OLYMPIA — The Washington Senate Wednesday passed a pair of bills to delay the payroll tax for WA Cares by 18 months and change other parts of the fledgling long-term care program, sending the legislation to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

The passage of bills to address criticisms and concerns over a major Democratic priority comes just three weeks into the 2022 legislative session. The House voted on both pieces of legislation last week.

Speed appears to remain the order of the day, with Inslee expected to sign the bills Friday, according to a spokesperson for the governor.

In a speech Wednesday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane hailed WA Cares as a “first-in-the-nation program” to help people pay for essential needs in old age and illness.

“But with such an important and impactful program … it makes sense to get it exactly right,” Billig said in a floor speech urging a vote on one of the bills.

Passed into law in 2019, WA Cares is designed as a social insurance program to help Washingtonians pay for necessities like nursing care or assisted living, transportation and meal preparation and respite for family caregivers.

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Starting in 2025, eligible beneficiaries could begin claiming up to $36,500 to pay for those needs.

The program is to be funded by a .58% payroll tax on workers. That amounts to $290 annually for somebody making $50,000 a year. That tax was set to be collected starting Jan. 1.

But as the program got going last year, a host of concerns bubbled up from people who will pay into WA Cares but will never be eligible for benefits. Under pressure from residents, lawmakers and others, Inslee announced late last month that the state would not collect the payroll taxes withheld by businesses while lawmakers explored changes.

One of those changes is House Bill 1732. Passed on Wednesday, it pushes back the start of the payroll tax until July 1, 2023. Any premiums that have already been collected would be refunded within 120 days under the bill.

That legislation also allows some workers currently close to retirement age to claim prorated benefits. People born before 1968 and who won’t be fully vested under the program’s current structure will be able to get some benefits based on the number of years they pay into the program.

The bill passed 46-3.

Republicans Wednesday again highlighted their critiques, which included concern over others who will pay into the program but never receive benefits, such as residents who move to another state to retire.

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The bills passed Wednesday do not address that group, though Democratic lawmakers have said further changes to the program could come next year.

Conservatives have also argued that the program isn’t sound enough financially, especially as more groups of people will be allowed to receive a permanent exemption from WA Cares and the payroll tax under the changes being debated.

In a floor speech, Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, announced he was a “yes” vote to delay the payroll tax, but that the Legislature should go further.

“This is just a good idea that doesn’t work … and for that reason, the right answer today should be to repeal this program,” Braun said.

Lawmakers Wednesday also passed House Bill 1733. That bill allows some groups who already have coverage or who are not likely to receive benefits to permanently opt out.

That includes an estimated 150,000 people working in Washington but living in another state, such as Alaska, Oregon or Idaho. That bill also allows temporary workers with nonimmigrant visas, spouses or partners of members of active military and some disabled veterans to opt out.

Lawmakers approved that legislation 38-11.

In an email Wednesday, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said the governor “supports taking these actions” and the bills are likely to be signed into law on Friday.

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