Friends and Neighbors,
A lot has happened since the last time I wrote to you. Since then, the governor has enacted and twice extended his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order; the number of coronavirus cases in our state increased, but now appears to be stabilizing because of everyone's sacrifices; and a record number of unemployment claims are overwhelming our state's system at the Employment Security Department. I talk about these issues and others in this email update. Thank you for reading.
In February, our state's unemployment rate was at a record low, state tax collections were at a record high, our state had a $2.4 billion surplus, and few had heard of the coronavirus. Two months later, hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians are now struggling and forced to file unemployment claims, local and state tax collections are falling, and coronavirus has become part of our everyday conversations and dominates our news.
This disease has taken lives, shutdown our schools, thrown our family routines into disarray, prevented medical procedures, flattened our economy, and kept us from doing the things we love to do. It is also likely exacerbating problems like access to health care, mental health challenges, suicide, domestic violence and many types of crimes are being committed. Meanwhile, the programs and services we rely on to address these problems could be jeopardized as revenue declines and cuts are considered. It's an awful scenario.
I am spending a lot of time answering questions from constituents and assisting where I can. I have received several emails, calls and letters since I left Olympia on March 12. Many of the stories are heartbreaking. We are truly in unprecedented times.
As a state representative, I am doing my best to understand the virus as well as the governor's actions and have been advocating for those who have been negatively impacted by his decisions. I am encouraging the governor to take actions that provide for the greatest freedom and opportunity for our citizens as possible – while still stemming the spread of the virus. I have been on regular conference calls with colleagues and some with the governor's staff. I will continue to ask questions about things like Gov. Inslee's new COVID-19 risk assessment dashboard, while recommending ways to minimize the impacts to our citizens.
Gov. Inslee's new COVID-19 risk assessment dashboard
In a news conference on Wednesday, Gov. Inslee debuted his COVID-19 risk assessment dashboard. After weeks of talking about being guided by science and data, and calls to be more specific about these metrics, the governor unveiled five “buckets of metrics” upon which he is basing his decisions:
- COVID-19 disease activity.
- Health care system readiness.
- Testing capacity and availability.
- Case and contact investigations.
- Risk to vulnerable populations.
At this same news conference, the governor went through a presentation and said that many parts of his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order would be extended and that he would share more details on Friday.
Governor extends 'Stay Home, Stay Healthy' order
On Friday, the governor provided those details at another news conference. He said he would extend his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order to May 31 and possibly longer.
The governor outlined four phases for reopening businesses and modifying physical distancing measures and shared the categories of: high-risk populations; recreation; gatherings; travel; and business/employers. You can find a chart with this information here. He also explained how smaller counties (Pend Oreille, Ferry, Lincoln, Columbia, Garfield, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Kittitas, Skamania and Wahkiakum) could apply to the state Department of Health for a variance from his new order.
I am disappointed with his approach. While I know the governor cares about lives, I don't feel like he is focused enough on livelihoods and our economy. And I believe he is underestimating the ability of Washingtonians to conduct themselves in ways that continue to prioritize public health and social distancing.
Individuals, families and businesses are under immense pressure right now with no clear end in sight. And the socioeconomic repercussions are far-reaching. While I appreciate what Congress, our President, and some local governments have done to provide financial relief to some people, it's not sustainable over time.
The people I talk to want to safely return to work, safely restart their businesses, and safely resume normal activities. They understand that we can't flip a switch and go back to how things were in February, but they do know there are safe ways to restart our economy and lives. I fear the governor's approach is going to cause irreparable damage to lives, businesses, and our economy. I realize the governor's decisions are difficult and complex, but several other states have created and begun implementing plans to safely restart their economies — certainly, we must be able to safely open much more of our economy than Gov. Inslee has allowed.
Safe Economic Restart Plan
Republicans in the Legislature released their Safe Economic Restart Plan on April 17. The plan recommends three sets of actions our state can take to safely restart our state economy and create the foundation for a long-term recovery. It doesn't dictate when we restart our economy, but it provides ideas on how. We don't claim to have all the answers, but we look forward to working across the aisle to advance solutions that will help workers, businesses, and our economy. I welcome your feedback on the plan.
I have also been working with one of my colleagues in the House, Rep. Chris Gildon of Puyallup, to develop and advocate for a decentralized, county-by-county plan to restart our economy, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. It would enable counties to reopen their economies based on the unique conditions and needs of their communities rather than be treated the same as higher incidence areas. I signed on in support of the plan.
My primary focus for the last seven weeks has been to help protect citizens' health in a way that also protects their household budgets, but I am also called upon to address other state issues. It is likely a special session will be called in the next few months to address coronavirus-related issues. State lawmakers should consider proposals to help struggling individuals, families, businesses and local governments – and to adjust state spending to reflect the new realities of lower revenue collections. For context, our state is nearing the midpoint of its two-year budget cycle (2019-21).
With some federal dollars allocated and perhaps more on the way, and with $2.6 billion in our state's Budget Stabilization Account (rainy-day fund), the Legislature might be able to stave off massive cuts in the operating budget for a while, but reductions will likely be required in the current budget. And there will be concerns for the next two-year budget cycle that begins July 1, 2021. Any budget choices we make in a possible special session later this year will affect the outlook for that next budget as well.
One way or another, we must advance responsible state spending plans (operating, transportation and capital budgets) that are aligned with new economic and revenue realities, and resist calls for new taxes or tax increases that would put more burdens on our families, businesses and economy. Unlike Congress, the Legislature can't deficit spend or borrow money to balance budgets. We must put forward budgets that balance with our revenues.
State tax collections
As the chair of the state Economic Revenue and Forecast Council, I am directly involved with the important reports on our state's tax collections and economic performance – as well as predicting our state's revenues. I am in close contact with Executive Director and Chief Economist Stephen Lerch, Ph.D, as we navigate this pandemic and try to develop forecasts of our economy and the revenue it will generate for our budgets.
In my time in the Legislature, our state has endured a recession brought on by 9-11, the aftermath of a major earthquake, a large landslide, major floods, and The Great Recession. But none of these have wreaked havoc and created more uncertainty than the coronavirus. We will get through it, together, but it will take time and a lot of work. I am committed to this work in the Legislature. And I welcome your input and ideas.
Coronavirus | Information and resources
These five websites are great sources of information and resources for the coronavirus – please feel free to visit any or all of them. All five are updated frequently. The Department of Health also has a phone number you can call: 1-800-525-0127.
- Washington State: Washington State Coronavirus Response (COVID-19)
- Washington State Department of Health (DOH): 2019 Novel Coronavirus Outbreak (COVID-19)
- Governor's Office: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Information and Updates
- Washington House Republicans: Coronavirus (COVID-19) | Information and Resources
- Employment Security Department: COVID-19 information
o COVID-19 frequently asked questions – Workers
o Subscribe to ESD COVID-19 action alerts
Upcoming election-year restrictions
Due to election-year restrictions, beginning on May 11, I will not be able to send you email updates like this one until after the November election results are certified. I will also not be allowed to send out news releases. The exception to this rule would be if we went into a special session. However, I can respond to constituents who contact me throughout the year. I welcome your emails, calls and letters. And I will always do my best to respond to them as quickly as possible.