frustration has been clear from the start: That $1.25 billion is the responsibility of the Legislature to budget. You can’t help but set policy when you distribute money, so I’m going to support legislation that puts reasonable restrictions on (the governor’s authority to do) that.”
During the special session, the House approved legislation immediately terminating the coronavirus emergency declaration. The Senate refused to consider the bill because of constitutional concerns, but adopted a resolution of its own, highlighting several items to be address during the 2021 session.
Those topics include: amending the Idaho Constitution to allow the Legislature to call itself back into session “in limited circumstances;” rescinding the current emergency order; limiting executive branch emergency powers and spending authority; and prohibiting the quarantining of healthy individuals.
“We committed ourselves to doing certain things,” said Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston. “I expect those pieces of legislation to take precedence during the session.”
Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, said she hopes the Washington Legislature will consider similar actions to protect the separation of powers.
“I hope we have legislation that tightens our emergency statutes and never allows the imbalance that occurred (during this pandemic) between the executive and legislative branches,” Dye said. “I think that imbalance showed how intoxicating having power can be.”
Schoesler, who this year stepped down as Senate Republican leader, said his caucus shares Dye’s interest in addressing the executive-legislative imbalance. However, he doesn’t think it’s a priority for Democrats, who have a majority in both the House and Senate.
“I think they’re looking at radical taxes in the name of climate change, and putting their heads in the sand about jobs, the economy and education,” he said.
Inslee’s 2021-23 budget features several items specific to the pandemic, including $100 million in additional coronavirus relief grants for the state’s small businesses and another $100 million in rental assistance for landlords and tenants.
“We’re hoping that happens in the first few days (of the 2021 session),” he said.
Not surprisingly, taxes represent one of the biggest differences between the Idaho and Washington legislatures, at least in recent years.
Idaho, for example, has approved about $130 million in income tax relief since 2018. Sales tax revenue from online purchases also was shifted from the general fund into a dedicated tax relief fund.
Over the past 18 months, that fund has collected more than $100 million. After failing to agree on a tax-relief plan last session, lawmakers are being pressured to send the money back to constituents this year.
Besides debating the best uses of the tax relief fund, Idaho lawmakers will consider various approaches to property tax relief. Democrats continue to push for increases or adjustments in the homeowner’s exemption and circuit breaker, while Republicans on the interim Property Taxes and Revenue Expenditures Committee support efforts to limit the local government budgets that drive property tax increases. They’ll also propose legislation to increase transparency on how those local taxpayer dollars are spent.
Washington lawmakers, by contrast, approved more than $550 million in new taxes in 2020 alone. That will increase to nearly $1.2 billion per year by 2029, and Inslee is proposing another $1.7 billion in new revenue this year, including a 9 percent capital gains tax.
“We understand we’re in the middle of a pandemic and we simply have to have relief for our families,” Inslee said in December. “So additional revenue of some sort is absolutely necessary. And clearly, if it’s going to be raised, it shouldn’t be on the poorest among us.”
In addition to general fund tax increases, Washington lawmakers need to address a potential doubling of employer unemployment insurance rates this year.
“It’s a $1 billion tax increase,” warned Schoesler in a December interview. “That’s before Democrats even start adding new taxes.”
The higher rates stem from massive layoffs during the coronavirus shutdowns. Washington went from 3.8 percent unemployment in February — its lowest level since at least January of 1976 — to 16.3 percent in April, the highest rate during that same period.
Employment has rebounded somewhat since then, but the state paid out more than $4 billion in unemployment benefits, nearly draining its unemployment trust fund. Employer rates also are based on the amount of benefits paid out to laid-off workers over the past four years.
As a result, Washington’s Employment Security Department estimated the rates could increase from an average of about $317 per employee last year to $636 this year.
“My understanding is that they need to announce the new rates sometime in January,” Schoesler said.
Inslee is working with Democrats to resolve the issue, but his plan would only reduce the projected increase by about 38 percent.
In Idaho, Gov. Little used $200 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to shore up the state’s unemployment trust fund, reducing any concerns about the fund running out of money.
One issue that will concern Idaho lawmakers this session is the looming increase in the state’s share of Medicaid and expanded Medicaid costs.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare recently proposed a series of cost-saving measures designed to save about $30 million in fiscal 2022. That’s roughly a third of the projected increase, which stems from a combination of rising Medicaid enrollment, higher utilization rates for Medicaid services and mandatory price hikes.
The cost-saving measures require legislative approval, and could include things like benefit cuts, reductions in provider rates and higher tax assessments on nursing homes and intermediate care facilities.
“I think all legislators need to get their heads around this issue and these numbers,” said Speaker Bedke, during a November Legislative Council meeting.
Controversial topics often generate a strong reaction, but public participation during the Idaho and Washington legislative sessions has historically been respectful and courteous — sometimes even moreso than the reception they get from lawmakers themselves.
However, given the heightened political tensions these days — and the pro-Trump spectacle at Congress last week — it’s unclear if that will be the case this year.
The disruptive behavior displayed during Idaho’s special session last August may have provided a preview. Disgruntled “anti-maskers” and anti-vaccine advocates bulled their way into the House gallery, breaking windows and ignoring social-distancing guidance, and forced at least one committee hearing to be postponed by screaming and yelling.
Similarly, the Washington State Three Percenters — which describes itself as a group of “God-fearing patriots that support our Constitution” — is reportedly calling on its members to “occupy” legislative buildings in Olympia this week, to protest any ban on public access.
Whether the 2021 session will feature a return to decorum or a continuation of division and strife is one more common question Idaho and Washington lawmakers will face come Monday.
Spence may be contacted at email@example.com or (208)-791-9168.