Chapter Lobbyist Mike Shaw’s 2021 Legislative Session Preview

By: Mike Shaw

Now that Autumn is officially here, it’s time to prepare for the 2021 legislative session. Initially, most assumed the coming session would focus solely on the state’s operating budget since the last fiscal forecast predicted an $8.9 billion shortfall – $4.5 billion next year and $4.4 billion the following biennium. However, the September fiscal forecast is better as compared to the June forecast: next year, the deficit is estimated to be $2.24 billion and $2.42 billion in the 2021-23 biennium. The improved forecast is due to far higher retail sales than expected combined with savings achieved due to actions taken by the Legislature and the Governor since April.

The transportation budget is still dire, and the budget gap is worsening. Revenues are predicted to be down $560.5 million in 2021; down $245.8 during the 2021-23 biennium, and, over the 10-year horizon, down $1.29 billion. Much of the decline is due to decreased rental car revenue, toll revenue, and ferry fares. Yet, the State still must comply with the Supreme Court’s culvert mandate and the need for several mega-projects (Columbia River Crossing, I-5 HOV near Joint Base Lewis/McChord). House Transportation Chair, Rep. Jake Fey, is holding numerous stakeholder meetings and intends to have a transportation funding proposal to present to his caucus by the end of the year. It will likely have a carbon tax/fee component and will focus on social equity concerns highlighted by the COVID pandemic regarding essential worker transportation options.

Of interest to Washington’s Chapter of the APA is the ongoing conversation regarding Updating Washington’s Growth Policy Framework. On September 16th, Joe Tovar presented to the House Local Government Committee concerning the University of Washington’s ongoing process to engage stakeholders who participated in the Road Map to Washington’s Future project.

What is unknown at this point is how will the Legislature proceed due to COVID in 2021.   Numerous states have tried virtual meetings with few legislators appearing in person.   In Washington, there are rumors that our Legislature will hold its committee meetings virtually and have some legislators in town who do not have access to reliable broadband service if committee meetings are virtual, then that will limit the number of bills that can be considered due to broadband and staging constraints. Some have opined that votes will be harder to take. Process questions are still being considered.  

Currently, legislators have mentioned the desire to address budget issues, some social justice issues (particularly criminal justice) and housing issues (anticipating increased eviction and forfeiture rates due to COVID). A virtual session may make it hard to consider other matters. This all assumes that the November election will not substantially change the current majorities/leadership in Olympia.