OLYMPIA – Relief is likely on the way soon to Washington families and businesses, pending Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature, after the state Senate passed a $2.2 billion COVID-19 funding package Wednesday.
The package, which passed 47-2 in the Senate, will allocate $2.2 billion of the state’s federal stimulus fund to schools, businesses, renters and others.
While the bill passed with bipartisan support, Republicans criticized the bill for not doing enough to provide relief. Republican Senators Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley, and Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, voted against the bill. Democrats said the bill is the first of many and more relief will likely come throughout the session and in the final budget, to be passed by the Legislature in April.
“This bill is not going to solve all our problems,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “It’s a strategic first step.”
What’s in the package
Most of the money had allocation guidelines from the federal government and will go toward programs created with the first round of federal money last year. Here’s how it breaks down:
- $714 million for school assistance, including $46 million for private schools
- $618 million for public health
- $365 million for housing, including rental assistance
- $240 million for business assistance
- $91 million for other income assistance, such as immigration services and food assistance
- $50 million for childcare grants
- $26 million for food assistance grants for hunger relief organizations
The funds for schools must be used for costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also requires school districts to submit updated reopening plans to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction by March 1, although it does not necessarily require that they must resume all in-person learning.
The public health allocation includes $68 million for vaccine distribution, $100 million for epidemiology and laboratory grants and $438 million for testing and contact tracing. This money will go into a newly recreated COVID-19 Public Health Response Account.
The bill appropriates $240 million for small business grants through the Department of Commerce’s Working Washington Grant program. Of that, $150 million is specifically for businesses to continue their operations during the pandemic. To be eligible, businesses must have experienced a reduction in business income or activity due to the pandemic and agree to operate within public health guidance moving forward.
Most of the rental assistance will go toward landlords, who can use it to help renters who have applied for assistance grants through the Department of Commerce.
The remaining $90 million will help businesses that closed reopen. To be eligible, businesses have to demonstrate they temporarily closed as a result of the governor’s stay home order.
For child care assistance, $28 million will go to grants for licensed providers who serve children under the age of 14 and accept state subsidies for care, while $6 million will go toward providers who do not accept subsidies. Four million of the child care allocation will be used to incentivize providers to take new subsidized slots. A small portion of the allocation, about $600,000, will also go toward providers that fall into the Family, Friends and Neighbors category, a growing group of providers that aren’t licensed but provide child care in their communities.
The bill also appropriates $91 million for income assistance, including $65 million for immigration services, $12 million for disaster cash assistance, $9 million for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and $5 million for food assistance.
Lawmakers and Inslee made pandemic relief an early action priority this session. The Democrats’ early action package also includes a bill that expands access to unemployment insurance and reduces taxes for businesses, which Inslee signed Monday. It also includes a bill that would waive liquor license fees for businesses, which passed in the Senate and is awaiting committee votes in the House, and a bill that would exempt certain federal funds from being subject to business and operation taxes. That bill passed the Senate on Wednesday and is now headed to the governor’s desk.
Republicans push for amendments
Many Republicans had concerns that the bill wasn’t doing enough and brought eight amendments to the floor, pushing for more money for schools, a quicker reopening of the state and adding certain stipulations for vaccine prioritization.
One idea Republicans had for providing more relief would have been using the state’s Rainy Day Fund to provide more relief to Washington residents. Democrats have said they didn’t use the Rainy Day Fund yet because there is still uncertainty surrounding the economy in the coming months. This bill is simply allocating federal money that the state has already received, Rolfes said.
In Wednesday’s floor debate, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Whatcom County, said there was so much more the Legislature could’ve done earlier.
“Today’s action is not early,” Ericksen said. “Early action would’ve been a special session in May.”
Republicans attempted to attach an amendment to the bill that would have moved the entire state to Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan, the latest of their push to move the state to Phase 2. Democrats argued it was not relevant to the bill and should not even be debated while Republicans said its intent, similar to the bill, was to provide recovery to Washington.
“We need one policy, one plan for Washington State that will let the people know we’re looking out for their interests and not the interest of the governor,” sponsor Ericksen said of the reopening plan.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Wooley, said the amendment would have addressed the “root cause” of the economic problems the state is currently facing.
Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck decided Ericksen’s amendment did not change the scope of the bill, so it did not get a vote. A separate bill in the Senate, proposed by Republicans, would move the entire state to Phase 2. It is currently still in committee.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, proposed an amendment that would have required schools to reopen to in-person learning before receiving the entirety of their appropriated funds. The bill would have incentivized schools to reopen sooner, she said.
Padden spoke out in support of the amendment, pointing to schools in his district that he said have reopened safely. In-person learning is superior to distance learning, he said, and that’s what the state should be striving for.
“I just feel these students are getting cheated by not being able to have in-person learning,” he said.
Other amendments would have appropriated money to other areas than what the bill defines, such as for contact tracing in schools. Rolfes said the language in the bill was deliberate to follow strict federal guidelines with how to use the money.
“I can’t explain the federal formula that sent this money out, but I can explain that this is a federal formula that sends this money out,” Rolfes said. Any state money to be allocated will be done so in the budget, which the Legislature must pass by the end of the session in April.
None of the amendments passed, meaning the bill will head to the governor’s desk this week. Once he signs it, funds will begin to be allocated.