Little boy playing with mr. potato head toy in classroom

Notes From Olympia: Jan. 8, The Start of the 2021 Legislative Session

In this week’s Notes From Olympia: a note from the author, legislative session kick-off, policy committee activity begins, testifying in a virtual session and an update on the expected early action relief bill.

Erica Hallock January 8, 2021
  • Policy and Systems
  • Blog

Note From the Author

I typically start this newsletter with fun trivia somehow tied to the Capitol and/or legislative activities. Given the insurrection and violence at both our nation’s and our own state’s Capitol campus this week, I have decided to forego this tradition. I hope it will return next week.

2021 Legislative Session Officially Starts Monday, January 11th

On Thursday, the Associated Press convened its annual legislative preview sessions, one with Governor Inslee and a second with legislative leadership from each of the “four corners” (Senate Democratic and Republican leadership and House Democratic and Republican leadership).

Legislators and legislative staff have been working for months to craft a plan to protect the health of the legislators and their employees in the midst of a pandemic. Wednesday’s events at the United States Capitol and at our own Governor’s Residence, a threat of physical violence toward a Capitol reporter captured on video, and a number of planned protests on the Capitol campus next Monday with the potential for rioting and violence, clearly demonstrated that plans for safety extend beyond the pandemic to include protecting the physical safety of those on the Capitol campus engaged in the business of the State of Washington. The mood of these preview sessions was somber and a good portion of both sessions with the Governor and the legislative leadership were geared toward this question of safety.

While both the Senate and House of Representatives have plans to conduct most of their business virtually due to the pandemic, all 147 legislators will be on the Capitol campus on Monday, January 11th for the primary purpose of adopting rules that will allow for this virtual approach.

In normal times, the first day of legislative session would also include the official swearing in of newly elected legislators. Of course, these times are not normal, and both the Senate and House are planning virtual swearing in ceremonies on Friday, January 8th – with the Senate swearing in its new members at 1:00 p.m. and the House holding two swearing ins, one at noon and another at 4:00 p.m. Like all legislative activity, this will be covered on TVW.

This week has taught us that events that have been traditionally ceremonial in nature (like the adoption of rules and celebratory swearing in ceremonies) are actually critical to the continuation of our government operations.

Policy Committee Activity Begins

Following the Monday in-person Capitol activity, most legislators will return to their districts and will either conduct legislative business in their own homes or in their legislative offices. A very small number of legislative leaders and key staff will be present in the Capitol building throughout session and a limited number of legislators without dependable broadband will be allowed to work from their legislative offices.

Starting on Tuesday, the work of policy committees begins. The first couple of weeks generally involve an orientation to committee issues as legislation continues to be introduced.

Next week, for example, the newly constituted House Children, Youth and Families Committee (formerly the House Human Services and Early Learning Committee) will hold a work session on January 13th with an overview by the Department of Children, Youth and Families on their book of business. The Senate Ways and Means and House Appropriations Committees will both get overviews next week of the Governor’s proposed budget and will dedicate a public hearing to getting response to the Governor’s budget. I will note these are typically some of the longest in-person hearings of session. I am predicting they will be even longer as testimony will be virtual, allowing for more participation.

The legislature’s official website holds a lot of information, including copies of presentation documents from the hearings. The website will be updated likely on Monday to reflect the official 2021 structure and contact information for the new legislators.

Testifying in a Virtual Session

Earlier this week I served on a panel with other lobbyists about our projections for this unusual session. I am not alone in feeling anxious about navigating this new system. We all agreed that one winner with a virtual session will hopefully be people interested in weighing in on policy or budget items they care about. The previous system certainly set up barriers for public participation in that people had to GET TO Olympia. This was not inexpensive and could be quite time consuming. I should note, of course, that not everyone will have access to this virtual system, but it does improve accessibility.

The logistics involved in setting up a virtual testifying process have been intensive (we all recall the “zoom bomb” fiascos early in the pandemic at school board meetings, etc.). And while there is wide acknowledgement that this system is imperfect, but it is an attempt.

Here are the rules for submitting written testimony or signing up to testify.

Some items of note:

  • Written testimony will be accepted up to 24 hours after the hearing.
  • If you want to testify, registration closes one hour before the hearing. Each person testifying will receive an individual zoom link (I’m sweating for the staff who will be managing this).
  • Not everyone who signs up to testify will be guaranteed time and people may be asked to limit their time.
  • The normal rules of decorum apply, including acknowledging the Committee Chair and stating your name and organization for the record.
  • Any “Zoom backgrounds” must be appropriate. The Chair has the right to terminate someone’s testimony at any time.

Early Action Relief Bill Expected

One of the first collective actions the Legislature is expected to take is adoption of an early action bill designed to provide relief in response to Covid-related impacts.

Potential investments floated by the Governor and legislative leaders at the Associated Press forum this week include specific supports for vaccine distribution, Covid testing and contact tracing; rental, food and utility assistance; child care support; and business assistance grants.

The Governor’s Office of Financial Management has an accounting of the state’s use of federal funds distributed for Covid response. This includes a breakdown of the more than $147 million directed to child care relief. Child care was the sixth largest expenditure, following economic support, local government distribution and medical costs.