Saying that it’s time for the legislative branch to “intervene” in the state’s COVID-19 response, Republican leaders in the Washington Legislature on Thursday called for a special session of the Legislature to begin in June.
While Gov. Jay Inslee and majority Democrats in the Legislature have said a special session is likely sometime this year, they have not yet committed to a specific date.
In a virtual news conference Thursday afternoon, Republican leaders and budget writers said it makes sense to meet next month in order to make preemptive cuts to the new fiscal year budget, which begins on July 1. State revenues are expected to drop dramatically in the coming months because of the economic impacts wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans also said the Legislature should take a more active role in planning to reopen the state’s economy and in deciding how federal COVID-19 response dollars are spent, something that has so far been the exclusive domain of Gov. Jay Inslee operating under emergency powers.
“It’s time for the Legislature to be in session and to take action,” said state Sen. John Braun, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The power to call a special session rests with the governor. Alternatively, the Legislature can call itself back into session with a two-thirds vote, but that would be unprecedented.
In a five-page document titled "Guiding Principles and Framework for 2020 Special Session," Senate Republicans laid out a number of specific policy proposals and 13 proposed bills for a potential June session.
They include a requirement that long-term care facilities get top-tier priority for personal protective equipment, authorization to tap the state’s rainy-day fund and the expansion of an aerospace business and occupation tax break to include all manufacturers.
The Republican plan also seeks to halt 3% state employee pay raises that are scheduled to take effect on July 1.
Republicans also have their sights set on Inslee. Their framework aims to restrict the Democrat’s emergency powers by requiring legislative review of all of his proclamations, not just those that suspend portions of state law. For instance, Inslee’s current stay-home order, which he’s extended twice, is not currently subject to legislative review.
“Americans are not here to be ruled by emergency orders,” said House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox. “It’s absolutely critical that all of us work together, have a functioning three-branch government, so that the people that live in Washington understand that we are all going to move forward in this together.”
The Republican leaders also said a June special session should be used to direct Washington’s 295 school districts to resume in-building learning next fall, absent extraordinary circumstances.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Inslee said the governor has been engaged with legislative leadership from the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, but did not specifically address the idea of a June special session.
“A variety of aspects must be taken into account before calling a special session, including the technical challenges of convening the Legislature in the midst of a pandemic,” wrote Mike Faulk, the spokesperson.
Both the House and Senate have been preparing for remote sessions in anticipation of a likely special session sometime this year. The working assumption is that if lawmakers are called back into session, some will appear in person at the Capitol and others will join remotely to ensure social distancing and protect those with underlying health conditions.
Inslee and majority Democrats in the Legislature have repeatedly said that a special session is likely this year.
“We’re really in deep analysis to try to figure out if the best approach is immediately or to take a little more time to see the whole picture,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig.
Billig said he expects a decision on whether to convene in June will be made within the next 10 days.
Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins has signaled that she supports the idea of holding a special session sooner rather than later, but only if the agenda is “well-worked” in advance.