Judy Warnick

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, speaks as the Washington State Senate convenes in 2017. She said the recent legislative session was hampered by the lack of in-person interaction. 

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Editors note: This is the first in a series of articles featuring local interviews with local representatives.

Business may not be as usual amidst the pandemic, but legislators still have a job to do, even if it is in a virtual format.

The 2021 Washington State Legislative Session ended Sunday night, almost all of which was held virtually due to public gathering restrictions brought on by the COVID crisis. For local representatives, this created its own set of challenges to get their work done over the 105-day session.

Sen. Judy Warnick (R) said the virtual format was most definitely the largest hurdle during the session.

“The challenge was not being in Olympia,” she said. “I was in Olympia for the first week of session, and then I went back for the final week of session. The rest of the time I was working from my office in Moses Lake.”

Even in the days of advanced technology, Warnick said she found that the internet connections in her Olympia office were spotty at times, creating frustrations during some votes for her and other legislators. She said the biggest challenge was the ability to talk to other representatives in person about bills that were on the floor.

“A lot of times, we will sit down and literally reach across the aisle for discussions,” she said. “That was a lot more difficult this year, because you had to make appointments and set up phone calls. It was more challenging.”

PROGRESS MADE

Although Warnick was frustrated with some of the setbacks of the recent session, she said there were positive notes that came out of it. She praised new Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck in his handling of partisan bickering, as well as his efforts to reach out to individual legislators to get to know them better.

“He respected the institution of the Legislature and the Senate,” she said. “He is not a Senate member, but he runs the Senate floor in his position, he runs the debate. In the beginning, there were some debates that got a little personal, and he stopped that right away. He didn’t just stop the Republicans for name calling, he stopped the Democrats too, and it was done in a very respectful way. He demanded the men wear ties and jackets as if they were on the floor of the senate. The protocol was adhered to, even though we were at home and not on the floor.”

Despite the challenges of an imbalanced party representation, Warnick said she was able to get six bills passed during the session, as well as two budget provisos to move action forward on bills that didn’t pass. Bills that passed include one that allows all-terrain vehicles to operate with modifications on groomed snowmobile trails, while another involves payments to counties on public lands in lieu of taxes. Warnick said former Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell helped in the effort to get that bill passed.

“State Fish and Wildlife land does not pay county property taxes,” she said. “This bill would help streamline the payment of those taxes, say to Kittitas County if there’s Fish and Wildlife and DNR land.”

Another bill Warnick sponsored that was successful in passing involved allowing exemptions for hospitals in their Certificate of Need process that want to add beds for mental health cases. Another bill that passed helps volunteer wildland firefighters receive time off from their jobs to be available for the firefighting effort.

Although Warnick’s meat inspection bill didn’t pass during the session, she was able to pass a budget proviso that would help direct action to start the process on what the bill entailed, despite not being passed as a bill.

“We’ll be able to start looking at the small meat producers and processors, to help with getting more opportunity for those folks to be able to sell and process their products,” she said. “If anything taught us about the fragility in the food supply system, especially in the meat supply world, it was the pandemic.”

Warnick’s other proviso involved a low-income housing study bill that didn’t pass. She was able to get the proviso passed, however, which makes it possible for studies to move forward on the issue.

“The Department of Commerce had already started some technical assistance programs for low-income housing in rural areas, and they asked if they could use my bill as a vehicle to do that,” she said. “I said absolutely, and the bill didn’t pass, but they are starting the programs and applications for technical assistance in the next month or so.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Besides the virtual format hurdles, Warnick said the other challenge for legislators was the imbalance in Olympia between Republicans and Democrats. As a result of the imbalance, she said multiple bills were pushed through on partisan lines, including ones that addressed low carbon fuel standards, climate action and capital gains taxes.

“They were able to push those bills through, despite our objections,” she said. “It was frustrating to see some bills go through that I know they have been working on for years.”

Along with the frustration of party-line votes, Warnick said the challenge was extended toward bills that were sponsored on the floor by Republican legislators.

“They don’t need to take our bills if they don’t want to,” she said.

Looking ahead at the next legislative session, Warnick said she thinks one issue that needs to be looked at as a priority is the Washington v. Blake decision involving possession of controlled substances.

“I think we’ll have to go back and look at that,” she said. “I just feel like we didn’t do what we should have done as far as trying to keep drugs off the streets.”

Although she is not sure if the next legislative session will have more in-person involvement, Warnick said she looks forward to being able to resume normalcy, saying she feels that it is more effective to debate bills that normally pass along partisan lines if the debate happens in person.

“When you look at someone in the eye, and you can read their body language, you know how you’re going to be talking to somebody,” she said. “When it’s all done by Zoom or phone call, you just don’t get that same opportunity to understand where the other person is coming from.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!

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