In a pre-recorded State of the State speech to the legislature broadcasted Jan. 13, Governor Jay Inslee outlined his vision for what he called a “new normal” in Washington, and legislators are divided over the executive’s role overseeing the COVID-19 pandemic response.
“At the end of this legislative session alone, we will be able to say our state is more equitable, a state with more opportunities, and careers, and affordable housing,” Inslee said.
Since March, Washington has been under a state of emergency declared by Inslee, who has issued unilateral resolutions dictating which business are allowed to remain open, and how those businesses must operate. While a special session was not convened, despite repeated calls by some to do so, legislators are divided over what role the governor should have moving forward regarding the pandemic response.
While a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senate Republican Leader John Braun (R-20) would allow businesses to reopen, SCR 8402 sponsored by Senate Democrats would instead extend Inslee’s COVID-19 resolutions. The bill cleared the Senate Jan. 13 in a 28-19 vote.
In a response to Inslee’s State of the State speech, Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-31) said that “for the past 10 months he has ruled by executive order. He alone decided how more than $3 billion in federal funds would be spent, which businesses were essential, and whose livelihoods would be destroyed. We’re not meant to be governed this way, even in times of great peril. One person should not have absolute power.”
However, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-27) said during a Jan. 13 press conference that “there is not a single proclamation listed in this resolution that Republicans haven’t signed to extend, multiple times.”
Meanwhile, Inslee’s speech noted the impacts to K-12 education for students forced into digital classrooms. While Superintendent for Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has emphasized the negative impacts of remote learning, Inslee said “no one has a single answer, but we must provide the support that students need, whether it’s academics, mental health, or nutrition.”
Stokesbary said the legislature should “insist on resuming in-person instruction as soon as possible. If education is truly the state’s paramount duty, how can we stand idle witness to a generation of students being sentenced to delayed cognitive development, stunted social development growth, record rates of depression and suicide? We cannot undo past decisions, but we can stem the tide. The legislature must intervene.”
While keeping the state in the most restrictive Phase 1 as part of his Healthy Washington Roadmap to Recovery for the time being, Inslee’s proposed 2021-23 operating budget calls for $200 million in various forms of economic relief for those businesses. Although state revenues are at record levels despite Inslee’s lockdown orders throughout 2020, his budget includes new taxes such as an insurance tax and a capital gains income tax. The budget also increases spending by $5 billion compared to the 2019-21 biennium.
“We have big challenges that demand we take big steps,” he said. “We are not going back to normal. We are going forward toward a new normal. We are on a path this legislative session to a more just normal, a healthier normal. And we’re not just talking about the pandemic. We’ll also be working to incorporate an equity lens into health care, jobs, education, pollution, and more.”
However, Stokesbary said that “we believe that now more than ever, government should do no harm,” a notion that some say Inslee’s proposals, such as a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS), do not accomplish.
“Regrettably, the governor is proposing a litany of measures that will make driving, working, and simply living more expensive for average Washingtonians,” Stokesbary said.