After starting the week in person in Olympia, the 24th District’s three lawmakers join their legislative colleagues doing the public’s business via Zoom for the foreseeable future, spending barely one day inside the newly-fenced state Capitol before going home.
The 24th District, represented by Tharinger, state Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles and state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim, covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and the northern half of Grays Harbor County. All three are Democrats.
Tharinger said top priorities include approval of biennial operating, capital, and transportation budgets, and economic relief funds to quell COVID-19 impacts.
“It will be very challenging to develop complicated policy without being able to meet in the hallway and meet on the floor to develop legislation,” he said.
Projects such as funding for the Tri-Area sewer in Jefferson County and for a new emergency operations center for Clallam County will be considered in the Capital Budget Committee, which he chairs.
“Those are ones that are being requested, but whether (funding) happens or not, I don’t know,” Tharinger said.
House Democrats have been asked by new Speaker Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma Democrat and the first woman House speaker, to propose no more than seven bills each, about half their average, so staff is not overwhelmed during the pandemic with bills that won’t get considered.
Tharinger expects to sponsor legislation that would make tribes eligible for a state program under which a payroll tax increase pays for long-term care.
“They want to be included in the program,” he said.
Also on Tharinger’s agenda: Obtaining greater broadband access to remote areas such as the West End in Clallam County.
The 24th district is unique among the state’s 49 districts in having all three legislators chair committees.
Van De Wege chairs the the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee.
Its duties include oversight over fish and wildlife issues and forest practices and forest fire protection.
“My biggest priority will be getting control of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and attempting to bring accountability to them,” Van De Wege said.
He wants to eliminate a rule that prohibits steelhead fishing from a boat, calling it “unfair and foolish;” wants to get rid of a moratorium on whale-watching of resident orca whales, to limit gill-netting and increase fees on individual salmon fishing licenses.
He also wants his committee to have more say on the governor’s appointments to the fish and wildlife commission.
Van De Wege is hoping Chapman’s new chairmanship of the companion panel in the House, the Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, will help him achieve those goals.
Chapman said some of those ideas are good but will wait to see the legislation.
He will work on removing a fee charged to yachts that dock for two weeks that could help, for example, the Port of Port Angeles and marine trades that lose business as a result.
“My focus will be on legislation like that that restarts and rebuilds our rural economy,” Chapman said.
He was chosen by the party caucus to chair the committee. The House has a 58-41 Democratic Party majority but his committee is divided 8-7 along those lines.
“The committee is probably the most bipartisan committee of all,” Chapman said, adding it produces much legislation generated by Republicans that still passes the House.
Chapman said he expects construction on the Morse Creek curve east of Port Angeles to begin this summer and said the Elwha Bridge project is still on track. But he had few specifics on either effort because he hasn’t been able to meet with staff due to COVID restrictions.
Beyond the budget, “there’s probably not going to be a lot of legislation that going to be passed,” Chapman predicted.
“We have to rebuild the economy and get through the virus.
“I’m hoping we can accomplish things. It going to be really difficult to know what we can and can’t be done with a remote session.”
Chapman, expecting the session Monday to last just a few hours, was still worried about protesters despite the apparent removal of one threat of disruption.
“My fear is they are going to protest at our homes, and that will be a bigger dynamic,” he said.
“They know where we all live. That won’t be fun.”
The session’s legislative proceedings will be livestreamed on www.tvw.org.
Legislators moved to working remotely quickly after a right-wing militia group encouraged its members to occupy the state Capitol when lawmakers were scheduled to meet. That intention was echoed by several people who broke down a gate outside the governor’s mansion and occupied the grounds there Jan. 6, the same evening Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Those actions spurred Gov. Jay Inslee to activate National Guard troops to join state police and other law enforcement agencies in patrolling the Capitol grounds when lawmakers opened the 2021 session, and an 8-foot-high security fence was erected.
An organizer of the planned occupation said later that the event was canceled, although protesters from both the right and left may still make their views known while lawmakers meet, State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis said.