Notes From Olympia: Feb. 5, Week 4 of the 2021 Legislative Session
In this week’s Notes from Olympia: Proposal introduced to dedicate new revenue to early learning, updates on early learning bills, highlights of the week and a twist on trivia.
(I’m taking some liberty with the term “trivia” this week)
Anyone who has had any connection to our state Capitol can tell you the value of legislative assistants. We know they keep that place humming!
I reached out to a few long-time legislative assistants to ask some questions about what their lives are like during this virtual session. I talked with staff from the Senate and the House; staff to Democratic and Republican legislators; staff working from the Capitol campus and staff working from their own homes; and staff working solo in district offices. Their answers are in the trivia “answer” below.
Highlights of the Week
Progressive Revenue Proposals Receive Attention. A perennial legislative issue centers on our state’s regressive tax system and the question is always asked – is this the year where more progressive revenue options will be passed?
This question received attention this week with a public hearing on Representative Noelle Frame’s proposed “Wealth Tax,” HB 1406. This bill (also dubbed the “Billionaire’s tax”) would impose a 1% tax on financial tangible assets, with the first $1 billion exempt. If enacted, it is expected to generate $2.25 billion in 2023 and $2.5 billion in 2024. The Washington State Wire’s interview with Representative Frame provides background on the proposal and Representative Frame’s response to thoughts on a potential legal challenge.
Another revenue proposal under consideration is a capital gains tax. Senator June Robinson introduced Governor Inslee’s capital gains proposal, SB 5096 which received a public hearing with robust participation on January 14th in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. There is a possibility there may be an alternative capital gains proposal introduced in the Senate.
Legislation to Dedicate New Revenue to Early Learning is Introduced. On Thursday, Representative Senn introduced an alternative version of a capital gains tax, HB 1496. Importantly, the House bill would direct 50% of revenue generated to the Fair Start for Kids Account and the remaining 50% to the state General Fund from January 1, 2022 through June 30, 2025. On January 1, 2025, the share would change, with 60% of revenue directed to the Fair Start for Kids Account and the remaining 40% to the State General Fund.
These discussions about potential new revenue will go down to the very end of the legislative session. And Legislators will debate whether any new funding should be dedicated to specific purposes and negotiate appropriate levels.
At the same time new revenue is under discussion, there is bipartisan support to fund the Working Families Tax Credit that was first put into statute in 2008 but has never been funded. Our state’s version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Working Families Tax Credit serves as a rebate, providing a cash payment to households. This Seattle Times article provides a great background on the concept and the current path.
HB 1297, prime sponsored by Representative Thai (and co-sponsored by a long list of bipartisan House members) updates the 2008 framework to provide certain families up to $950 annually and seeks to simplify the program’s administration. That bill was approved by the House Finance Committee on February 7th. The Senate version, SB 5387, was heard in the Senate Human Services, Reentry and Rehabilitation Committee on February 4th.
Early Action Bill Continues to Move. After lengthy floor debate on Monday night, the House approved its Early Action Bill, ESHB 1368. This measure invests $2.2 billion in federal dollars to provide relief and support to sectors such as small business, child care, public health and K-12 education. A total of $50 million is included for child care and will go toward: grants for licensed providers, payments to Family Friend and Neighbor providers, increased reimbursement for school-age children through April, and provide funding for the Department of Children, Youth and Families to incentivize providers to serve children participating in the subsidy program.
As noted in last week’s newsletter, this bill is on the fast track as there is desire to get money into the hands of people most feeling the effects of the pandemic. The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing on Tuesday evening and voted the bill at its Thursday meeting. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill within the next week. If the bill is amended in the Senate, it will need to return to the House for concurrence in Senate amendments. If it passes the Senate without amendments, it will go straight to the Governor. Governor Inslee is expected to sign the bill swiftly and state agencies are primed to start deploying investments.
During the debate, legislators acknowledged this bill is just one step and further relief is expected. With President Biden and Congress negotiating another relief package, we could see a second legislative relief package and certainly additional COVID-related response proposals will be included in the 2021-23 operating budget.
