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Morning Wire: How WA is doing, Rep. Alex Ybarra, COVID relief packages

It’s hard to believe we’re in the third week of session. While I’ve been covering the goings-on through a computer screen and a corded phone, the experience has been interactive under the circumstances. So interactive, in fact, that maneuvering my webcam in search of an ideal angle has eclipsed my ability to take detailed notes. The ideal angle has eluded me thus far. 

Thank you to legislative staffers for being so accommodating this session and as always, thank you to our readers for your support.

1. Labor and business advocates seek amendments to SB 5061 

Competing interests are jockeying to secure changes to SB 5061 — one component of the Democrats’ $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief package — as it makes its way through the Legislature. Labor advocates are concerned that Sen. Curtis King’s amendment capping the minimum weekly UI benefit at employment level wages will create a “subminimum benefit” wherein the lowest paid workers would receive a lower benefit than under current law. One labor group is also calling for a set of amendments to ensure workers receive benefits from ESD promptly. 

Legislative Republicans and business groups support the tax relief provisions in SB 5061, though they would like to extend the period employers won’t be held accountable for unemployment benefits and shift more responsibility to the Employment Security Department (ESD) for making the state’s unemployment trust fund whole. The bill is currently sitting in the Rules committee and could receive a floor vote tomorrow.

2. COVID relief packages drop on both sides of the aisle

Washington’s Budget Stabilization Account is the dividing line between the Democratic and Republican covid relief packages. The $2.2 billion Democratic proposal sticks to federal stimulus dollars, allocating funds for a range of assistance programs. Rep. Drew Stokesbary, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, is proposing to spend significantly more. His $4 billion recovery package would spend $2.1 billion from the “rainy day” reserves in addition to federal stimulus funds. With the added reserves, his proposal calls for hundreds of millions more in rental assistance and a “Recovery Rebate” to offset Washington State’s regressive sales tax

Democrats say their proposal is only “step one” of a broader relief effort. On top of the disbursement of federal funds for economic relief, the Democratic package includes three pieces of additional legislation to to provide UI tax relief, expand the weekly unemployment benefit, waive liquor license fees for businesses and exempt federal fund federal funds received via the Paycheck Protection Program from being subject to B&O taxes. It also includes funds for undocumented immigrants who have been impacted by the pandemic, but do not qualify for federal or state assistance.

3. “An almost inconceivably high number” 

In his latest column, Wire Publisher DJ Wilson reviews the latest data from Washington State residents about how they are holding up in this pandemic. The numbers are perhaps worse than you might think. 

About 50% of Washingtonians expressed untreated need for mental health treatment than received such services in the most previous week. A full 56% said they experienced “feeling down, depressed or hopeless” between “several days” in the last week and “nearly every day.” 

Among those responding, 2.76m Washington residents — or 47% — said they had “Experienced loss of employment income since March 13, (for self or household member).” That is, according to Wilson, “an almost inconceivably high number.” 

Small business cash on hand is degrading, though better than at the start of the pandemic. However, 34% of small businesses couldn’t pay January’s rent. 

4.  Rep. Ybarra breaks down the “Public Broadband Act”

Rep. Alex Ybarra is the lead Republican cosponsor of Rep. Drew Hansen’s “Public Broadband Act,” a bill that would expand retail broadband authority to Public Utility Districts. Ybarra says he is willing to eschew ideological opposition among some in his caucus to making broadband a public utility.

“[The] Thursday before session started… I got a call from Rep. Hansen and we started talking about it. I said, ‘If this is the way I can get broadband to my rural areas, then let’s do whatever it takes…’ I’ve got Kittitas County, most of Grant County, North Yakima County and Lincoln County. We’ve got the most desolate little towns in the whole state. Poverty levels are high and people don’t live close to each other because they’re mostly on farms. When you have that small population, infrastructure just doesn’t lend itself for broadband to be out there.”

5. Five recommendations for long-term economic recovery in Washington State

Based on survey data presented to the Senate Committee on Economic Recovery (SCER) from an analyst at Yelp, Washington State had the fifth highest business closure rate in the U.S. from March 1st to September 15th. Of the 4,975 businesses in the state that closed during this period, 3,062 (62%) closed permanently. With this as context, SCER has five core recommendations for catalyzing Washington State’s long-term economic recovery.

Derived from the committee’s Blueprint for Recovery, the recommendations are based on 20 hours of testimony from economists, small and large businesses, public sector officials and equity experts over the course of four separate hearings. In addition to targeting the hardest-hit workers and small businesses, SCER found that expanding health care and internet access, as well as investing in aerospace and manufacturing, are critical components to long-economic recovery. 

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