Infrastructure among Sheldon's top priorities
Planning another mostly virtual sesssion
January 13, 2022
The 2022 legislative session kicked off Monday, and it is another virtual session due to COVID-19. The Journal sent questionnaires to Sen. Tim Sheldon and Reps. Drew MacEwen and Dan Griffey, with only Sheldon responding before the Journal’s print deadline.
Q: What are some of the goals you would like to accomplish during the 2022 legislative session? Any legislation you are planning on introducing?
Sheldon: The 2022 legislative session will be a short 60-day session in an election year, and I doubt there will be enthusiasm for taking on big new matters of controversy. We have plenty of old ones to keep us busy. Much of our focus this year will be on fixing problems created by major pieces of legislation passed by my fellow lawmakers in previous sessions, including taxation, public safety, and a new state long-term care insurance program that appears to be insolvent even as it debuts.
We also have many projects we need to see through to completion. Nowhere is this more true than in the 35th Legislative District. We have money appropriated for a veterans’ housing project in Shelton, but the project has stalled for technical reasons, and we need to determine whether the Legislature will need to take further action or the Department of Commerce can deal with the issue on its own. The Belfair Bypass also needs attention
I obtained the first appropriation for that project in 2005, and we are still waiting for ground to be broken. And we need to complete improvements to the existing Highway 3 through Belfair, to relieve some of the congestion we see in that community at peak travel times.
Legislation for the 2022 session includes a bill I already have introduced (SB 5565) that would allow larger fire districts to hire their own treasurers, rather than going through existing county and city governments for services related to bond issues. Another bill I introduced toward the end of the last legislative session remains under consideration in 2022, a measure that would give judges more discretion in imposing fines, restitution and other financial obligations on indigent persons convicted of crimes (SB 5486). I also am planning to reintroduce a bill I offered in 2019 making it easier for the Department of Natural Resources to provide designated areas for target shooting on the 3 million acres of public land that it controls.
Q: What would you like to see the committees you’re a part of (Environment, Energy & Technology, Transportation) address during the session?
Sheldon: In the Environment, Energy and Technology Committee, we need to ensure the rural perspective is heard in our never-ending debates over climate-related legislation. We want clean energy, too, but we don’t have money to burn like they do in Seattle, and people here are far more sensitive to measures that would increase the prices of motor fuel and electricity.
In Transportation, we need to continue laying the groundwork for a new transportation package — it’s the only way we’re going to get new highways built and relieve traffic congestion. This is especially important in the 35th District — we are the most rural district of the state, and we also have its longest commutes. I don’t think we’ll finalize a proposal this year, but transportation packages often take several years to develop. One element I would like to see as part of the next package would be to dedicate sales taxes on vehicles to transportation. This would help compensate for the losses we are seeing as more motorists choose electric cars and stop paying gas taxes, and as COVID continues to discourage travel.
Q: What are some of the concerns and issues you are hearing about from your constituents in Mason County? Was 2021 a good year for Mason County in your view?
Sheldon: I’m certainly hearing about COVID and vaccine mandates. Here I think we must be careful. I think people can get better advice about COVID from their doctors than from their politicians. We know more about laws than we do about disease. Yet I think many of us in the Legislature, in both parties, are concerned that we have been under an official declaration of emergency for nearly two years, giving the governor sweeping authority to suspend laws and issue decrees. Last week [refers to week of Jan. 2-8] we reached the 675th day of this emergency. When an emergency drags on like this, there comes a point when it’s not an emergency anymore and it’s just crisis-as-usual. The Legislature ceded its authority regarding COVID to the governor at the start of the 2021 session, and I think that was a mistake. The people’s voice needs to be heard in decisions regarding COVID, and the Legislature needs to reassert its authority and participate in the process.
2021 certainly was a good year for Mason County government, but this has less to do with the Legislature than skyrocketing home prices. The higher prices go, the more the county collects in real estate excise tax. In 2019, we had just one house in Mason County that sold for more than $1 million. In 2020 it was three, and in 2021 it was 36. Unfortunately, what’s good for local government isn’t good for the average person who pays property taxes or is looking to buy a home. This next session we will hear proposals for property tax relief. I also think the Legislature needs to acknowledge its partisan decisions have helped create this affordable-housing crisis, by imposing land-use restrictions, fees and excessive building-code mandates. I don’t think this day of reckoning is coming in 2022, but it needs to come.
Q: How do you feel Mason County has handled the COVID-19 pandemic and are you planning on doing anything to address the pandemic during the legislative session?
Sheldon: I’m happy that our schools are reopening and that we seem to be adjusting to life with COVID. The pandemic has been a major challenge for public institutions, local health departments, hospitals and the medical community. From the legislative perspective, I think we will see willingness to provide whatever resources are needed. But the debate about the governor’s emergency powers is one we need to have, and I would expect to see renewed efforts this session to pass legislation to reassert the people’s role in decision-making.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
Sheldon: I think the people have been frustrated by the restrictions the COVID pandemic has placed on state and local government proceedings. Here in Olympia, we’re planning another mostly virtual session, in which most members participate by videoconferencing, the public is kept out of the Capitol, and all public testimony in committees is taken via webcam. It’s not the same as being there. Public participation is limited. Legislators are free to hit the mute button and ignore the public when it suits their purposes, as they did last year when they passed a new state income tax. They were so determined to keep the public out of the debate that they even included a provision in the bill that prevented the public from filing a referendum and overturning it in the last election. In an ordinary year, I think we would have seen weeks of protest on the Capitol steps, the public’s presence would have reminded the Legislature we do not operate in a vacuum, and it might have caused the Legislature to think twice. One of the biggest challenges we will face in a post-COVID era is rebuilding public trust, and ensuring that the public has a chance to participate needs to be one of our top priorities.