The Washington State Legislature adjourned its 60-day regular session March 12 after passing almost 400 bills and allocating emergency funding to counter the first effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the biggest pieces of legislation we passed, in an incredibly bipartisan fashion, was a $200 million coronavirus funding and response policy,” said Sen. Emily Randall (D-26th, Bremerton). “It allows us to send $175 million to departments of health locally and $25 million to the employment security department to help businesses and workers who will be out of work because of the epidemic.”
The bill will also help high school seniors get waivers from some graduation requirements and makes unemployment benefits available to people in quarantine. The Health Benefit Exchange has a special open enrollment period for people currently uninsured or who lose coverage because of losing a job due to the statewide mandatory stay-at-home order.
“I am incredibly concerned with the balance between protecting public safety with the economy and people’s individual rights,” said Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-26th, Port Orchard). “It is incredibly difficult to find a good balance here and I do not envy the governor making these decisions.
“If you are living with somebody who is a vulnerable person, you should stay at home,” Caldier said. “If you are part of the essential workforce, you should be taking major precautions when you are out. We should be doing everything we can as a community to slow down this progression.”
“I really try to root my neighbors and constituents in stories of our loved ones, our grandparents, infants, folks with compromised immune systems,” Randall said. “Think of them as we make decisions about going out in the world. I’ve seen more and more folks understand the risk as we progress.”
Randall managed to pass a number of bills she sponsored or cosponsored during the session, including an extension of post-partum Medicaid care from the current 60 days to a year; creating a position for an LGBTQ veteran coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs; and amending state law to authorize the Key Peninsula Fire District to operate its own health clinic.
“I love the fact that the fire district is ready to step in and meet the needs of our community and getting nearly unanimous passage of that bill was very exciting,” Randall said. “I think this will be huge for the Key Peninsula.”
The new law allows KPFD to deliver basic and preventive health care, in whatever form that might take, funded by reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance. (See “New Law Would Allow KPFD 16 To Offer More Care,” KP News, March 2020.)
Caldier, in the Republican minority, fought an uphill battle during the session.
“I had eight bills that were alive in the House, but unfortunately because I had helped kill some bills, the Speaker (Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-27th, Tacoma) granted me the same courtesy and killed some of mine,” she said.
Caldier successfully argued against a bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington. She also spoke on the floor against a bill reducing the crime of intentionally exposing a sexual partner to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“I was gaveled twice on the floor by (the Speaker) for comments I made on the HIV penalty bill,” she said. “That was something I was incredibly outspoken on.” That bill ultimately became law.
Being “gaveled” is a warning to refrain from certain language in an open session. “If you continue to speak, then they can censure you for the rest of the year,” Caldier said. “There’s a lot of decorum that goes with the Legislature because we have to show each other a lot of respect.”
Caldier also spoke against a bill to require that standardized K-12 sex education be taught in public schools.
“That was another one I got gaveled on,” she said. “Even though the Speaker and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, I get along with her really well and I knew there would be consequences to fighting some bills, but I’m more concerned about my constituents and the state than I am about my personal policies that I want to put forward.”
Caldier scored one significant victory, however.
“My big bill that did pass was passing rate increases on to behavioral health organizations,” she said. “I am part of the Children’s Mental Health Work Group and one of the big problems we’ve found is that when the Legislature gave rate increases to a behavioral health provider, because they are all in managed care for the Medicaid rate you have to give that to an insurance company that is managing the care. They were supposed to pass that on. Instead, the insurance companies kept the money for themselves.”
Randall also said the new budget would fund some local projects. That included a matching pledge of $100,000 toward the proposed purchase of the Lakebay Marina, $52,000 to the Greater Gig Harbor Community Foundation, $250,000 to the Gig Harbor FISH Food Bank, and $298,000 for improvements at Penrose State Park. “We’re really happy to be able to be directing funds to our community,” Randall said. “I’m also looking forward to talking to community leaders about what budget needs we’ll have in the upcoming session so that we can be ready for those.”
The next regular session is scheduled to convene Jan. 11, 2021, but both Caldier and Randall said a special session before then is likely.
“I feel confident that we are going to go back; the budget forecast that is going to be coming in June will change things,” Caldier said. “This is not a Republican versus Democrat thing. I feel that Republicans have a better sense of business and the economy and what small businesses need, and at the same time I think you need a balance of whatever the employees are dealing with. We’re going to have some serious talks about what’s going to need to be cut, about what programs we’re going to need to keep families and businesses afloat, and what we can do to rebuild our economy.”
The 26th Legislative District’s third Legislator, Rep. Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor), was not available for comment on this article.