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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington to receive billions of dollars from federal stimulus package for schools, child care, local governments

By Adam Shanks and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Washington state is set to receive billions of dollars as part of Congress’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, with aid going to schools, child care, state and local governments, and more.

Congress passed the American Rescue Plan on Wednesday, and President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday. The package sends $350 billion to state and local governments, $1,400 stimulus payments to most Americans, a monthly tax credit for families with children and billions more funding for vaccinations, schools, unemployment benefits and more.

Washington will receive $7.1 billion for state and local governments as well as an additional $635 million for child care, almost $1.9 billion for K-12 schools and $655 million for higher education, according to the House Committee on Education and Labor.

While local and state governments can expect large sums of money soon, how exactly the funds can be used depends greatly on the federal government’s guidelines.

Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Thursday he was “delighted” with the additional funds headed to the state, but his staff was still looking at the numbers to determine exactly what kind of relief the state will get.

There are a lot of needs, he said, and he plans to work with the Legislature to determine how to allocate the funds.

“We’ll distribute it at the right time,” Inslee said.

Of the $7.1 billion, the state government will receive $4.25 billion, a large infusion that comes as legislators begin to write the budget for the next two years. The remainder will be split among local governments and some capital projects.

Spokane County is expected to receive $101.39 million, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The city of Spokane will receive an additional $84 million while Spokane Valley is set to receive $22 million.

Idaho will get nearly $1.9 billion for state and local governments as well as an additional $226 million for child care, almost $440 million for K-12 and more than $203 million for higher education. Kootenai County will receive about $32 million, and Coeur d’Alene will receive about $8.46 million.

The package also extends pandemic unemployment programs and continues the $300 a week federal boost to benefits through Sept. 4. The Washington State Employment Security Department said Wednesday it does not expect a gap in any benefits.

Many unknowns as state lawmakers prepare budget

For state lawmakers, the biggest question is how these funds can be used. Most of it will have strict federal guidelines, similar to what the state faced in the December stimulus package.

When the state passed the $2.2 billion allocation package in February, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said he wanted to see more flexibility in how the federal money could be used in any future stimulus packages.

But how flexible the guidance is this time around is still unclear.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday that some of the federal money may be doled out sooner across the state if the guidance is clear.

“The important part is getting the guidelines,” he said, adding that as quickly as the state gets them, lawmakers will work to get the money out.

How exactly the funds will affect the state’s budget for the next two years also remains to be seen. House and Senate budget teams won’t finalize their budget proposals until the revenue forecast next week, when lawmakers will have a clearer idea of how much revenue the state will have in the coming years.

The addition of these federal funds could mean those budget proposals will come out a little later than normal, Sullivan said.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the Legislature knew the federal funds were coming, just not sure when, so they are prepared to handle it. The Senate built extra time into its session calendar to allow for more work on the budget, he said.

Republicans have said the state doesn’t need additional taxes with the significant amount of federal funds and a likely boost in revenue, but Democrats have said they don’t want to do the bare minimum when building back post-pandemic.

“The pandemic has exposed a lot of the cracks in our society, and I think there’s a greater interest in making investments to not just get by, but to actually make our communities better by investing,” Billig said.

Lawmakers have already made some decisions on how to use certain federal funds, such as the $635 million dedicated to child care. House and Senate Democrats have proposed sweeping child care legislation to increase subsidy rates and support for providers through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

The federal funds are short-term, one-time-only funding, Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, said, but they can help fund child care priorities through the next year or two.

Officials await guidance for how to use money

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the council is in negotiations with the administration over the “process and principles” that will be used to spend the approximately $84.4 million the city is slated to receive.

“It is a very good problem to have,” Beggs wrote in a text message.

Beggs said he expects fewer restrictions to be placed on the new round of funding. It’s also expected to be provided in two, upfront lump sums, not on a reimbursement basis akin to last year.

The city was awarded $9.9 million through the CARES Act in 2020. After the 37% of that funding that covered the city’s internal COVID-19 response costs, the city predominantly distributed the rest to businesses, nonprofits, child care centers and rental assistance programs.

“I think we’re going to be informed by that process, but I expect given the amount of money, we’re going to expand it to include more public engagement,” Beggs said.

The nearly $400,000 destined for Millwood, population 1,629, pales in comparison to the funding awarded to larger cities like Spokane. But it’s not a small sum “in any shape or form,” said Mayor Kevin Freeman.

“Until we see what the restrictions are on this, we’re not going to be able to really get our arms around that,” Freeman 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.