2021 Legislative Session goes almost entirely virtual

By Diana Carlen
WAWG Lobbyist

On Jan. 11, 2021, the Washington State Legislature will be back in session, but operating very differently from past years due to the pandemic. For the first time in the state’s history, the session will be mostly conducted in a virtual format, and come January, the typically bustling capitol campus will be noticeably quiet and empty. There will be no scheduled events or meetings allowed on the capitol campus as legislative buildings will be closed to the public and most staff. Legislators and staff will mostly be working from home or their district offices and holding meetings virtually. All committee work will be completed through Zoom and aired on TVW with the public testifying remotely.

 The 2021 session is scheduled to last 105 days. The primary job of the Legislature will be to pass operating, capital and transportation budgets for 2021-23, and much of the conversation is likely to be dominated by discussions of the impact of COVID-19 and economic recovery. 

Democrats continue to control the agenda in Olympia and continue to hold significant majorities. Democrats will control the Senate 29-20 and the House by 57-41. Given the virtual format, democrat leadership in the Senate and House has requested that legislators reduce the number of bills they introduce and focus on the following issues in the upcoming session: racial equity, response to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery and climate change. 

Ahead of the 2021 Legislative Session, Gov. Inslee unveiled his proposed 2021-23 operating, capital and transportation budgets for the next biennium. The $57.6 billion operating proposal relies on new revenue including a new capital gains tax and a tax on health insurers. It also relies on tapping all of the state’s emergency fund, known as the rainy day fund. In conjunction with his proposed budgets, Gov. Inslee released a slate of policy proposals focusing on climate change and equity. 

The governor’s proposed budgets are a starting point in budget negotiations. The Senate and House will consider the governor’s budget and propose their own respective budgets during the legislative session and ultimately negotiate a final budget before the Legislature adjourns.

Some other issues that the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) will be actively engaged on during the upcoming session include:

Carbon policies. Carbon reduction policies will be a main focus in the upcoming session as the governor and Senate and House democrat leadership have listed climate change as one of the few priorities for the upcoming session. WAWG supports carbon reduction policies that recognize agricultural practices as a benefit to the environment; complement existing policies; do not impose inefficient costs on Washington agriculture; and do not make wheat growers less competitive in the global market.

Protecting existing tax policy. Agriculture tax incentives are a valuable benefit to our economy and offer farmers a more level playing field with other major ag production states. WAWG will be vigorously defending agriculture’s ability to create jobs and compete in world markets by maintaining existing, agriculture-based tax incentives. 

Pesticide safety. Access to pesticides is essential to keeping Washington agriculture productive and globally competitive, and proper training is essential for keeping workers and neighbors safe during pesticide use. WAWG supports paying reasonable pesticide registration and licensing fees to maintain a robust pesticide safety program. 

Protecting agriculture from liability for being in compliance with state statute. WAWG is considering legislation clarifying the scope of the recent Washington State Supreme Court case (Martinez-Cuevas, et al. v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy) requiring dairy workers to be paid overtime and overturning a state law in place since 1959 that exempted all agriculture from paying overtime. WAWG opposes agriculture having retroactive liability for payment of overtime wages when state law did not require such payment at the time. Without the Supreme Court clarifying their recent decision or a legislative fix, Washington farmers could face significant uncertainty and potentially devastating financial consequences for their past compliance with the overtime statute. 

Due to the virtual form of the session, WAWG will not be holding their annual Olympia Days in January in person, but will instead meet with legislators virtually throughout the session to educate members about the issues of importance to the agricultural community.