New Legislators Start to Pass First Bills. A number of traditions have been put on hold during the pandemic. In the State Senate, there is a fun tradition wherein a new Senator presents the body with gifts to celebrate passage of their first bill. The gifts can be something personal to the Senator or reflective of their district. When my daughter paged in the Senate a number of years back, she recalled passing out sunglasses which was the gift of then Senator Cyrus Habib. (Senator Habib is blind, and sunglasses are his signature look.) A former Senator I know gifted cheese from a local farm in his district when he passed his first bill. With a largely virtual session, this tradition has been put on hold.
In its place, the Senate has started sharing positive comments about freshman Senators when their first bill is up for consideration on the floor. There can be some friendly ribbing, but it is also a reminder that despite the perception of deep partisan rancor, the members of the Washington State Legislature generally have respect toward each other.
On Wednesday evening, freshman Senator T’wina Nobles of Pierce County passed her first bill, SB 5184, which would establish a point of contact in all K-12 schools for students in foster care. Senator Nobles lived in foster care as a youth and spoke to her personal experience in her remarks. After unanimous passage of her bill, Senator Nobles gave a very personal and moving speech (TVW clip 2:25). I happened to be on a zoom right afterwards and everyone was wiping tears. Representation and lived experience matter.
Update on Early Learning Legislation
We are getting closer to the February 15th deadline for bills to pass out of policy committees, so next week is expected to be a busy one. After that February 15th deadline, we will quickly then face a February 22nd deadline for bills to pass out of fiscal committees.
Fair Start bills advance. On Wednesday, the House Children, Youth and Families approved a substitute to House Bill 1213 by Representative Senn and the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee approved a substitute to Senate Bill 5237 by Senator Wilson. Both Fair Start Act bills now advance to the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee, respectively. Note that Representative Senn’s capital gains bill HB 1496 would direct a portion of revenue generated toward the Fair Start for Kids Account (description is above under revenue section).
While identical when introduced, after the amendments adopted in the respective committees, the bills now differ. Start Early WA has developed two documents that can be found on our website that include a side-by-side comparisons of both bills’ approaches, and a summary of amendments to both bills including highlights of the current differences in the Senate and House versions.
Below is a summary of the major differences between the bills as currently written:
- The House bill makes fewer investments subject to appropriation.
- The House and Senate take differing approaches to Working Connections Co-payment levels.
- The ECEAP reimbursement rate is higher in the House bill.
The House version includes more allowable investments for funds deposited into the Fair Start Act.
- The House version includes one less representative from the developmental disabilities community for the Early Learning Advisory Council (ELAC), so the House bills calls for 44 members on ELAC while the Senate bill calls for 45 members.
- The House defines eligible child for ECEAP as being at least three years of age by the start of the school-year and defines entitlement as voluntary enrollment.
- The Senate bill requires DCYF to collaborate with OSPI in administration of the complex needs fund. The House bill does not have that requirement.
- The Senate bill includes outdoor nature-based providers in their definition of allowable providers. The House bill does not.
ECEAP Entitlement. This week, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan introduced HB 1451 which relates to ECEAP entitlement. The bill will receive a Public Hearing in the House Children, Youth and Families Committee on Tuesday, February 8th and is expected to have a vote on either February 10th or 11th.
The major proposed policy in HB 1451 is to push-out the ECEAP entitlement date from the 2022-23 school year to the 2026-27 school year. This is consistent with the language in the current versions of the Fair Start Act. The bill also defines entitlement as voluntary enrollment in a full-day program and directs DCYF to develop an implementation plan for meeting entitlement by September 30, 2022.
Early Learning Facilities Program. Tuesday was Early Learning Facilities day in the House Capital Committee. First, the Committee held a work session where they received an overview of the state’s Early Learning Facilities Program. The Powerpoint was very informative, including a map of awarded projects and demand for future ones. This was a particularly valuable work session because nearly all of the House Capital Committee members do not sit on policy committees where they would be typically briefed on early learning related policy. The legislators were very engaged and asked great questions.
