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Senate passes bills on unemployment tax relief and equity training in schools

The state Senate passed bills on Wednesday related to unemployment insurance (UI) and equity training in schools.

The UI bill provides tax relief for employers and an expansion of the minimum weekly benefit for employees. The equity bill adds new material to training programs related to cultural competency in schools.

The bills were authored by the majority Democrats, though Republicans did manage to secure a few amendments. Both bills will now head to the House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 5061 – Unemployment tax relief and expanded unemployment benefit

Sen. Karen Keiser’s (D – Des Moines) bill passed 42 -7. This legislation would prevent large increases in unemployment tax rates and would increase the minimum weekly unemployment benefit for workers.

Sen. Keiser said the bill was crafted with feedback from both the business and labor communities.

On the business side, the bill would halt $1.7 billion in automatic unemployment insurance tax increases from taking effect from 2021 to 2025, including $920 million this year. The increased tax rates are the result of pandemic-induced strain on the unemployment trust fund, which is funded through insurance premiums paid by employers.

On the labor side, the bill would increase the minimum weekly unemployment benefit amount from 15% to 20% of the average weekly wage passed. An amendment from Sen. Curtis King (R – Yakima), which passed in executive session, caps the minimum benefit at employment level wages. This amendment is designed to prevent individuals from earning more through UI than they did while working.

A last minute amendment from Sen. Braun would have lowered the minimum benefit to 17.5% of the average weekly wage, down from the original 20% proposed in the bill, but the amendment was reconsidered and voted down on the floor.

Labor advocates, as well as republicans and business groups, still have some concerns with the legislation.

Some House Democrats have signaled that they will attempt to make the bill more amenable to labor. As the bill includes an emergency clause, it would take effect immediately following Gov. Inslee’s signature.

Senate Bill 5044 – Equity training in schools

SB 5044 passed 30 – 19, with Sens. Ron Muzzall (R – Oak Harbor) and *Tim Sheldon (D – Potlatch) crossing caucus lines to support the legislation. It adds “equity, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism” to existing cultural competency standards and training for school board directors, district staff and school staff.

The bill would also direct school districts to prioritize one of three professional learning days to focus on topics related to equity.

Cultural competency standards are teaching guidelines adopted by the Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB). Under SB 5044, PESB would be required to create a list of model standards for anti-racism in addition to cultural competency.

In this context, cultural competency is defined as knowledge of student cultural histories; family norms and values in different cultures; knowledge and skills in accessing community resources and community and parent outreach; and skills in adapting instruction to individual student experiences.

During the floor debate, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D – Lake Stevens) delivered an impassioned speech in favor of the bill.

I wonder what would’ve happened to me had this bill been passed in the early ‘70s,” said Hobbs. “Maybe I wouldn’t have been beaten down so many times.”

While several Republican amendments were voted down, Sens. Keith Wagoner (R – Sedro Woolley) and Chris Gildon (R -Puyallup) each managed to get one passed. Wagoner’s added students with disabilities to the cultural competency training programs. Gildon’s requires that the recommended list of training programs be posted online.

Among the amendments that were voted down, Sen. Shelly Short (R – Addy) proposed that education bodies “define measurable goals for dismantling institutional racism and post them online.”

Wagoner and Ann Rivers (R – Vancouver) proposed amendments which would have added language to include “rural and underserved populations” and “highly capable students” in the cultural competency training programs.

Responding to both amendments, Sen. Lisa Wellman (D – Bainbridge Island) said the bill needed to remain focused on equity issues related to “race, ethnicity, religion, disabilities, sexualities and genders.”

Within this list, these are people who are in rural, urban, suburban and every part of our state. They are [all] certainly included in the general bill,” said Wellman.

* Sen. Sheldon caucuses with the Republicans.

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