OLYMPIA — Lawmakers in Washington state returned to Olympia on Monday to begin a 105-day legislative session, the first one fully in person since the COVID-19 pandemic forced lawmakers and the public to often meet and vote virtually.
"Today we meet in person for the first time in three years," Lt. Gov. and Senate President Denny Heck said on the Senate floor Monday. "Now we will practice democracy in the way originally intended — face to face. We're all glad for that, I think."
The focus on helping people through the pandemic as in years past also has been largely left behind as leaders of both parties in the Democratic-led Senate and House have said top concerns now range from people experiencing homelessness to public safety and gun violence to a workforce shortage affecting all areas of Washingtonians' lives.
The bulk of lawmakers' work will be to finalize a new two-year state budget.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has urged a housing focus as part of his budget proposal, asking lawmakers to approve a measure to raise $4 billion over six years by issuing bonds to build thousands of housing units. If lawmakers give the OK, the measure would go before Washington voters in November.
Democrats are also proposing to ban assault weapons, require a permit to buy a gun and potentially make gun sellers liable for selling weapons that are used in criminal activity. Those proposals follow a spike in U.S. gun-related deaths and recent successful law-making efforts that banned high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks and mandated better gun storage.
Inslee and Democratic legislators additionally have proposed spending more money for police officer training, including regional training campuses throughout the state.
Democrats also plan to further strengthen reproductive rights in the state, including a push for adding abortion and contraception protections to the state constitution. That move would require support from two-thirds of the Legislature, which would mean some Republicans would need to back it, and their support could be tough to get. If passed, voters also would need to approve it.
The Legislature also includes more women lawmakers this session than ever before at more than 46%, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. With that percentage, Washington state ranks fourth in the country after Nevada, Colorado and Arizona.
People can check in on the action during Legislative session through TVW, which provides nonpartisan coverage of lawmakers' committee hearings, floor debates and votes. The public also can continue to have their voices heard virtually.