Washington State Lawmakers Propose a $2.2 Billion COVID-19 Package Supporting Renters, Vaccinations, Businesses

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Washington state lawmakers Friday afternoon released the outline of a new COVID-19 relief bill aimed at boosting vaccine distribution and contact tracing, and aiding schools, renters and small businesses amid the pandemic.

The $2.2 billion measure is funded largely by federal aid dollars from the pandemic-relief packages passed by Congress in last spring and in December. It also uses about $440 million from the state's budget reserves.

The legislation is designed to get relief money out into the communities by the end of next month, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

"We hope it will hit the governor's desk within three weeks," said Rolfes, chief Democratic budget writer in the Senate. "The money will be out in agencies and communities and public schools in February, is my hope."

In a statement, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said lawmakers worked to best use the federal aid and "we have developed a great first step that pushes dollars out the door to communities and businesses in need."

The bill would spend $618 million on boosting vaccination efforts and contact tracing, according to a summary of the legislation.

It includes $668 million for school districts. That could be used "for whatever they need to resume in-person learning," said Rolfes, or identifying and fixing the learning loss that has taken place across the pandemic.

Some of the funding for contact tracing and testing is also intended to boost the ability of schools to reopen, she added.

The bill also includes $365 million to aid renters and landlords, and $240 million for grants to help businesses impacted by the pandemic and related restrictions.

Among other things, the bill spends $70 million on relief for immigrants and $50 million for emergency child-care funding.

The new legislation crafted between state House and Senate Democrats — who each hold sizable majorities in their chambers — is one of a series of bills being fast-tracked in the Legislature to provide different types of relief.

Another, House Bill 1095, would exempt businesses from paying state taxes on COVID-19 aid they received by the government, such as the Paycheck Protection Program or grant money distributed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Lawmakers Thursday passed that bill unanimously off the House floor.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 5061 is intended to expand unemployment insurance benefits and ease the tax increases businesses must pay to the state in light of the steep economic downturn.

That bill has been voted out of committee and awaits a full vote in the Senate.

Earlier in the week Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, released his own version of a pandemic relief bill.

House Bill 1334 would dwarf the Democratic proposal by spending about the same amount of federal funds along with $2.1 billion from the state's budget reserves.

It would spend $1.5 billion on various relief items, like rental assistance and the "Working Families Tax Rebate" — a tax refund approved in 2008 by the Legislature but never actually funded.

The bill Stokesbary described as a "big, bold" effort to help during the pandemic would spend another $1.5 billion on students and schools, and $834 million on relief for small businesses.

"I think that has been a tough time for a lot of people," he said.

By spending more in budget reserves on pandemic relief, Stokesbary said he would ideally look for savings as lawmakers draft the new two-year state operating budget in the coming weeks.

Come back to seattletimes.com for updates to this developing story.

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