By BRETT DAVIS
THE CENTER SQUARE STAFF REPORTER
(The Center Square) — Omicron is wreaking havoc with the upcoming session of the Washington state legislature.
The highly contagious but apparently less-virulent iteration of COVID-19 is the reason there will be little in-person business taking place in the House of Representatives, at least to kick off the 60-day legislative session that begins Monday.
Two lawmakers from each caucus and the presiding officer will be allowed on the floor. That’s two more members than were allowed last year, but fewer than the original November plan called for.
“The House will reassess its operations every two weeks, and may make future adjustments as conditions warrant,” Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the House, wrote in an email, as reported by the Northwest News Network on Monday.
The House’s Executive Rules Committee approved the measure 4-3 along party lines, Mr. Dean said. Democrats make up the majority of both chambers of the legislature.
House leaders approved of the change.
“The House continues to prioritize safety, transparency, and doing the people’s work,” Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said in a statement. “The omicron variant presents yet another way COVID is challenging us, but we rise to the occasion by adapting swiftly and keeping those priorities at the forefront.”
Minority Republicans had a different view.
“I understand the Speaker feels responsible for the safety of everyone around the House, but as leaders we have to remember that people all over Washington have been coming into work every day,” House minority leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said in an email to The Center Square. “Many of these people are lower paid workers but they have made it possible for many other to be safe. Farm workers, grocery workers, people involved in distribution, teachers, police … We’ve had nearly two years to prepare for a safe legislative session that provides for the maximum process that helps prevent bad legislation, and we are still not fully doing our jobs.”
Andrew Villeneuve, founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, indicated his support for the move.
“Senator Doug Ericksen’s recent death, although not confirmed to be due to COVID-19, came after he said he had tested positive abroad, and is a sobering reminder that SARS-CoV-2 is a virus we don’t want spreading,” Mr. Villeneuve said in an email. “Committee meetings and testimony were already going to be remote again, so all that’s mostly changing now are the plans for floor sessions. House leadership is saying they’ll re-evaluate as appropriate, and that is a defensible posture to have.”
He went on to say, “Freedom from disease is a form of freedom, and it’s a freedom that we should want and value.”
Pandemic-inspired use of remote technologies is a long-term benefit that should extend beyond the pandemic, according to Mr. Villeneuve
“Even after the current threat passes, the Legislature must continue to allow remote testimony,” he said. “Allowing people to join committees from where they are means they don’t have to give up a whole day to go to Olympia just to speak for one or two minutes on a bill or other legislative item. That makes the Legislature’s work more accessible to the people. Washington is a representative democracy and a geographically expansive state. We should be taking advantage of technologies that can bring people together across distances.”Jason Mercier, director of the Center of Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, brought some levity to the situation in a blog post saying the upcoming legislative session “is set to be conducted remotely via Brady Bunch Zoom.”