COVID-19 response became legislative priority in Washington

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington lawmakers started this year’s legislative session focused on the state’s homelessness crisis and ended it 60 days later amid a global pandemic that led to them passing a supplemental budget with emergency funding for the state’s COVID-19 outbreak.

The last bill passed by the House before the Legislature adjourned Thursday night was a measure drawing $200 million from the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund, with $175 million going to the public health system and the remainder to a dedicated unemployment fund for businesses and workers affected by the new coronavirus.

While first proposing $5 million for coronavirus efforts in early plans introduced last month, that amount quickly jumped to $100 million, before doubling on the Legislature’s last day at the Capitol.

“The urgency of this is clear, the demand for action is clear and we’ll stretch this as far as we can and we’ll find some way to finance more if we have to,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said after the final gavels fell in both chambers.

There are more than 560 confirmed cases in the state, and given that there were thousands of people on the Capitol campus on any given day during the legislative session, lawmakers felt pressure to finish their work quickly. At least 37 people in the state have died, and the first COVID-19 case in Thurston County — where the Capitol is located — was confirmed the day before lawmakers adjourned. The person who tested positive works for the Department of Health in Tumwater and is in isolation at home.

The $53.4 billion supplemental budget approved by lawmakers still addresses the key priorities Democrats had said it would from the start, including homelessness, special education, health care, and state responses to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Lawmakers put an additional $160 million toward homelessness through mid-2021, to be spread among a variety of initiatives, including increasing shelter capacity, funding construction projects addressing affordable housing, and creating a pilot program for addressing the immediate housing needs of low-income elderly or disabled adults living in certain counties. Spending will also be used to help those at risk of becoming homeless.

About 10,000 people in the state are without shelter, and more than 11,000 live in temporary homeless housing, according to the most recent annual report from the state Department of Commerce.

Lawmakers passed a variety of other measures during the session, including one to collect statewide data on firearm violence and create a grant program for prevention programs, measures that cap the total-out-of-pocket cost of insulin to $100 a month, a bill allowing sports gambling in Washington’s tribal casinos and a ban on single-use plastic carryout bags, or paper or reusable plastic carryout bags that do not meet recycled content requirements. They also exempted menstrual products like tampons from sales tax, making Washington the 20th state to do so.

But lawmakers were very conscious of the potentially rough economic road ahead, and said they did not spend as much as they initially planned in several areas, choosing instead to bolster the state reserves to about $3 billion.

Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes, the Senate’s main budget writer, on Thursday acknowledged the tumultuous events surrounding lawmakers these past few weeks, noting that this legislative session “has been like no other, and these last couple of weeks have been like no other in our memory.”

During a speech on the budget on the Senate floor, she said: “A public health emergency has drastically altered the course of the budget, drastically altered the trajectory of our budget as well as the trajectory of many of our lives.”


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