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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington House passes $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief package, heads to Senate this week

The Washington Capitol building is seen on the last day of the 60-day legislative session, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Olympia, Wash.  (Rachel La Corte)

OLYMPIA – A state COVID-19 relief bill that would allocate $2.2 billion in federal funds passed the House of Representatives on Monday, meaning some financial assistance is one step closer for businesses and families struggling because of the pandemic.

The proposal allocates the state’s federal stimulus fund to business assistance grants, school assistance, rental assistance, vaccine administration and COVID-19 testing. The early action was a priority for Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats and Republicans alike who want to get relief to Washington residents within the next few weeks.

“We’re not going to solve all of our state’s problems with this one bill, but it’s $2.2 billion that will go out quickly to help residents across this state in areas where they are really struggling,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, of Covington, said during the floor debate.

The plan, which passed 61-36, is considered the first step in economic recovery post-COVID. Lawmakers still have to pass a budget for the next biennium that will likely address longterm funding related to the pandemic.

After moving quickly through the House, the early relief will be heard in Senate committees this week and likely get a vote on the floor early next week.

The plan includes:

  • $714 million for school assistance, including $46 million for private schools
  • $618 million for public health, including $438 million for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing
  • $68 million for vaccines
  • $365 million for housing, including rental assistance
  • $240 million for business assistance grants
  • $65 million for immigration services
  • $5 million for food assistance
  • $50 million for child care assistance
  • $26 million for food assistance

“This is not prefect,” said House Appropriations Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane. “This is what we can do right now to take a first step toward eliminating the anxiety, the distress, the horror that this pandemic has brought to our state.”

Most of the money had strict allocation guidelines from the federal government, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, told The Spokesman-Review. Much of what’s allocated will build on programs that already exist and began with the first round of federal money last year.

Republicans also released a plan that would have provided more money for relief, using the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Rep. Drew Stokesbary, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said his plan was bigger and more urgent than the Democrats’ but acknowledged they had many of the same priorities.

Republicans argued this package doesn’t provide enough relief, adding it only uses federal funds when it could use state funds, such as the Rainy Day Fund.

“It’s not raining, Mr. Speaker,” Stokesbary said in his floor speech. “It’s pouring.”

Ormsby said Democrats did not choose to use the Rainy Day Fund yet because there is still so much uncertainty surrounding the economy in the coming months.

Republicans also introduced amendments that would’ve increased funding for child care centers, school assistance and employment insurance reimbursement.

“These amendments that are being offered tonight do more,” Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said. “They bring forth more to help immediately.”

Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, said the bill falls “very, very short” of what her constituents want.

“They want more, and they want it now,” she said.

None of the amendments passed. Sullivan said passing the amendments which would have increased the amount of money spent but could have slowed the passage of the bill. After the funding in the bill is allocated, $9 million in the state’s COVID-19 relief fund will be left.

Democrats, who hold the majority, argued many of the issues in the amendments will be addressed through bills later this session, and this package is just the first step.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.