Shift’s Newsmaker Interview is a pre-session discussion on the issues facing the Washington State Legislature with Republican Senate Leader John Braun of Centralia. Senator Braun was first elected to the Senate in 2012 and was voted GOP caucus leader prior to the start of the 2021 legislative session. The upcoming 2023 session will be the first time Senator Braun will lead his caucus without COVID restrictions placed on legislative activity and public participation.
In his in-depth interview, Senator Braun provides his thoughts on a wide assortment of issues. He states his belief that the return of public participation in the legislative process should deliver better policies. Sen. Braun provides his thoughts on whether Democrats are willing to reverse their disastrous policies on restricting police pursuits and essentially decriminalizing possession of lethal drugs. The U.S. Navy veteran and captain in the Naval Reserves also shares his thoughts on Washington students learning loss due to the liberals’ COVID restrictions, emergency powers reform, implementation of the Democrats’ long-term care payroll tax (WACares), and the Democrats’ latest proposal to take money from state residents – the “Washington Future Fund.”
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Unfortunately, national trends kept Republicans from making gains in the Washington Legislature during the 2022 elections. In the past two sessions the Democrats have used the COVID pandemic as an excuse to not hold public hearings on Republican measures. With the Democrats keeping control of the state Senate, do you have any sense if they will continue to suppress opposing viewpoints?
A reporter recently asked the Senate majority leader if Democrats have talked about changing procedures to allow more legislation to pass, or limit debate, or limit amendments. That’s an unusual question for Olympia. Senator Billig denied it, but the fact that the subject even came up makes you wonder if something has been discussed behind closed doors.
There’s no question remote testimony made it even easier for committee chairs to limit public input on bills these past two sessions. They have been given the option of conducting meetings remotely in 2023, so let’s see if things are handled more evenly. I have encouraged our Democratic colleagues to rethink the firm time limits that visibly stifled public input during the ’21 and ‘22 sessions. Chairs should consider allowing more latitude for testimony from people whose insight could be particularly informative.
Let’s remember the Democrats passed their unconstitutional state income tax and their costly and controversial climate bills while there was literally a fence around the Capitol. The same was true for the pro-criminal bills that have made our communities less safe. This past session, the fence was gone but public access to the Senate chamber and senators’ offices was still prohibited. That does not produce better policy. I can think of legislation, like Senator Honeyford’s bills to combat pot-shop thefts and save people from unknowingly taking fentanyl, that might have passed if the people affected had been able to come to the Capitol and help Democrats grasp why those bills were important and could not wait.
Senate Republicans believe a majority of Washingtonians are concerned about public safety, affordability and education, which are our priorities for the upcoming session. I look forward to seeing the people return to the “people’s house” and will welcome hearing from them directly about our solutions.
Local law enforcement and elected officials have been calling for the legislature to reverse the Democrats’ 2021 legislation which restricts police pursuits. Many Democrats during the campaign attempted to moderate their previous views on their disastrous anti-police package. Is there any hope that that enough Democrats will join Republicans to allow police to pursue suspected criminals?
It depends on whether those Democrats were sincere in moderating their views or just doing a timely bit of damage control. At a recent news conference the chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee wondered out loud whether there is truly a problem with the pursuit restrictions for legislators to fix. That is not encouraging. She also seemed unconcerned that the restrictions are allowing so many more criminals to flee, because she’s heard they get caught sooner or later. Is that supposed to make the victims feel better? The other side talks a lot about equity, yet seems more focused on the rights of criminals than equity for the victims.
Local police are also asking the legislature to fix the Blake decision by making it illegal to possess such harmful drugs as fentanyl, methamphetamines, and heroin. Do you believe this could happen in the 2023 session? What is the Republican proposal on this issue?
Possessing hard drugs is still against the law, but the Democrats’ “fix” for the Blake ruling clearly created a path to decriminalization. They made it so possession, which was a felony before the court ruling, is not even a misdemeanor until the third offense. The first and second offenses get a referral for treatment with no incentive to participate.
