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OLYMPIA — Washington leaders should look for ways to make the state's economy stronger by making it more equitable as it recovers from the pandemic, the head of a national center on growth told a special Senate committee Tuesday.

Although the nation was going through its longest recovery in history in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, those gains were not shared equally among all groups, Heather Boushey, president of the Washington (D.C.) Center for Equitable Growth, said. Wealth was becoming increasingly concentrated in the top income groups.

Those in lower wage jobs were less likely to have health care or sick leave policies, and when the pandemic hit others who lost jobs lost their health insurance as well, Boushey told the Senate Special Committee on Economic Recovery.

"The economic damage has been much greater and more far-reaching than it needed to be," she said.

Too many people without health insurance fear going to the doctor, getting tested or facing high medical bills if they test positive. To help the economy recover, the state should consider expanding health insurance with an affordable, high-quality option, such as a public program with a large subsidy, Boushey said.

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, asked how the state would avoid problems with large-scale government health care programs, like the Veterans Administration.

"It's about management," Boushey replied, adding the problems can arise for public or private health care systems. "Make sure the goals are clear and the institutions have sufficient tools."

The state should also try to stimulate more manufacturing growth, she said. The pandemic highlighted the lack of manufacturing in the country for certain supplies to fight COVID-19 is "a national security problem in the broadest sense."

The state should make sure its education system, both K-12 and higher education, are strong, and invest in early education and child care. It should consider a capital gains tax to help pay for that, she suggested.

It should help businesses with fixed costs, like rent, which will also help their landlords and provide loans or grants to help with costs when a business restarts after a shutdown, she said. Businesses should also be confident they can look to the state for "clear guidance on what's safe."

The economy can't get back on track until consumers are convinced "it's safe to be in the marketplace," Boushey said. Without that, she said, people will worry that going to the store, a job or school could endanger their lives.

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