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Legislature adjourns after adding $200 million for coronavirus fight

OLYMPIA – As the sun set behind the domed Legislative Buidling on the Capitol Campus, the legislators were moving to adjourn the 2020 session. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – With the threat of a growing novel coronavirus outbreak hanging over Washington, the Legislature ended its 2020 session by pulling $175 million from its reserve account for state and local agencies to fight the disease and another $25 million for businesses hurt by its economic fallout.

Lawmakers passed a supplemental operating budget that recognizes a possible economic downturn in the Washington economy might result in less tax revenue coming into the state. They left the state’s main budget with an $860 million “cushion” – not spending that much of the tax revenue projected in the February forecast before the outbreak started.

But they did increase overall spending in the biennial budget passed last April by about $1 billion, adding money to programs to address homelessness, boost public health, suppress wildfires, improve child care and increase mental health counselors in schools.

The COVID-19 outbreak “drastically altered the course of the budget … as well as the trajectory of many of our lives,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

Agencies that monitor state finances give Washington a high rating for being able to withstand a recession, Rolfes said. “We’re about to put that rating to the test.”

Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, the top Republican on that committee, called the budget a “mixed bag,” with good investments in public health, higher rates for Medicaid and more money for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and state parks. But it calls for the state to spend 20 percent more than the previous two-year budget and “a billion extra is still a lot of money,” he said.

The operating budget passed the House and Senate on partisan votes, but there was no such split on separate legislation to draw $175 million from the state’s reserve account to help cover some of the expenses of fighting and recovering from the COVID-19 outbreak.

That bill has provisions to provide as much as $25 million in aid to businesses that have to shut down because of the outbreak, and to allow the state Board of Education to grant emergency waivers to high school seniors who won’t meet certain graduation requirements if their schools are closed for extended periods.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered public and private schools in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties closed, and said school districts in other parts of the state should prepare for closures.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, called the emergency aid bill one of the most important of the session.

“We certainly don’t know what’s ahead,” Billig said. “We are going to pull through this as a state and a country.”

If not all of the money is spent, it will go back into the reserve account.

The bill passed unanimously in both chambers.

COVID-19 was much on the minds of legislators as they brought their 60-day session to a close. Most years the final day ends around midnight. This year they were done at 8:15 p.m., and the House of Representatives skipped the traditional closing ceremony in which friends, family members and the general public are invited onto the House floor to see the final gavel drop.

House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean said they restricted access to the chamber “out of an abundance of caution” and encouraged people to watch the closing ceremony on television.

After the Legislature adjourned, Inslee said he was pleased with the actions lawmakers took to fight homelessness and address problems with transportation funding. He said he’d remove the pause on new construction on highway projects in response to the supplemental transportation budget passed Wednesday.

As for the emergency money appropriated for coronavirus, Inslee said his office has not made any decisions on how to allocate the funds.

“There’s just a vast disturbance in the economy,” Inslee said at a post-adjournment news conference. “We’re going to protect life as long as we need to.”