Contact Tracing: Tracking Legislation in Washington State in a Pandemic Session
Barbara Engstrom, Executive Director King County Law Library
While the vaccine is producing some light at the end of the dreadful tunnel that was 2020, the effects of the pandemic are still going to be felt for the foreseeable future and the new legislative session is no exception. The current plan is to conduct the session almost entirely remotely in the House and a hybrid of remote and in-person in the Senate. Understanding the deviations from the standard script unique to this session will be helpful when tracking legislation both now and in the future.
Introducing Legislation – Urgent, Targeted & Fiscally Aware
One of the biggest changes for the pandemic legislative session will concern what types of bills will be advanced. It is expected that floor action will take longer leaving committees less time to do their work. To streamline the process, the House Democrats have been given guidance on what bills will be given priority in this legislative session. According to their 2021 Legislative Session Bill Advancement Guidelines1: “First and foremost, bills should only be introduced if they are urgently needed and important to pass DURING the 2021 session. If that is not the case, please wait to introduce your bill until next year.” Democratic House members are also restricted to introducing no more than 7 bills and committee chairs are expected to move fewer bills out of committee.
The guidance outlines the four major subject areas that will be considered:
- Advancing racial equity
- Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
- Advancing economic recovery
- Addressing the global climate crisis.
Bill are also expected to be fiscally aware in that they either save money or increase the efficacy of the appropriation, increase access to federal funding, or increase fiscal efficacy on multiple government levels in responding to the pandemic or economic recovery.
In addition, bill sponsors are also expected to do pre-introduction legwork to thoroughly vet the bill with stakeholders, discuss the cost viability with the Appropriations chair, determine whether there is a companion bill in the Senate and the likelihood of its moving forward, and determine whether is it likely to generate substantial opposition in committee or on the floor.
What this means for tracking legislation is that generally one will only find legislation on very limited topics, companion bills will not be the norm, and fiscal impact will be a touchstone for all legislation moving forward. Currently there is no bill advancement guidance from the House Republicans, but for bill tracking purposes it is safe to assume that the Republicans will also similarly prioritize bills to facilitate advancement of their legislative priorities with the limited time and resources available this session.
Committee Hearings in the Time of Zoom (and Zoom-bombing)
How committee hearings will be conducted will also impact legislative tracking. Rather than in-person hearings, most committee members will attend remotely and the public will be allowed to testify from remote locations. The expectation is that without the burden of traveling to Olympia, public participation in committee hearings will increase significantly. To facilitate remote testimony, the legislature has created an online platform allowing witness registration within as little as an hour before a scheduled hearing begins. https://app.leg.wa.gov/csiremote/joint Those unable to testify remotely, will find expanded opportunities to testify via a written document or email this session. For tracking legislation, the primary impact will be felt in the bill reports coming out committee where the additional public testimony will be summarized and the affiliation of the persons testifying noted.
Some of you, like me, may be thinking, how are they going to control remote testimony from going off the rails? As noted on the remote testimony webpage, the ground rules are the same as in-person testimony. “People observing or testifying from a remote location are subject to the same rules of decorum as people at the Capitol. You must be recognized by the Chair before speaking, and you may be required to limit your comments. There is no guarantee that those who sign in will be allowed to speak or be able to speak at specific times. Please see How to Testify in Committee for more details.” In an interview with Crosscut, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma said that based on her experience with remote hearings and testimony from the previous session, she’s not too worried about Zoom-bombing. She noted that it was generally brief, sometimes amusing and almost always involved someone’s butt. “The most important thing, Jinkins said, is to make sure legislative staffers can quickly kick people out of online committee meetings if they are causing issues. She said legislative technology experts are preparing for all of that.”2
Live from Olympia It’s …. TVW
The final thing to note is that TVW will likely play an outsized role in legislative tracking this session. TVW started as an open government initiative way back 1993 and went on air in 1995. This C-SPAN of Washington State covers government, politics, and public policy. In this session expect to see more emphasis placed on the TVW livestreams and recordings. If you are following legislation in real time, you can go directly to TVW, and search the daily schedule. https://www.tvw.org/ If you are tracking legislation at a later date, links to TVW are often included in the Bill Information webpage for current (and past) legislation. Look for the Available Videos section. https://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/
A Note About Transparency
I’ve done quite a bit of legislative research in other states and in foreign jurisdictions. When I’m researching legislation in Washington, I often find myself catching new things that have been added to the online research tools to make the legislative process more transparent and the documents more
easily accessible. This is not the case in most other jurisdictions. I’m very grateful to the Washington State legislature for not only saying that they value transparency but actually making it happen.
Please visit the King County Law Library at https://kcll.org/ for help tracking current legislation or reviewing legislative history for older legislation. If you have any questions, would like help accessing materials, or need assistance with your research please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 See 2021 Legislative Session Bill Advancement Guidelines. https://beta.documentcloud.org/documents/20418501-bill-advancement-guidelines-for-2021-session-11-24
2 Melissa Santos, How the Washington State Legislature Plans to Go Remote During COVID-19, available at https://crosscut.com/politics/2020/11/how-wa-legislature-plans-go-remote-during-covid-19