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The Legislature Evolved with a New Reality

Written by Pia Hallenberg

The date was March 13, 2020, and Senator Andy Billig was driving home from Olympia when he got a call saying all Washington schools were going to shut down because of COVID. It was the end of the legislative session – a time Billig said he usually looks forward to because he gets a chance to reflect on the hectic session, reorganize and catch up. But that phone call changed everything.

“Instead of the last day of the session signaling the beginning of a time to reflect, it signaled a new stage of momentous decision making that has continued non-stop since then,” Billig said.

Re-elected to the state Senate by constituents of the 3rd Legislative District in 2016, Billig was then elected Majority Leader by Senate Democrats in 2018. He has also served a term as a State Representative, so the relatively predictable rhythm of the legislature has been part of his life for years. That rhythm went out the window when the pandemic hit. 

“These past one-and-a-half years have been intense. There was no playbook to look at, no one knew what was going to happen with the pandemic,” Billig said. “The flip side of that early uncertainty is that now I am looking back and see results that are really gratifying.”

Like all large organizations, the Washington legislature faced logistical and technological challenges when it was faced with conducting a mostly remote legislative session – something that had never been attempted before.

“It took hours to log a vote and it was just really difficult to find a good solution for that,” Billig said.

When the Legislature returned to session in the second week of January, there was still a lot of uncertainty about how the pandemic was going to play out.

“We weathered the immediate storm, so we were able to get some work done,” Billig said. “One positive is that we had no COVID transmission in the legislature all year.”

As the co-owner of the Spokane Indians Baseball Club, Billig said it proved insightful for him to experience the pandemic and recovery through the lens of a legislator with the perspective of a business owner.

“I can really understand what business owners went through because our business was shut down for a year. That was an entire year with no revenue,” Billig said. “We wanted to come back and be open, but we had huge concerns that our employees or fans would get sick. And it was hard to find staff.”

In hindsight, Billig said being a business owner added a different and valuable perspective to his pandemic decision-making.

“We had to make sure we did everything we could to help keep businesses stay alive,” Billig said. “There were hundreds of millions of dollars in business support grants. We waived some liquor license fees to help the hospitality industry, and we made some adjustments to unemployment insurance tax, so the businesses hit hardest by the pandemic didn’t also take the biggest hit there.”

For many, the pandemic worked like a big reset button: isolated at home, away from work and colleagues and ingrained workday habits, people suddenly had time to assess their lives.

Billig said the pandemic exposed what he calls cracks in society: we have a childcare crisis, not everyone has access to the healthcare they need and some workers are simply not going back to work.

“We knew we had a childcare crisis even before the pandemic – now we have to really focus on fixing that,” Billig said. “For a variety of reasons, the workforce has not come back as strongly as we had hoped for. We have got to make sure the labor market is robust because workers are the engines of our economy.” Those are just some of his top priorities.

The pandemic didn’t make it more difficult to get things accomplished in Olympia. Billig said people have this idea that there is all this fighting going on in the legislature all the time.

“We actually collaborate and agree and do bi-partisan work all the time, but that doesn’t always make the news,” Billig said. “Early on I would say there was an unusual coming together, there was a high level of collaboration that really helped our state.”

The remote session forced the legislature to have remote hearings – meaning that people could testify in Olympia without leaving Spokane.

“That is something Senator Padden and I worked on pulling together for years, to make it easier for people in Eastern Washington to testify,” Billig said. “It worked really well, so we plan on keeping that.”

For the Third Legislative District, Billig’s priorities are very clear: focus on infrastructure, education, and access to healthcare.

“Infrastructure includes broadband. We learned from the pandemic how vital access to a fast internet connection is,” Billig said.

Overall, he’s optimistic about pandemic recovery and the future.

“I am so proud of our state. We have come out of the pandemic as one of the healthiest and most resilient states in the country – that is something to be very proud of,” Billig said.

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