Dear friends and neighbors,

First the bad news, much of which you already know all too well. The pandemic continues to disrupt our personal and professional lives, our businesses and our communities. While we race to vaccinate the populace and acquire herd immunity, the damage to our businesses and our economy worsens.

I’m working with my 24th District seatmates, Rep. Steve Tharinger and Rep. Mike Chapman, to push for the state’s shutdown guidelines to more accurately reflect the realities of our local communities. I believe the overly broad metrics chosen to safeguard public health, while well-intended, fail to account for our unique local circumstances that make reopening not only safe but sensible. The governor’s proposed plan for restructuring local health districts, moreover, would effectively transfer our county health officer’s authority to Kitsap, whose community makeup and logistics have little in common with ours. We need to do just the opposite — to keep that authority in the hands of our local officials, hospitals, tribes and county health centers who intimately know our communities’ needs. Regardless, accelerating the reopening of our businesses, whether fully or partly, remains our goal.

On a more positive note, I’m seeing events on the state and national levels that should accelerate our recovery. The new administration in the White House is showing a much-needed respect for science and an urgency in fast-tracking the distribution of vaccines. If we’d had this kind of federal response for the past 11 months, there is no question in my mind that we would be far closer to safely reopening.

Here in Olympia, I’m similarly encouraged by the pending change in administration at the state Employment Security Department. Under its former director, the agency distributed $576 million in fraudulent benefits last year and, though it has since recovered $346 million of that, a report by the state auditor concluded that ESD had inadequate internal controls to prevent fraud and then gave inaccurate numbers on how much taxpayer money was lost and recovered.

In the Senate, meanwhile, we passed Senate Bill 5061 last night to protect businesses from getting hit with a huge, pandemic-driven tax hike. This bill will prevent $1.7 billion in automatic unemployment insurance (UI) tax increases from taking effect from 2021 to 2025, including $920 million this year, stemming from the historic, pandemic-induced layoffs of 2020. The bill excludes $1.2 billion in benefits paid out last year from future UI tax calculations, eliminating the need for businesses to pay back the state’s UI trust fund for those benefits.

At the same time, we’re working on legislation (SB 5344) to get $2.2 billion into the hands of people most negatively impacted by the effects of the pandemic, including:

  • $618 million for vaccine administration, contract tracing and testing (including emphasis on helping school districts reopen safely).
  • $668 million for schools as they resume in-person learning plus dedicated funding to help students catch up from learning loss during the pandemic.
  • $365 million for rental assistance to help tenants and landlords affected by the pandemic.
  • $240 million for more than 12,000 small business assistance grants.
  • $50 million in grants to help childcare businesses stay open and expand capacity.

To be clear, these are early steps. There is much more work to do on COVID-19 recovery, and our work will not be finished until the virus is contained and Washington’s economic recovery is complete.