Freshman legislator Peter Abbarno has frustrations with Gov. Jay Inslee’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When taking questions from constituents during a virtual town hall meeting Thursday night, the Republican member of the Washington State House of Representatives from Centralia touched on a number of aspects of the pandemic and the state’s response in his first wide scale public outreach as an elected member of state government.
“Most of us would agree that when COVID-19 hit … the governor made quick decisions (and) we followed those quick decisions because we wanted to learn more about what was going on and how to best address (the pandemic,)” Abbarno said, “But as time went on, we learned more and more about maybe there were different ways to address these issues.”
Abbarno, an attorney and former member of Centralia City Council, said Gov. Jay Inslee’s use of emergency powers had been in discussion since the past summer, around the time of Inslee’s first extensions of orders made at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abbarno said he was in favor of giving the executive branch enough latitude to make quick decisions, but also making sure that checks and balances were in place to keep from long-term policy becoming something unilaterally decided. He pointed to a bill from his Republican colleague in the 19th Legislative District, Jim Walsh, which recently had its committee hearing. He said the bill would require executive orders to use the “least-restrictive means,” allowing for greater judicial review and limiting orders to 30 days.
“It’s really not a partisan issue as much as it is about power, and separation of powers between the legislative branch and the executive branch,” Abbarno said.
Abbarno said that his freshman legislative session was “unique, to say the least,” both for himself and the rest of the lawmakers in Olympia. The session has been conducted remotely as a precaution for the ongoing pandemic, which he said for passive observers has been beneficial, as virtual proceedings lent themselves to greater access.
Abbarno said that active participation, however, has been “wonky and slow,” noting committee meetings where only a fraction of individuals signed up to testify had been able to deliver their statements.
“For passive participation, to stay on top of what’s going on in the legislature, I think it’s been great … but if you’re actively trying to talk about legislation and you want to testify, it’s really difficult,” Abbarno said.
Abbarno also touched on schools returning to in-person instruction, noting his wife is a teacher. He remarked that he had hoped teachers would have been higher up in priority for COVID-19 vaccinations for the state’s rollout of doses.
In general, Abbarno was in favor of a greater return to in-person instruction.
“It seems like based on the science and data and transmission rates regarding children that this would be one of the safest and first things that we would try to address and bring back to normalcy,” Abbarno said.
Abbarno said that impacts ranged from the learning gap from students working in a remote setting to those facing behavioral health issues due to being isolated for a prolonged period of time. The mental health impacts of restrictions in place were something he said would be dealt with beyond the current legislative biennium, not just for youth but across the board in Washington state.
“You have parents, students, children, business owners, all in some sort of crisis mode, and we need to deal with it,” Abbarno said.
Abbarno said that for whatever legislation comes through, he would support bills that give local control over how any mental health-oriented aid was distributed. He said greater centralization of healthcare in Washington was a mistake, explaining that “if you really want to deal with behavioral health and mental health, it needs to get driven down into the communities, so that the true stakeholders in that community have control (over) how it’s distributed and coordinated.”
“It’s not just about government money. It should be about ‘how do we best treat those folks in crisis with government money, with social services, with faith-based communities,’” Abbarno said. “We have to work together on it.”
A Focus on Infrastructure
Regarding his own legislation, Abbarno has already had movement on the first bill he has introduced, which deals with funding infrastructure projects. House Bill 1263 was approved by the House Community and Economic Development Committee Feb. 6, and has a hearing scheduled for the House Capital Budget Committee Feb. 17.
Chief among the bill’s impacts is the creation of a grant program for local governments — which Abbarno said would not be funded through a new tax — that was intended to be more coordinated for larger projects undertaken by the applicants.
Abbarno said his bill would help with coordination of different components of infrastructure construction, following a “dig once” philosophy that the lawmaker has championed.
“When you’re opening up the ground to put in infrastructure, you should be coordinating with all the agencies. It saves money; it creates efficiencies,” Abbarno said. The bill focuses on grants for baseline infrastructure such as sewer and water, though he said it added broadband and power transmission as well.
Abbarno said that the projects the grant would fund were fundamental in the realization of goals many local governments have in their development.
“We can talk about housing inventory, we can talk about job creation, we can talk about broadband — that’s secondary; that’s phase two and three,” Abbarno said, adding that none of those developments were possible without the appropriate infrastructure in place.
“Right now, a lot of these (existing) grant programs are small, so I feel like we never get anything done,” Abbarno said, explaining his bill intended to see projects completed “from start to finish.”