OLYMPIA — Although less than 10 months have passed since the Washington Legislature was in Olympia, when the 2021 session opened Monday, almost nothing was the same.
Considering those are 10 months when COVID-19 changed just about everyone's lives, that's not surprising.
For legislators, lobbyists who typically flock to the Capitol to influence them and reporters on hand to chronicle their activities, there will be some adjustments. After Monday's opening session in which the rules were changed to allow for a "virtual" session, the body count in the domed Legislative Building and the nearby office buildings will be relatively low most days.
Committee hearings and floor debates are expected to take place mostly on internet video platforms. The press corps might be taking bets on how many times in those early debates the presiding officer has to tell a legislator who has launched into a strenuous defense or objection to a bill: "Senator, you are on mute ... Sorry, you are still on mute. Please unmute yourself."
But this virtual session will have at least some pluses for people around the state who want to participate in some parts of the legislative process, or just keep track of what lawmakers are up to, without having to cross a mountain pass or get caught in Interstate 5 traffic.
As it has for years, TVW, the state's public affairs network, will carry committee hearings and floor action online, as well as on its cable channel.
The Legislature can be a place where nothing is happening or where many things are happening at the same time. In the early weeks, there may be as many as nine committee hearings underway at the same time. Although TVW has only one cable channel, it can show all the committee hearings on its website. Go to TVW.org and click on the schedule button in the upper right.
One advantage of the virtual hearing is likely to be an increased opportunity for people at home to testify. Although some legislative committees have allowed "remote" testimony for several years, it usually required a potential witness to go to a designated location that had a video link to the committee room in Olympia where the hearing was taking place.
But legislators aren't going to be in those rooms, and neither will witnesses. This year, anyone should be able to sign up to testify for a House or Senate committee hearing by going to the Senate Remote Sign-In web page or the House Remote Sign-in web page. You'll have to pick the committee, supply certain information and sign up at least an hour before the hearing starts. The committee staff will email each registrant a unique link to testify when called on.
You can't share the link, and you must obey rules like the announced time limits that can be as short as one minute for crowded hearings. Just like the old in-person hearings, there's no guarantee you'll be called on because, just like the old days, committee hearings have schedules they have to meet. Unlike the in-person hearings, some critics note, you won't be able to tell when committee members are yawning or paying more attention to their cell phone than you.
In theory at least, this virtual setup will allow a committee chairman to take testimony for someone in Curlew followed by someone in Sequim followed by someone in Mansfield. Don't assume the lobbyists won't get their say, but the pool of potential speakers will be bigger.
How do you know what committees are hearing what pieces of legislation? The Legislature's homepage at leg.wa.gov has a link to the committee schedules and you can get the lineup for that day or the week ahead.
Or you can subscribe to an email service that tells you what's coming tomorrow or next week. Click on the email updates link on the left side of the schedule page and fill out the form.
Just be warned that schedules change, so it's a good idea to check the daily schedule to make sure the bill you planned to address after seeing it on the weekly schedule hasn't been moved.
Also remember there are more than a thousand bills introduced in a typical session and only a fraction of them ever get a hearing. A fraction of those come to the floor in the first chamber before starting the winnowing process over in the other chamber. Lawmakers are being urged to curb their natural tendencies to introduce lots of bills, but it remains to be seen whether they can resist.
The virtual session almost guarantees that fewer bills will make it out of committee and all the way through the process.
It's possible to keep track of a bill by its number, if you know it, by clicking on the bill information link on the Legislature's homepage. If you don't, you can usually find it by clicking on "search the text of a bill" and entering some information about the topic or the sponsor. It's also possible to follow the actions of a particular legislator, or particular bills or topics, at washingtonvotes.org, which is put together by the Washington Policy Center.
Conservative and liberal groups, and environmental and business groups also keep track of legislation. If you're a member, check their websites or newsletters for information on bills that might interest you and then follow their progress through the Legislature.