Following the work session, the Committee held a public hearing on HB 1370 by Representatives Callan and Shewmake which would make improvements to the current Early Learning Facilities Program. That bill is scheduled to be voted on in House Capital on Tuesday, February 9th.
What’s on Deck for Next Week?
On Tuesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee will hold public hearings on SB 5136 which would waive licensing child care licensing fees through June 30, 2023 and SB 5151, the Department of Children, Youth and Families licensing bill, which would allow for licensure of outdoor nature-based preschool programs.
Regardless of their current location or their boss’ party affiliation, the legislative assistant’s answers had a similar theme.
What do they miss about in-person session?
- People! The first answer from each of them was that they missed people. They miss the buzz and energy of the Capitol campus. They talked about the comradery they feel with fellow legislative staff and even lobbyists, particularly on the long days and late nights. Legislative session is an emotional roller coaster, and that support helps everyone get through the fast-paced days.
- Constituent Visits. They talked about how they miss constituents coming to visit. These constituent visits recharge their legislators (and them!) and remind them of why they do this work. These connections revitalize the legislator and staff alike.
- Socializing. For the few who are on the Capitol campus right now, it is QUIET. They miss coffees and lunches with colleagues. They miss the evening receptions that for many young legislative staff serve as a great place to get dinner. One staff made a point of saying the Shellfish Growers Reception is the best annual event – hands down. Not only is the food amazing, but I was told the shellfish growers are fascinating to talk with. A number noted the impact the lack of activity in Olympia has had on Olympia area restaurants, hotels and catering companies. It has been devastating.
- Dome Deli Coffee Cart. Most people on the campus have an affection for the Dome Deli. We know the people who work there and hear about their families. The Dome Deli has been shuttered for nearly a year and there’s limited food available on campus (think vending machines in the Pritchard Library). It’s not the same.
- Governor’s Inaugural Ball. Due to COVID, there was not an inaugural ball this year which is always a huge highlight for the entire Capitol community.
- Picking up the “vibe.” It is hard to pick up the unspoken vibe virtually. Are people tense, who is not talking to whom? All of those unspoken interactions are harder to get virtually.
(Writer’s note – I was surprised none of them mentioned missing potato, beef or dairy day. That would be at the top of my list).
What do they like better?
- Fewer interruptions. Because they do not have people constantly streaming by their desks, they can finish tasks.
- Constituent Engagement. Constituents are able to engage much easier without having to take a day off of work, find child care, etc. That’s a positive.
- House slippers. For those working at home or in the district office, dress is more casual.
- More parking, less traffic. For the staff on campus, the ability to get to work on time (no I-5 freeway jams around 8:00 or 5:00) and an abundance of parking are a plus.
- Virtual connections with their colleagues. Many legislative assistants face isolation during interim as they return to their districts. They have been a lot more connected to each other as they navigate this new reality, sharing tips and establishing protocols.
What do their days look like now?
- Screen Time! Like most of us, they are spending their days staring at multiple monitors.
- “Nothing is on the fly.” During in-person session, lobbyists can grab legislators in the halls, pull them off the Floor, etc. Without these options, everything has to be scheduled – every short conversation is a meeting request. This puts a tremendous pressure on the legislative assistants as they manage increased scheduling requests and they have to build in breaks for their legislators – and for themselves. (A good reminder to give them grace as we all try to schedule meetings).
- Snacks are key! Like during in-person session, an ample supply of snacks helps with the long days.
- Where’s my legislator? One of the first lessons legislative assistants are taught is to know where their legislator is at all times. This is more complicated in virtual session and each legislative assistant described the communication tools they have put in place with their legislator.
- Floor Time. I thought this was an interesting factoid. For the Senate floor sessions, 8 Democrats, 7 Republicans, rostrum staff and 2 caucus staff are allowed on the floor or in the wings and they are unable to swap out members during floor sessions on a single day due to sanitation concerns.
Thanks to all of the wonderful legislative assistants. They are key to the success of the Capitol community! I know I miss streaming by their desks and interrupting their work.