The pandemic has created winners and losers across Washington’s business community. State government must wisely provide relief to help employers — and the jobs they create — endure until a full economic restart is safe.
Announced Thursday, the state’s limited reopening of indoor dining and gyms in seven Western Washington counties could provide an important lifeline for many businesses. For some, it may mean survival. But businesses statewide are suffering. The Legislature must rapidly assess this landscape and provide robust support where it will do the most good.
Democratic leadership should ensure minority party voices are heard on where the greatest needs lie. Republican lawmakers generally represent regions that are more rural with more resource-based economies that have starkly different needs than large cities.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s limited-reopening plan still leaves restaurant tables empty in most of the state. Those areas deserve special attention and financial support. The Legislature should also address the economic reality that for reopening restaurants, operating at 25% capacity may not be enough to break even in a sector of low profit margins, rent costs and immense overhead costs.
“You can’t make money at 25%,” Anthony Anton of the Washington Hospitality Association, a trade group representing 6,000 restaurants, hotels and other businesses, said.
While Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors continued this week to press the case for restricting in-person dining, the economic pain for restaurants and other businesses is a continuing hardship. Undeniably, there is a deep need for economic relief.
In a bipartisan demonstration, the state House of Representatives last week unanimously passed some tax breaks for businesses that received federal COVID-19 aid checks. In the Senate, all Democrats and most Republicans supported urgently needed relief from unemployment insurance hikes for businesses while raising the benefits level for people who lose jobs. Because of widespread layoffs when COVID-19 struck, businesses across the state will face steep hikes in unemployment insurance charges on their April 1 taxes without this change. The House followed suit Friday.
The Democratic chairs of the House and Senate budget committees have introduced legislation for a $2.2 billion relief package. Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, and Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, propose to draw down $440 million of the state’s $1.7 billion budget reserve account — the rainy-day fund — to augment federal aid.
This could address some business needs, including grants for small businesses and child-care providers, while reserving rainy-day fund money to address other needs as the pandemic lingers.
However, the Democratic majorities should earnestly address needs their Republican counterparts see in their districts.
Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, has proposed a more ambitious $4 billion relief package that would spend down almost all of the rainy-day fund, along with using the federal money, and send relief checks to low-income residents and parents.
Rolfes has said she wants to save the budget reserve to cover other costs later in the legislative session. But Stokesbary makes a strong case that the need is here and dire, and presents several ideas with good payoffs. For example, he calls for doubling the Democrats’ proposed child-care aid from $50 million to $100 million. Many in the workforce cannot return to jobs without reliable child care. Saving more providers is fundamental to economic revival.
The Legislature and Governor’s office are controlled by Democrats, but no partisan side has a monopoly on good ideas. The COVID-19 crisis requires good-faith bipartisanship to help every part of the state suffering today. It’s time to listen and take strong action. The rainy day is here.
Editor’s note: This editorial was updated at 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, to reflect state House action.