Austin Jenkins | KNKX

Austin Jenkins

Olympia Correspondent

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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A proposal to impose sweeping restrictions on police tactics and techniques in Washington is highlighting stark differences of opinion between police and reform groups.

Capitol dome in Olympia in January 2020.
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

The Washington Legislature approved rules to allow lawmakers to meet remotely because of the pandemic. The in-person votes Monday in Olympia happened under tight security with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.

The State Patrol and the Washington National Guard line the perimeter of the state Capitol in Olympia on Monday.
Casey Martin / KUOW

Updated at 4:10 p.m.: We are keeping an eye on the Capitol in Olympia today as lawmakers convene for the 2021 legislative session. While the focus inside will be on voting whether to meet virtually for this session, the focus outside will be on safety.

Amid the ongoing pandemic and threats by far-right protesters to "occupy" the Capitol, Washington lawmakers will convene Monday for what will ultimately be a mostly remote 2021 session with a focus on the ongoing response to COVID-19, police reform, addressing climate change and writing a two-year state budget.

As he prepares to begin a third term in office, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is proposing a new tax on health care premiums to fund post-pandemic public health. He’s also once again urging the Legislature to pass a capital gains tax.

The tax measures are contained in Inslee’s two-year, $57.6 billion operating budget proposal released Thursday in advance of the 2021 Legislative session. Separately, the Democratic governor also released proposed capital construction and transportation budgets.

For the second Saturday in a row, a gun was fired as groups of protesters from opposing ends of the political spectrum clashed in Olympia.

At Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, nurses with desk jobs are being told to prepare to come back to the front lines, and elective surgeries and procedures are once again being put on hold.

The desperate measures come amidst an ongoing spike in coronavirus cases in the community and as the hospital prepares for a post-Thanksgiving surge of COVID-19 patients.

“Unfortunately, I think within the next week it’s going to be a significant rise in COVID-19,” said Dr. Kevin Caserta, the chief medical officer for Providence SW Washington.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in Washington foster youth spending more nights in hotel rooms while overall reports of child abuse and neglect have declined precipitously. Those are among the pandemic-related findings of an annual report from the state’s Office of the Family and Children's Ombuds (OFCO) released Monday. 

The director of public health in the third most populous county in the United States will be Washington's next secretary of health. 

Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced the appointment of Dr. Umair A. Shah to lead the state Department of Health beginning on December 21.

Since 2013, Shah has been executive director of Harris County Public Health in Houston, Texas. He will replace outgoing Secretary John Wiesman who has served in the position since 2013. Previously, Wiesman announced his plan to leave the post at the end of the year to take a teaching job in North Carolina. 

Washington Republicans say the Legislature should immediately meet in special session to address the economic fallout from Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest Covid-19 orders – and even consider tapping the state’s “rainy day” fund.

Under Inslee's orders, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums will once again have to close. Also, restaurants and bars will have to cease offering indoor dining service and limit outdoor dining to five people per table. Many other businesses will also be affected. The new rules will remain in effect for at least the next four weeks. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has scheduled an unusual Sunday news conference to announce new restrictions to combat what his office calls "the rapid and alarming rise of Covid in our state."

Previously, Inslee's office had said an announcement would be forthcoming as early as Monday.

On a recent rainy morning, a long line of cars snaked around the block at Providence Southwest Washington’s drive-through testing site near Olympia.

“I’m in awe,” said Irene Wood who sat at the wheel of her Prius, mask on, having just been tested. “It’s awful and it’s amazing there’s this many people being tested.”

This was Wood’s second trip to the testing site in a week. Her first test came back negative. But then she hugged her daughter who had previously tested positive.

Predictions of a possible “Blue Wave” in Washington state did not materialize last week, despite President Trump’s unpopularity among the electorate. As of Monday, he had received just under 39 percent of the vote to President-elect Joe Biden’s 58 percent.

Initially, it looked like Democrats might be poised to pick up several legislative seats and further pad their healthy majorities in both the Washington House and Senate. But as later-arriving ballots have been counted, the advantage has swung the other way giving Republicans the edge in several tight races.

Despite intense interest in the 2020 election, and a ballot return rate that's already over 60 percent, voter registrations in Washington have lagged this year, compared to four years ago.

According to figures provided by the Secretary of State’s office, 513,000 people registered to vote in Washington prior to the 2016 election. So far this year, this state has seen approximately 440,000 new registrants, a 14 percent drop compared to four years ago. However, the last two months have shown something of a rebound.

In the battleground states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania legal battles have raged over whether postmarked ballots that arrive via mail after Election Day will be counted. In other states, like Wisconsin, it’s already been decided -- they won’t.

Meanwhile in Washington -- a non-battleground state -- ballots that arrive up to 20 days after the election, or by November 23, will still count, so long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day.