The outcome of this is easy to see. Over the 12 months ending in May, the CDC had fatal ODs in Washington rising at three times the rate of the nation as a whole. In King County, fatal ODs for this year had surpassed the 2021 total by November 1. Fentanyl and meth deaths were already an all-time high. King County’s numbers are a pretty accurate predictor of statewide numbers, and they suggest our state will see a record 3,000 deaths by OD in 2022. That would make drug-overdose deaths the leading cause of death for Washingtonians under age 60 – more than cancer, heart disease, COVID, traffic accidents, or any other cause.
In the face of Republican opposition, the Democrats agreed their law would expire in two years. That ensures something will happen in the 2023 session. The question is whether they will finally acknowledge what police and Republicans already say: Most people simply will not seek drug treatment unless they are compelled. There’s a reason drug courts were effective. I expect we will offer more than one proposal, with a common goal: Create the leverage needed to get people into treatment, or they will die.
What should the legislature do to help students who have fallen behind during the prolonged shutdown of our state’s public schools?
No one can deny the prolonged shutdown resulted in substantial learning loss among Washington students. This year’s National Association for Educational Progress test had 39% of Washington fourth-graders and 29% of eighth-graders “below basic” in reading. In math that label applied to 26% of our fourth-graders and 36% of eighth-graders. No parent wants their child to be the one in three who is below basic.
The Legislature simply must deal with the learning loss, whether that means summer school or extra instruction or some other approach to recovery. It clearly falls under our constitutional duty to provide for education. Beyond that, the racial and economic disparities caused by remote instruction are the equity issue of our time. Ideas for learning recovery may not go over well with some in the educator community, but our students deserve better than they got. I am confident their parents would agree.
Beyond the learning loss, and speaking of the Legislature’s paramount duty: For all their talk about supporting education, Democrats cut funding for schools this year. The supplemental budget approved in 2022 has less for K-12 than the underlying budget approved in 2021. K-12 funding had climbed to more than 50% of the operating budget when Republicans led the Senate. It has slipped since one-party rule returned to Olympia, to just above 43%. I hope this is not the majority’s strategy for pursuing a second lift of the “lid” on local school-levy rates.
After an unprecedented 975 days of abusing emergency powers, the governor finally ended the emergency declaration just before the election. With that behind us, is there any reason to believe the Democrats will finally agree to some serious reform of emergency powers?
I expect Republicans will again put serious reforms on the table. Now that the emergency declaration is history, maybe the Democrats will be less afraid to give those ideas a committee hearing, which neither of our bills received in 2021 or 2022. That said, there’s no sense Governor Inslee is open to changes in law that could hinder his return to one-person rule. Legislative Democrats would have to display a level of courage we didn’t see over those 975 days.
The state’s Long-Term Care Plan (WACares) appears to be on schedule to begin in July. Will there be any additional changes to the plan, and will workers have another chance to opt out of state coverage? What changes are Republicans pushing?
The Democrats have not tipped their hand on the future of WACares. Considering how many workers opted out when they had the chance, no one should expect that door to be opened again. Delaying the collection of the tax kept it from becoming a significant election issue, and the Democrats probably hope their taxpayer-funded marketing campaign has changed some minds. I wouldn’t count on that.
Republicans recognize the benefits and peace of mind that having long-term coverage can provide. It’s an issue that deserves legislative attention. We simply do not believe government should force people to buy long-term coverage. Let’s repeal this program, which destroyed the private market for long-term insurance in our state, and instead pursue policies that would attract more private carriers to Washington. Encouraging competition is the better path to accessible and affordable coverage.
Finally, many Washington residents are just now hearing about the Washington Future Fund, the latest government program some want to impose. What are your thoughts on this program?
It’s amazing how Democrats keep coming up with ways to take more money from people. These so-called “baby bonds” are apparently viewed as giving future generations of low-income residents a path toward buying a home, pursuing education or launching a small business. Those are worthy goals, but there are other steps that Legislature can take to make housing and homeownership more affordable, increase access to education, and deal with the costs and regulations that discourage business startups. Those are actions we should be taking anyway.
For more information on Senator Braun and to contact his office, please visit his official website.