We continue to maneuver through uncertain times, economic hardships, and devastation to our livelihoods as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout Washington state, the nation and world.
At the start of the pandemic early this year, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a broad shutdown of most sectors of Washington state’s economy. This was an appropriate first step to confront a relatively unknown and rapidly spreading virus.
However, nine months later, the governor’s unilateral policymaking approach has created serious separation of powers concerns. It has also resulted in significantly reduced opportunities for Eastern Washington residents, businesses, and local governments to provide input as policies are made.
By way of history, in 1969, the Legislature delegated significant emergency powers (RCW 43.06.220, sec 1) to the governor in a governor-declared emergency, including the power to prohibit activities without any legislative oversight or restrictions on the length of the declared emergency, or the scope of prohibited activities.
Those powers should only exist on a time-limited basis. The people of Washington state deserve to be governed by a system of representative democracy rather than executive mandate.
Many of us have been calling for a special session since May to address the state’s pandemic response. Our neighboring states, including Oregon, California, and Idaho, had legislative sessions earlier this summer to address the budgetary implications and economic hardships caused by COVID-19.
There are two ways for a special session of the Legislature to be convened. Either the governor can call one, or the Legislature can call itself into session with the support of two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate.
The governor’s approach has been a refusal to utilize the state’s rainy-day fund, take very minimal spending reduction steps, and wait for a Congressional bailout, which may or may not happen.
Because we don’t have the support of two-thirds of legislators to call a special session, the Legislature is not able to take action to provide relief or authorize expenditures from state reserves.
A special session would also provide the opportunity to better mitigate the financial impact of the current partial shutdown by allocating assistance to those businesses and their employees who have been heavily impacted. The $185 million in federal dollars recently designated by the governor for small business assistance simply is not enough for our workers and small businesses to stay afloat, considering the restaurant industry alone is seeing approximately $800 million in lost sales per month during shutdown.
In absence of a special session, the Legislature will convene on January 11. Although too late to prevent many business closures, we can expect to see several efforts to mitigate the damage. We continue to support use of the rainy-day account to fund much needed proposals to preserve critically important cash flow for employers.
Ideas include suspending the business and occupation (B&O) tax collection until April 1, 2021; waiving tax penalties; allowing payment with 0% interest over a period of time; giving a $5,000 credit against B&O liability; and hold employers harmless for unemployment insurance rate increases which are currently expected to increase 300% or more.
We support restructuring and limiting the use of executive branch emergency powers. Options include limiting orders under the emergency statute to 30 days without legislative approval.
The serious physical health threat of this virus should not be ignored, and we should all be following health guidelines to the best of our ability. However, it is also imperative that more focus be placed on mental health issues arising from this shutdown as it has affected all areas of society. For many of our residents, isolation, depression, substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide are real. Those areas have not received the attention they deserve.
The challenges facing our state and our families are great. Ensuring your concerns and ideas are heard will be key this upcoming session. As we work to make representative government work better for all of us, please continue to communicate with our offices to share your perspectives and experiences that can help shape laws and budget priorities this session.
Rep. Skyler Rude and Rep.-elect Mark Klicker, both Republicans from Walla Walla, are 16th District lawmakers