Washington state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was the focus of Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest announcements, as the governor is forming a group focused on a broad vision of rebuilding while still rejecting the call for a special session of state lawmakers before 2021.
During a press conference Tuesday, Oct. 13, Inslee announced the Washington Recovery Group. Operating under the state Office of Financial Management (OFM), the group is intended to coordinate with state agencies to help in recovery efforts with local governments, higher education and the private sector, Inslee said.
Priorities for the group include education, social services, healthcare, housing and small business support, among others, according to an announcement from the governor’s office. Inslee said the group will represent “a diverse group of stakeholders” from state, local and tribal governments and the private sector.
Inslee said the group won’t necessarily be developing specific policies, but will provide feedback and will be “crucial” in those policies’ implementation. He said the group is expected to have its first meeting toward the end of the month.
OFM Director David Schumacher said that the group’s intent is much broader than just business recovery, adding CARES Act funding for businesses both directly and indirectly through local governments, as well as $100 million in rental assistance that benefitted landlords has been more targeted to the business community.
Inslee mentioned the state has distributed $25 million for grants for businesses, with another $15 million announced last week. That was in addition to $1.8 billion in federal relief funds, he added, with $435 million in economic support, close to half a billion for local governments, and close to $70 million in food assistance.
Economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been central to a call from state Republican lawmakers to reconvene for a special session almost since the first restrictions announced by Inslee were made in March. Inslee is still not convinced of a need to call such a session, pointing to some half a billion dollars in spending cuts he made, as well as a generally more positive outlook on state funding.
Inslee said denying a special session is the right decision as later revenue forecasts showed an additional $4.5 billion coming into the state, adding the Legislature may have made “faulty decisions” in spending cuts given those later projections.
“We’re in the clear this biennium, so there’s no reason for a special session at this moment,” Inslee said.
He said that when pressed on where spending cuts would be, GOP lawmakers were mum about specifics, “because once they actually tell us, it’s not very popular.”
Though he didn’t point to a specific proposal from state Republicans on cutting healthcare, one of the points he said he pressed them on, he said their support of President Donald Trump was indicative of an implicit intent, if not overt, given the party’s “obsessive desire” to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.
“You can’t support Donald Trump and simultaneously say you want to protect Obamacare and healthcare for hundreds of thousands of Washington citizens,” Inslee said.
“If they really want to cut spending, they need to put on the table what they want to cut, and they need to say they’re not going to support Donald Trump anymore in his efforts to destroy healthcare in this state,” Inslee said.
The governor also addressed the question of who would lead one of the Legislature’s two chambers should a special session happen before 2021’s regular session. Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib had been on unpaid leave from his position for the past six weeks, attending training in California to become a Jesuit priest. Habib had previously announced he would not seek another term as lieutenant governor in order to join the clergy.
Inslee said that with the Washington state Legislature currently out of session, in which Habib serves as president of the Senate, he was not aware of any duty he currently was not fulfilling in his absence. He added that his office had been advised that should a session begin he has been told by the Senate they had “a means to accommodate that (absence).”
Inslee said Habib’s absence did not change his thoughts on the potential for a special session should one be called before a new lieutenant governor was elected.
All counties out of Phase 1 of reopening
Inslee also announced that the five remaining Washington counties in the first, albeit modified, phase of the state’s “Safe Start Washington” plan would be moving on with lessened restrictions on business and other activities. The governor said Yakima, Benton, Franklin, Douglas and Chelan counties would be moved out of their modified Phase 1 status into a full Phase 2.
Those counties now bring the total of those in Phase 2 to 22, including Clark and Cowlitz counties. Counties in Phase 3 include Lewis and Thurston counties.
Inslee said it was due to effective efforts of local leaders that the state felt it fitting to move them along in the process, giving the example of Yakima County moving from about 750 new cases per 100,000 population in June to 93 per 100,000.
“They’re not out of the woods yet. We know that. Neither they nor we,” Inslee remarked. “But these counties and their people have made tremendous progress.”
Though the five counties have shifted forward in the currently-paused Safe Start Washington plan, Inslee did not indicate a complete lift on the pause from accepting and reviewing applications from other counties to move into lesser-restricted phases.