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Lawmakers push competing COVID-19 packages

by Patric Haerle, WNPA News Service
| January 28, 2021 1:00 AM

OLYMPIA — Relief for renters, schools, public health agencies and small businesses is rushing through the state Legislature, with the hope help can reach people by the end of February.

Two COVID-19 relief plans are competing for approval, one by Republicans and one by Democrats, and this time the Republican plan is the one proposing the most spending.

The Democratic plan, called the Washington Step One proposal, allocates $2.2 billion in federal funds for rental assistance, public health, education, small businesses and education, among several other areas receiving smaller amounts.

“For the Legislature to move within two or three weeks on a $2.2 billion investment is itself historic,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood. “We’re working as fast as we can to ... make sure that the public has a chance to weigh in that it isn’t just folks behind closed doors like we’ve seen Mitch McConnell and others do in D.C.”

The Democratic plan includes $668 million for school districts to address learning loss, $618 million allocated for the Department of Health to use for vaccine distribution, contact tracing, and testing – with an emphasis on vaccinating individuals needed for school reopening – $325 million for rental assistance, $240 million for small business grants, $65 million for immigrants who were left out of previous stimulus packages and $50 million for child care.

The Republican counterpart is the REAL Recovery for Washington Act. The act is similar to the Democratic plan but proposes a much larger number, around $4 billion, for COVID-19 relief.

The Republican plan uses $2.1 billion of the rainy day fund, leaving approximately $240 million left in the fund. The Democrats’ package uses just under $200 million of the fund.

“The need is high and the need is now in the communities that we represent,” said Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, primary sponsor of the Republican plan. “It is hard to imagine a day that could be rainier than the day we have right now, so if now is not the time to use the rainy day fund, when is?”

The Republican plan includes $1.3 billion for school districts to address learning loss and reopening safely, $834 million for small business grants and tax relief, $600 million for rental assistance, $506 million for testing and vaccines and $200 million for a recovery rebate that would include direct aid to citizens.

Democrats acknowledge more relief will be necessary in the months ahead.

“This package (the Democratic plan) does not provide the relief that we’re going to need in the long term. This is just the next step. We need Congress to act,” Liias said. “I think we’re all excited that President Biden has put forward a $1.9 trillion package. The people in this country and the people of our state are going to need a lot more relief than what we have seen so far.”

Other bills related to COVID-19 include unemployment insurance relief, exempting paycheck protection funds from the business and occupation tax and a waiver on the fees for liquor licenses.

While Democrats do not oppose the ideas behind Rep. Stokesbary’s bill, heavy use of the rainy day fund leaves the state economically vulnerable in the future, Democrats say.

“We’re trying to keep our nuts and berries safe for the difficult months,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, and chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Republican leadership, on the other hand, encourages the more aggressive relief in the form of the REAL Act.

“I think we’ve got big problems and it makes sense to attack a small number of issues with a large amount of spending,” said Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, the ranking Republican of the House of Representatives.

The primary sponsors of both relief bills, Stokesbary and Ormsby, were encouraged by the bipartisan work on the issue over the previous weeks.