Ericksen says next legislative session should be limited to crisis-related measures

Bad idea to debate income tax, other big proposals, when public has to stay home

  • COVID restrictions will limit public access, involvement
  • Health and economic emergencies should be legislature’s focus
  • Tax hikes, sweeping policy changes should wait until public has chance to fully weigh in
  • If Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats restrict public participation, then Legislature should restrict agenda

OLYMPIA — The public will be kept at a distance during Washington’s next legislative session in Olympia, and Sen. Doug Ericksen says the state’s lawmakers better not see it as a chance to pull a fast one.

The Ferndale Republican is urging his fellow lawmakers to restrict themselves to issues raised by the current coronavirus epidemic and other urgent matters, including medical response, timely unemployment-insurance payments, the economic fallout of business shutdowns, promoting jobs, ensuring educational access, passage of a balanced budget and other related topics.

“Our friends on the other side of the aisle are saying this would be an outstanding time to pass an income tax – when the public isn’t looking,” Ericksen said. “I think that’s one of the worst things we could do.

“But that’s just the start. We’re hearing talk of big new environmental regulations, low-carbon fuel standards and higher gas prices, expansion of the Growth Management Act and other topics that have nothing to do with the urgent job before us.

“That’s just wrong. The public needs to be involved in important debates like these. Next year we’re telling everyone to stay home. If we’re going to do that, we need to behave ourselves, and do only the things we absolutely have to do. The state’s problems are so big they deserve all our attention. Our colleagues can try to turn Washington into a progressive utopia some other year.”

The 2021 legislative session will begin Jan. 11, and current planning will sharply restrict public access to the Capitol. Legislative hearings will be conducted remotely. Most legislative staff will continue working from home. Most members will be barred from the House and Senate floors and will be teleconferencing in.

Under those circumstances, the public will have little opportunity to influence legislation – except to write or call their legislators. Face-to-face encounters will be discouraged. Citizens won’t be able to buttonhole legislators in the hallways. Interest groups won’t be able to pack hearing rooms with their supporters. Reporters will be barred from talking with legislators in the Senate wings. Attendance will be muted at the daily rallies on the Capitol steps.

“I worry that some of my colleagues may see this as a chance to pass bills that would never stand a chance in ordinary times,” Ericksen said. “We saw how this works a couple of years ago, when some legislators got the idea we should crack down on hairdressers. Thousands of hairdressers came to Olympia to explain how this would wreck the economics of the business, and the proposal died of embarrassment.

“Next session, nobody will have that chance. We’re hearing even bigger proposals for next year. Passing this legislation in 2021 is the same thing as passing it in the dead of night.

“At this point, before anyone proposes an agenda, I want to challenge my colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, to declare that we respect the people of Washington. We need to let them know we won’t try to take advantage of the situation. Big, far-reaching proposals should never be passed when the people don’t have a chance to fully express their views.”

Gov. Jay Inslee is scheduled next month to announce his agenda for the session. Among the perennial Democratic proposals that could be included is a new income tax on capital gains, which could quickly be expanded to a general income tax if it withstands court challenges. For legal and technical reasons, the Democratic income tax plan cannot be implemented in time to affect the state’s current budget situation.