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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Our work is not finished’: Washington lawmakers propose $2.2 billion for early action COVID-19 relief

The Washington Capitol building.  (Rachel La Corte)

OLYMPIA – State legislators have released their first plans for COVID-19 relief, an early action effort they hope will bring assistance to businesses and families within the next few weeks.

House and Senate Democrats released a $2.2 billion proposal that would provide business assistance grants, school assistance and rental assistance, as well as fund vaccine administration, COVID-19 testing, and business and operation tax relief to businesses that received a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Most of that comes from federal stimulus funds that the state has received.

The early action includes two House bills and two Senate bills that are tentatively scheduled for committee hearings in the next two weeks. Lawmakers still have to pass a budget for the next biennium that will also likely address longterm COVID-related funding.

“This is Step 1 in a multistep process,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, told the Spokesman-Review.

Lawmakers in both parties want to pass relief quickly, as it was a priority for both party leadership, as well as Gov. Jay Inslee, before the session began. But they don’t entirely agree on how to get there.

Democrats, who released their allocation plan on Friday, want to spend nearly $2.2 billion of the state’s federal stimulus funds. It includes the following:

  • $618 million for COVID-19 vaccine administration, contact tracing and testing.
  • $365 million for rental assistance.
  • $668 million for school assistance.
  • $240 million for business assistance grants.
  • $70 million for immigrant assistance.
  • $26 million for food assistance.
  • $50 million for childcare grants.

“Responding to the COVID-19 crisis was the No. 1 priority for lawmakers,” Ormsby said.

The $365 million for rental assistance will go to landlords who can use it to help renters who have applied for assistance through the Department of Commerce. Ormsby said it’s a start, but it “doesn’t even come close to wiping the slate clean for what’s owed in rent and utilities.”

The school assistance will provide immediate cash to school districts, Ormsby said, and it’s relatively flexible on how they can use it.

Senate Ways and Means Committee chair Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said much of the priorities for how to use the money were laid out in the federal guidelines. Some of the money will also build on funds that went out in December for business grants and immigrant relief.

“Those were tapped out quickly,” she told the Spokesman-Review.

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, also released a plan in recent days that would allocate $2.1 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund and $1.8 billion from federal aid. While Stokesbary said he has many of the same priorities as Democrats, he called their version “a little more timid and status quo-oriented.”

Stokesbary’s plan would include the following:

  • $506 million for COVID-19 vaccine administration, contact tracing and testing.
  • $600 million for rental assistance.
  • $250 million for business assistance grants.
  • $1.5 billion to support school assistance and reopening plan.
  • $300 per student for families who qualify for free or reduced lunch, totaling $160 million.

“I consider mine to be big and bold and urgent,” he told the Spokesman-Review.

Both parties want to hurry and get federal money out the door, said Stokesbary, whose plan also uses more of the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

“It’s hard to imagine a rainier day than what people have been experiencing in the last six to 10 months,” Stokesbary said.

Ormsby said legislators discussed using the Rainy Day Fund at length, but because there is still so much uncertainty surrounding the economy, Democrats wanted to preserve it as much as possible. Since federal money was readily available, that was easier to allocate.

Ormsby said the Democrats’ bill will be put on a “fast track” and will tentatively be heard in the next week in his committee, with the hope it will be voted out of committee on Thursday. He said he has not scheduled a hearing for Stokesbary’s bill but there will be an opportunity for Republicans to offer amendments and discussion in committee.

Rolfes said the Senate’s companion bills are tentatively scheduled in her committee the week after.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the relief package addresses the Legislature’s three-pronged approach to fighting the pandemic: prevention, relief and recovery.

“But let me be clear – this is not the end,” Billig said in a statement. “Our work is not finished until the virus is gone and Washington’s economic recovery is complete.”

One portion of both plans already passed through the House on Friday: a bill that would provide temporary tax relief on government-funded grants received on Feb. 29, 2020, or later. A business and occupation tax, a public utilities tax or a retail sales tax could be exempt on government-funded grants used to lessen the effect of a national emergency, such as the Paycheck Protection Loan program that many businesses have used during the pandemic.

The bill passed unanimously through the House.

Another relief-related bill would expand unemployment insurance benefits and lessen the amount of taxes businesses have to pay to the state. The bill passed through a Senate committee and is awaiting a full vote, likely to come in the next week.

There’s still hope that Congress will pass another stimulus package that the state could use to allocate even more relief. Democrats have said they are hopeful with the Biden administration that they will see more relief in a new package, whether that be for schools trying to reopen or in stimulus checks for residents.

“One of the best ways President Biden can bring the country together is by delivering on promises he makes and by doing things that help our country be physically healthy and safe again,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, of Tacoma, told reporters Monday.

Ormsby said his hope in the next federal stimulus package is that there is more flexibility in how the money can be used, including the ability to replace loss of revenue at the city, county or state level.

In a Tuesday media availability, Stokesbary criticized Democrat leaders in the state for waiting to provide relief “that’s needed yesterday because we’re hoping the feds might come to our rescue tomorrow.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, said his hope for a new federal stimulus package is that the money is used to “effectively rebuild the economy.” Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, echoed this thought.

“We need to make sure those investments are tied to things that make a difference and really do help the economy,” she said.

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.