E-Newsletter: Fairness for Clark County!

This is how the “virtual” version of the Senate floor can look… depending on who logs in when.

Hello Friends and Neighbors,

My office recently received a voice mail from a constituent asking that I schedule a particular bill for a public hearing. It was a friendly and heartfelt message, but I couldn’t honor the request – because only the chairs of committees get to make that decision, and I’m not the chair of the Senate health-care committee. Many people are surprised to learn that the chair also controls which bills are brought up for votes by the committee. (By the way, the bill mentioned by my constituent did receive a public hearing, this past Wednesday.)

We’re at a point in the legislative session when the preferences of the committee chairs really start to show. The first round of Senate committee meetings will wrap up in 10 days or less, and because most committees meet two or three times a week, that doesn’t leave many more chances for bills to advance.

It’s easy to check the status of legislation using the leg.wa.gov website (just go to the Bill Information page); if you want to share your opinion about a Senate bill, I hope you’ll let me know by email, in case it comes before me in a committee or on the “floor” of the Senate chamber.

Bills to reopen schools, economy remain stalled in committees

Legislation to establish transparent “metrics” for opening Washington’s public schools (SB 5037) was prefiled a few weeks before our session began Jan. 11. The bill to move all of Washington to Phase 2 of the governor’s latest restart plan (SB 5114) was introduced a few days ahead of the session. I’m co-sponsoring both – and both are examples of how committee chairs have the power to derail a bill early on.

We learned this week that the chair of the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee has no plan to allow a vote on the school-opening bill. Some might say the bill matters less now that Governor Inslee seems to be coming around, although slowly, to our belief that schools can be reopened safely if the familiar precautions are taken. I believe there is still value to students, parents, teachers, staff and others in having SB 5037’s clear metrics in place.

The move-to-Phase 2 bill had already run into a roadblock put up by the State Government and Elections Committee chair. This week Republicans tried again to bring SB 5114 directly to a floor vote, and once again our Democrat colleagues rejected our motion. It was more of a disappointment this time, because now we can all see the inequity of allowing some counties to move into Phase 2 even if their COVID-19 statistics are worse. But one way or another Republicans will keep trying, because so many families in Clark County (and 31 other counties) depend on the sectors of the economy that remain stuck in Phase 1.

Still no pandemic relief – hopefully next week

Before this year’s session began, the leaders of all four legislative caucuses (Senate Republicans, House Republicans, Senate Democrats, House Democrats) spoke of the need for taking early action on providing relief to people who have been hit so hard by the pandemic and government’s response to it.

Two weeks ago a package of pandemic-relief legislation was put on the table. Because of my input, as our caucus budget leader, it now contains $240 million for assistance to small businesses – which is twice what the majority budget leader originally proposed. But still, that was two weeks ago, and many employers are trying to survive the lockdown that resumed back in mid-November. They needed that assistance a month ago (another reason we should have met in special session).

I’m told to expect a Senate vote on the package next Wednesday (the House passed it early this week). That’s the 31st day of our session, and who knows how long it will take after that for the state Department of Commerce to get grant money into the hands of the people who need it. Calling this “early action” is a stretch. And the progress of this package is by no means a credible reason for the Senate majority to continue avoiding a vote on SB 5114.

More reason to reform the law behind all those emergency orders

The pandemic has put a spotlight on emergency executive powers across the 50 states, and it turns out Vermont, Ohio, Hawaii and, yes, Washington rank among the worst. That’s because their laws give the governor sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, and when an emergency ceases to exist.

The nonpartisan Washington Policy Center recently shared research from its counterpart organization in the northeast corner of our nation – the Maine Policy Institute – about how the government powers associated with emergency declarations vary across the U.S. Here are some of its other findings:

  • Kansas and South Carolina outperform the rest of the country because, in both states, the governor must earn legislative approval for an emergency declaration to continue past the first 15 days. Kansas ranks 1st overall because the legislature may only approve one 30-day extension after the initial 15 days and requires a unanimous vote of the State Finance Council for successive extensions.
  • Only one state (Louisiana) allows emergencies to be terminated with a majority vote of either house.
  • While seven states do not provide the governor the authority to alter or suspend statutes or regulations during emergencies, 34 states allow the governor to suspend statutes. North Carolina allows the governor to create new statutes and regulations within an emergency.

My Senate Bill 5039 would expand the Legislature’s oversight of the emergency proclamations the governor can make under the emergency-powers law. It has bipartisan sponsorship but is still getting nowhere with the chair of the Senate state-government committee – even though he co-sponsored the bipartisan bill that made a major change to the same law just two years ago!

Why would anyone be afraid of discussing such a reasonable proposal? Time is running short for the committee to take action, so if you agree with my position that all emergency proclamations should be subject to legislative review, I encourage you to send an email to sam.hunt@leg.wa.gov and simply ask that SB 5039 be scheduled for a public hearing.

Legislation would help Clark County fire district

Roy Rhine, a commissioner with Clark County Fire Protection District 5, recently called my attention to a state auditor’s finding that fire districts do not have authority to provide certain types of worker and safety classes. This affects the Northwest Regional Training Center operated by Fire District 5, and in turn the city of Vancouver’s access to cost-effective safety training for employees. I have to believe it affects other fire districts in Washington as well.

The answer is my Senate Bill 5338, co-sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers of the neighboring 18th Legislative District and a Democratic senator from the Puget Sound area. It would simply add a section to state law clarifying that fire protection districts have the authority to provide workplace-safety training.  The bill received a public hearing this past Tuesday; the next step is a committee vote, and I don’t anticipate any opposition.

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,