Local legislators prepared for an unconventional session

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Rep. Tom Dent and Rep. Alex Ybarra

Mitchell Roland, Editor-in-Chief

The Washington State Legislature convened yesterday, and representatives from the 13th district are ready for a session which will look very different from previous years.

While state representatives and senators typically meet in Olympia, this year’s 105-day session will be largely virtual. Among the items on the agenda are the passage of a biennial to fund the state government over a two year period and managing the ongoing economic and health impacts of COVID-19.

Rep. Ybarra’s legislative goals

Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, said his priorities are to get businesses up and running and getting children back to school.  Ybarra also serves on the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee as well as the Health Care and Wellness Committee and is also the ranking member on the House Education Committee, which considers legislation related to K-12 education, said he will make his position known to the head of the committee.

“I’m pretty sure that most everybody on the education committee wants our kids back in schools,” Ybarra said. “Obviously, we want our kids back to school, but we want them back to school safely.”

Ybarra, a CWU alum, said there will not likely  be any additional funding for the university this year. However, he wants to make sure CWU receives the same amount of funding as last year.

While there is expected to be a reduction in tax revenue for the state due to the pandemic, Ybarra said this shortfall will be “minimal.” He said the legislature will be able to cover most of the budget with money from a rainy day fund.

“We’re not going to have any extra money, but we should be sitting where there’s not going to be a shortfall,” Ybarra said. “And if there is a shortfall, we have funding to take care of the shortfall.”

A bill Ybarra is working on relates to the amount of money school districts receive for transportation. Since the formula for transportation funding is based on the number of students a district transports, largely virtual learning would drastically reduce the amount of funding a district receives.

“They still have their busses, they still have to maintain their busses, maintain the bus garage,” Ybarra said. “They still use all of the infrastructure, the buildings. The secretaries, the bus drivers, all of those who are still employed by school districts.”

Ybarra’s bill would give school districts funding based on the number of students they transported pre-pandemic.

A second piece of legislation from Ybarra is in regard to telemedicine laws, which state certain procedures can only be conducted by a doctor or with a doctor present. Ybarra said since there are not a lot of doctors in eastern Washington, this bill would allow nurses to perform some procedures with a doctor’s virtual supervision.

“In our communities, Kittitas, Grant, Chelan where we have a lot of farmworkers, and the doctor can’t get to all the locations because he’s the only guy there, he can have a nurse go out there and do a telemedicine procedure without him being present,” Ybarra said.

Rep. Dent’s legislative goals

His fellow representative from the 13th district, Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, has firsthand experience with COVID-19 and is also working on legislation related to the pandemic.

Dent announced in October that he tested positive for COVID-19. His symptoms included pneumonia and a blood clot in his lungs, and he said while his lungs are still healing from the virus, he is “good.” During Dent’s time with COVID-19, he spent two stints in an intensive care unit.

Tom Dent’s wife, Dayna Dent, also tested positive for COVID-19, though Tom Dent said her case was much milder than his.

Dent said many fellow lawmakers reached out to him for his firsthand experience with the virus. He said that while people cannot hide from a virus, they can take preventative measures through following “proper protocol” such as social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask.

In early December, Dent published an article on the House Republican’s website titled “I survived [COVID-19], but are we making the cure worse than the disease?” where he argues against a “one-size-fits-all direction for the state.” In the article, Dent called for a special session, which did not occur, so that legislators could provide more input into restrictions.

“We have reached a point where I believe the cure can’t be worse than the disease,” Dent wrote in the article. “We cannot destroy our economy, tear apart hopes, dreams and watch families suffer and think everything will be fine.”

One of Dent’s primary goals is to “get the state moving a little bit again” economically. He said smaller retailers have been hurt the most by COVID-19 related closures over the last 10 months.

“The big-box stores contribute a lot to our tax base in the state of Washington, but small business is just the heart and soul of our small communities,” Dent said. “We have to get people back working.”

Dent, the lead Republican on the House’s Children, Youth and Families Committee, said childcare will be crucial to allow people to return to work.

“Without affordable child care out there, many of our people can’t go back to work,” Dent said. “And our childcare industry has suffered just as much as everything in this whole thing.”

Dent said a bill he is working on would reduce regulations on child care centers for “the next two or three years.”

Dent will continue to serve on the House’s Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee as well as the Transportation Committee during this session.

The challenges of a virtual session

Both legislators are prepped for a virtual session with most lawmakers away from Olympia, though meetings to practice virtual legislating have shown the flaws in the system.

Dent said a practice floor action last week “was a struggle.” With 98 members in Washington’s house of representatives, Dent does not know what would happen if a member was dropped from a virtual session during a vote.

According to Dent, this session is “not going to be as transparent as it needs to be” because lobbyists and constituents will not be able to physically meet legislators.

“Everything that happens, if you’re successful in the legislature, is because of relationships. Relationships are the most important thing you can have in politics,” Dent said. “Working on relationships through a computer screen is very, very difficult.”

Happenstance meetings between legislators and constituents that occur throughout the capitol’s campus will not happen this year, as most legislators will conduct their business from their home districts. Only around 25 of the 98 representatives will be on the floor in the house chamber.

Ybarra, who likened the legislative process to being at a school, is among the few who will conduct their business from Olympia. By being in Olympia, Ybarra said he can conduct some meetings outdoors.

The challenges of a virtual session go beyond technical glitches, and will impact how much work gets done. Ybarra expects the legislature will only hear about 20% of the bills this session that usually go through the committee process, which can be between 2,000 and 3,000 in total.

Legislators in the Democratic party are limited to introducing seven bills each during this year’s session, which means they will introduce around 400 bills in total.

“Everything is going to move a lot slower,” Dent said. “A lot of stuff is going to be pushed into 2022, I’m quite sure. Or unless we get opened up and do some of this in person in the end.”

Both representatives are in the minority in Washington’s government.Democrats hold 29 of the 49 seats in the Senate, 57 of the 98 seats in the House of Representatives and Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee was re-elected to his third four-year term in last November’s election. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on April 25.