E-Newsletter: 2021 session begins… and it looks very different

January 15, 2021

Hello Friends and Neighbors,

I’m glad to be able to report to you again about actions taking place at the state Capitol. Let’s catch up on a couple of important changes that happened ahead of the 2021 legislative session, which started Monday, then I’ll touch on some important issues.

Each time Senate Republicans appoint a new budget leader, the ceremonial “budget pencil” changes hands; on Monday it was passed to me from former budget leader (and now Senate Republican Leader) John Braun.

New leadership role: My second term as 17th District senator has started with an exciting new responsibility: lead Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Having served on the budget committee, I know what this new position requires. Thanks to years of business experience in Clark County, I know my way around a balance sheet and have no fear of the long hours ahead. I also have the fortitude to handle the pressure that goes with making some of the most important decisions facing the Legislature. It will be an honor to serve the people of my district and our state in this new capacity.

New restrictions on public access: The 2021 legislative session looks very different, and not in a good way. As you may already know, the Legislature’s majority party decided to basically bar the people from the “people’s house” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. No testifying in person on legislation, no visiting with your lawmakers at their offices, no viewing the Senate or House of Representatives during debates and votes. Instead, you get an online guide to “Accessing the Legislature Remotely.”

On the session’s opening day Republicans offered several reasonable suggestions for expanding public access. If people can shop safely at grocery stores or other retail establishments, taking the appropriate precautions, we believe they can safely navigate the buildings and rooms where the Legislature does its work. The majority’s leadership tried its best to claim that going “virtual” means more public access, yet that doesn’t help people without a reliable internet connection who are now basically shut out from testifying on bills.  

Reopen the economy: Everyone knows how restaurants, fitness centers and many other small businesses in Clark County and across our state have struggled under the governor’s economic restrictions. The lockdown that took effect late in 2020 was the worst news possible for those who had survived the summer and fall. Considering how long the Legislature has been shut out of the pandemic response, I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to see that – and to see Governor Inslee bring out a two-phase region-based restart plan for reopening the economy on Jan. 5, knowing our 2021 session was less than a week away.

Basing the restart on regions instead of individual counties is unfair to many counties. Also, one of the metrics that must be hit to restart is the virus positivity rate. That’s a mistake because the state – by its own admission – can’t seem to predict them accurately. The best thing legislators can do for these small businesses is to free them from the flaws in the governor’s approach – by approving SB 5114, which would move all the businesses affected to phase 2. I trust these businesses to look after the safety of their staff and customers and couldn’t wait to co-sponsor that bill, which will get a committee hearing at 8 a.m. this coming Wednesday (Jan. 20). 

If you have been affected by these economic restrictions, please consider signing up to testify so that you can tell your story directly to state legislators. The virtual hearings are being held through Zoom, so you may testify remotely from home. This link will take you to the testimony sign up page for SB 5114. You may sign up right now – but the window closes one hour before the start of the hearing. And please tell your family, friends, colleagues, and coworkers. Let’s get the word out, so that we can get Washington going again safely!

Reform for emergency orders…: The governor gets to make two kinds of proclamations using the powers granted by state law during a declared state of emergency. We’ve seen both during this pandemic: proclamations that prohibit certain activities (like inside dining) and proclamations that suspend certain laws (like the renewal of driver’s licenses). The “suspension” proclamations can’t last more than 30 days without legislative approval, but the “prohibition” proclamations can be open-ended, with no legislative review. My bipartisan SB 5039 would reform the emergency-powers law by making all proclamations subject to legislative approval after 30 days. That’s reasonable, because technology has clearly evolved to the point that legislators can engage within that amount of time. There’s no need for the governor to unilaterally keep calling the shots… month after month after month.

On Wednesday the Senate majority not only voted to extend 26 of the governor’s pandemic-related proclamations — the expiration dates were taken off too! I believe the Legislature needs to have more say over these proclamations, not less.

…and relief on unemployment-insurance taxes: Employers are accustomed to paying into the unemployment-insurance (UI) trust fund from which claims are paid when people lose their jobs. But when government forces businesses to close and the resulting unemployment claims basically drain the trust fund, it’s not fair for government to turn around and hit employers with a 200-800% hike in their UI taxes to refill the trust fund. Especially when most of the taxes in the trust fund were paid by them to fill it in the first place! My SB 5171 would instead pull $1 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund to help “backfill” the money that had to be paid out unexpectedly, so the businesses aren’t hit again with another undue burden. It’s an appropriate source for that relief, and could make all the difference between survival and failure for employers who are hanging on by a thread.

Also in the works: As Republican budget leader I’m involved in a bipartisan effort to tighten the management of what are called “unanticipated receipts.” These are dollars received from the federal government during the months when the Legislature is not in session. My goal is to make sure we don’t have a repeat of 2020, when the governor’s refusal to call a special legislative session means he had full control of distributing the $3.6 billion in federal CARES Act money our state received. The Legislature has authority over the public “purse,” not the governor, so we’re working to maintain control over large sums of money that come in — like receipts exceeding $5 million.

I also plan to reintroduce my legislation to prohibit the use of “title-only” bills. These bills are introduced with a vague one-sentence description of what they would do (with NO public input, NO committee hearings and NO details about how they might affect parts of our economy) in case they’re needed to enable additional spending. A good example is HB 2167, which started only as “The legislature intends to enact legislation concerning tax revenue” and quickly became a $339 million tax, approved by the majority during the final three days of the 2019 session. Title-only bills are an effective tool if you want to rush a policy change through, but they’re about as non-transparent as it gets, and that’s not my kind of lawmaking.

No new taxes needed: The only thing the Legislature absolutely has to do this year, by law, is approve three new budgets. The largest of those is the state operating budget for 2021-23. I’ll have the lead on the operating budget this year for Senate Republicans, and I can tell you we see absolutely NO justification for new taxes to help balance it. The latest state-revenue projections indicate there will be enough “natural” revenue growth over the next four years to maintain existing services and then some. That’s good, because I can’t think of a worse time than during a pandemic to put more financial pressure on Washington families and employers. More bad government actions need not make this recovery worse!

Governor Inslee has access to the same numbers we do, and knows our budget balances. Yet he’s continued his streak of proposing tax increases in every new budget cycle. State government’s budget has increased 40% since he’s been in office. Has your paycheck gone up 40%? Yesterday the Senate Ways and Means Committee spent more than two hours taking testimony about SB 5096, which is the state income-tax bill requested by the governor.

The governor calls his proposal an “excise” tax on capital gains. So does the title of the bill itself. The trouble is, SB 5096 contains nearly a dozen references to “federal income tax.” As long as the federal Internal Revenue Service views capital-gains income as being taxable, it’s hard to conclude SB 5096 is anything but an income tax. And an income tax is illegal in our state. Interestingly enough, every other state in the Union says a tax on capital gains IS an INCOME tax – NOT an EXCISE tax! Just because you say it’s so…doesn’t make it so.

I’m sorry I can’t invite you to come and visit me at the Capitol, but if you have a question or concern, please contact me by email, letter or phone. To make an appointment for a virtual meeting, please sent me an e-mail! Stay safe! 

Yours in service,