That’s been the long-standing rule in Washington going back decades.

State and local election officials in Washington sought to reassure voters Monday that robust security measures are in place to protect against interference with the general election, even as they acknowledged the likelihood that bad actors will try to sow distrust and undermine confidence in the national election results.

Coronavirus cases are spiking. A major election is looming. And Washington’s legislative session is still two months away. But Washington’s beer lobby has a message for top elected officials that apparently can't wait.

State and local election officials in Washington said Thursday that election systems here are secure and haven’t been hacked. Those assurances follow multiple reports in recent days of efforts by foreign actors to interfere with the upcoming national election.

In a year that seems all about the presidential election, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening down the ballot. In Washington, all nine statewide elected positions are up this year. But some of the fiercest action, and biggest spending, is happening in state legislative races.

For context, Democrats currently hold strong majorities in both the Washington House (57 to 41) and Senate (28 to 21 -- the 21st is a Democrat who votes with Republicans).

From Clark County to Whatcom County, from Puyallup to the heart of Seattle, only a handful of the 124 legislative contests are fiercely competitive. Some feature one Republican and one Democrat. Others are intra-party contests.

We aren’t going to get to them all. Instead, here’s a quick guide to six of the hottest statehouse contests across the state.

Note: the campaign finance numbers below were current as of October 22. For the latest numbers click here and sort by money raised or spent. 

Washington’s race for governor is a lopsided, yet surprisingly fiery contest this year. It pits incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee against Republican Loren Culp, a first-time candidate. Inslee is seeking a rare third term while Culp is trying to pull off the upset of the century.

For more than half a century, Republicans have had a lock on Washington’s Secretary of State’s office. This year, Democrats hope to end that five decade run by unseating incumbent Kim Wyman who’s seeking a third term.

Democrats feel they have the political winds at their back and an unusually strong challenger in Gael Tarleton, a state lawmaker and former Port of Seattle commissioner who once worked as a defense intelligence analyst for the Pentagon.

Republicans, meanwhile, are counting on a long history of ticket-splitting by Washington voters who might repudiate President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, but be willing to support a veteran elections official and familiar state Republican further down the ballot.

Outgoing Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib is on unpaid leave attending Jesuit training in California and does not plan to return to his office before his term is up in January, according to his office and the office of Gov. Jay Inslee.

In a statement Tuesday to the public radio Northwest News Network and the Associated Press, the executive director of the lieutenant governor's office, Kristina Brown, said Habib, a Democrat, began his leave on Sept. 1 and notified both Inslee and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig at that time.

“Give me three terms” might be the motto of Washington’s November election. Gov. Jay Inslee, Secretary of State Kim Wyman and Attorney General Bob Ferguson are all seeking a third, four-year term this year.

Not to be outdone, State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler is going for a sixth round.

Yes, long-term incumbents hoping to go even longer is a definite theme this year.

But the statewide ballot also features some newcomers, some higher office seekers and even a congressman who wants a one-way ticket back to the state Capitol.

Former Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to formally review his federal convictions for possession of stolen funds, filing false tax returns and making false statements.

The move comes after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month denied Kelley’s request for a rehearing of his case by all of the judges on that court. Previously, a three-judge panel rejected Kelley’s appeal seeking to overturn his convictions.

As President Donald Trump intensifies his attacks on the security of vote-by-mail, county auditors and state election officials sought Friday to reassure voters the state of Washington is well prepared to pull off the 2020 vote-by-mail election.

However, those reassurances were also tempered by ongoing concerns about the United States Postal Service’s capacity to deliver and process ballots in a timely manner.

Last May, opponents of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay home order staged a “Hazardous Liberty” rally on the campus of the Washington Capitol. Guns outnumbered masks as speaker after speaker – mostly Republican officeholders and candidates – decried Inslee’s response to the pandemic as monarchical and an assault on individual freedom.

The sign–and-flag-waving crowd cheered the speakers as they lambasted Inslee. But one speaker in particular seemed to have attained a kind of celebrity status among many in the crowd.   

“I think you know who’s coming, doncha,” boomed the emcee. “No introduction needed: Sheriff Loren Culp.”

It was common through the 1800s for American school children to attend a one-room schoolhouse. In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Swanson family in rural north Olympia will attend a one-garage schoolhouse.

On a recent morning, Molly Swanson rolled up her garage door and welcomed a visitor into the classroom she and her husband created this summer as a place to educate four of their six children, plus two foster children.

In February, Tiffany Krueger and her business partner Joanna Sather fulfilled their dream of opening a small training gym focused on serving women in the Olympia area. Athena Fitness and Wellness offered large group workout classes, small group training, a Himalayan Salt room, a sauna and even child care.

And then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“I think it’s like the worst timing ever,” Krueger said in a recent interview.

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