Washington Democrats decry Inslee's 'disastrous' reopening plan, push for emergency aid

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A host of Washington state lawmakers are racing ahead of Gov. Jay Inslee to assist pandemic-ravaged small businesses as his reopening plan takes heat from fellow Democrats.

When Inslee issued Washington’s first statewide “stay-at-home” order on March 23, the state’s weekly case average was 154. On Monday, it was 1,671, the state Department of Health data shows.

Between then and now, his phased reopening plans have taken on many shapes, but political pressures and fierce pushback from business owners have seen him set health metrics championing improvement over meeting hard case rates.

In 2019, Washington boasted some 608,000 small businesses employing 1.4 million workers or about half of the state’s workforce, according to the federal Small Business Administration. The pandemic has shuttered thousands already and threatens to close even more for good.

How to keep those small businesses open has been part of a months-long debate with solutions ranging from more state aid to relaxing health restrictions.

Inslee opted for the latter last week, citing the state’s below-average case rates and improving vaccination counter as reason to move the state’s populous Puget Sound counties to Phase 2 beginning Monday and restoring indoor dining.

In a joint statement on Friday, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, and Reps. Steve Tharinger, D-Port Townsend, and Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said they had “lost faith” in the Democratic governor’s efforts to curb the pandemic.

The three lawmakers, who represent the isolated coastal counties of Clallam and Jefferson, wrote that Inslee has put public safety at risk by essentially reopening “hot spot counties” while shuttering low-risk counties like theirs.

“This plan’s senseless punishment of counties with low COVID-19 rates leaves us not choice but to speak out in opposition,” the lawmakers wrote. “This is not a position we take lightly. But it is clear that the governor’s plan exhibits a disastrous disconnect with the realities of our communities and, as their elected representatives, we must demand a reopening plan that is fair and sound. The current plan is neither.”

As of Monday, reported cases in Clallam and Jefferson Counties have equaled 1% and .009% of their populations, according to the state Department of Health.

By contrast, the Puget Sound’s King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties have seen about 3% of their residents test positive for the virus and the site of a recently discovered strain which is feared to be more infectious.

In December, Clallam and Jefferson Counties saw jobless rates of more than 8%, or a point above that in King and the statewide average of 7.1%, the Washington Employment Security Department reports.

Washington has constitutional limits on what state-funded aid it can offer to private businesses, which has left most businesses dependent on the federal dollars trickling out of the governor’s office.

The state’s month-long partial shutdown in December saw Inslee release $50 million in small business assistance and another $100 million is tucked away in his proposed two-year budget.

A number of bills on the House Finance Committee’s agenda are intended to shore up long-term relief for the state’s small town businesses.

House Bill 1279 would expand the state’s Main Street Tax Incentive program which funnels charitable donations to the state’s Main Street Trust Fund Account and local programs devoted to revitalizing neighbored and downtown commercial districts.

Donations can yield a 75% to 50% tax credit on Washington’s public utility and business and occupation taxes which charges businesses on gross receipts as high as 0.484% for manufacturing, wholesaling, and extracting, among others.

Sponsored by Washington Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine, the bill raises the maximum number of tax credits for a local program from $100,000 to $160,000 per year and awards another 15% B&O tax credit for designated programs.

The bill also extends the Main Street Tax Incentive Program from 2028 through 2032 and carries any earned tax credits from 2020 over to the end of 2023.

State lawmakers are still looking to pass more aid ahead of an approved budget.

A $2.2 billion emergency relief package sponsored by state Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, would pump millions into schools, food banks, hospitals, and rental assistance programs immediately upon passage.

“The governor’s eviction moratorium is a stopgap, one we desperately needed, but the next step is helping thousands of families get caught up on their past due rent,” said Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, in a statement. “Step one in our plan helps the people who need that assistance and more. Helping people pay the rent provides peace of mind during a time when the ability to stay at home is essential in combating the virus.”

About $1.8 billion of the package included in House Bill 1368 stems from the $900 billion pandemic relief bill signed into law by ex-President Donald Trump in late 2020 and the federal CARES Act from earlier that year.

The package coincides with President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion federal stimulus which includes $440 billion for local communities and businesses.

House Bill 1368 is scheduled for executive action by the House Ways & Means Committee on Tuesday at 4:00 p.m.

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