When the public’s away, the Legislature shouldn’t play

The following op-ed appeared in the Kitsap Sun Jan. 3, 2021.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

By Sen. Tim Sheldon

Guest column

After 30 years at the statehouse, I’ve been around longer than anybody in the Legislature. And I can tell you, our next legislative session is going to be one of the most trying ever.

We always say that. But this time we really do face a problem we’ve never seen before. And I don’t mean COVID-19.

How should we behave when the public isn’t there to stop us?

When we open our session in Olympia Jan. 11, we’re going to be imposing significant restrictions on public access to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Most of us won’t even be permitted on the Senate floor. We’ll be teleconferencing from our offices or even our homes.

There won’t be crowds in the hallways. People won’t be able to buttonhole legislators on their way to committee meetings. If anyone tries holding a rally on the Capitol steps, they’ll be playing to an empty house.

Our sessions will be broadcast on TVW, the state’s public affairs TV network. But it’s not the same as being there.

Unfortunately, many of my colleagues see this an opportunity to promote hugely controversial legislation that in ordinary times would trigger enormous public protest. I don’t think that’s playing fair.

A number of proposals are so potentially devastating that the public deserves a chance to fully weigh in.

One is the income tax. Just before the Christmas break, the governor announced he would seek a new tax on capital gains income. This “starter income tax” could easily be expanded to a full-blown state income tax if it survives court challenges. Many in the Legislature have been pushing the idea for years, over the dead-set opposition of the people of this state. Voters have said no ten times.

Tax advocates see this session as a golden opportunity to get it through. That’s sneaky. The governor tells us it’s for COVID relief, but everyone in Olympia knows it can’t possibly work that way. COVID will be done and gone by the time the legal challenges play out, and if courts say yes, it would still take a year to implement.

Another is low-carbon fuel standards, a hugely complicated proposal that really doesn’t have much to do with fuel. The price of gas would go up 57 cents a gallon, according to one public-agency estimate. Mostly it’s a carbon tax with a different name. Voters have said no to that twice. This would be especially hurtful to my district, the most rural in the state, where people must drive long distances. This new tax would disproportionately harm those who can afford it the least.

Also on the table is a sweeping rewrite of the state’s Growth Management Act, possibly the most controversial legislation of the last 30 years. I’m sure there will be more.

If the Legislature does anything like this, the public will think we’re trying to pull a fast one. We ought to stick to the things we really need to do.

We have more than enough. We need to prepare for widespread vaccinations. We need to deal with our economic shutdown and consider tax relief to put small business back on its feet. We must make sure debacles like our unemployment-insurance meltdown never happen again.

And as we do in odd-numbered years, we need to pass a budget. This year we have a multi-billion-dollar shortfall to contend with.

I expect an effort to limit the topics we cover this year, perhaps on opening day, when we adopt rules for the session. I hope it succeeds. If we’re going to restrict the public, we really ought to restrict ourselves.

Sen. Tim Sheldon represents the 35th Legislative District.