Gov. Inslee vetoes some spending in response to COVID-19 as Washington death toll nears 300

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars of spending in hopes of making a dent in the loss of state revenues as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep the state’s economy largely shut down.

On Friday, the Washington State Department of Health said there were nearly 7,000 coronavirus cases, including 284 deaths.

Inslee vetoed nearly two dozen bills in their entirety, as well as more than 140 separate budget items in the state supplemental budget that will save the state $445 million over the next three years.

The vetoes include a bill that created a pilot program to review and vacate criminal convictions based on current statutory eligibility requirements and another bill that established recycled content requirements for plastic beverage containers. Also vetoed was a bill creating a prescription drug affordability board. The budget section vetoes range from money to add about 370 K-12 guidance counselors statewide to spending on paraeducator training. Also eliminated were a variety of task forces and studies.

All of the veto letters state that circumstances “have changed dramatically” since the budget was approved by the Legislature last month.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having catastrophic effects on the health and welfare of Washingtonians,” Inslee’s veto messages read. “It will also have a major impact on the economic health of our state. I have conferred with leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate, and we agree that we must prepare for the effects of the lost revenue that will result from this pandemic.”

When the Legislature adjourned March 12, there were just over 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, and fewer than 40 deaths. The last bill lawmakers passed before they left town was a measure drawing $200 million from the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund, with $175 million going to the public health system and the remainder to a dedicated unemployment fund.

Three weeks later, more than half of that money has been spent, more than 260 people have died and there are more than 6,500 confirmed cases. Following last month’s statewide closure of bars, dine-in restaurants and gyms, and then the statewide stay-at-home order and closure of non-essential businesses, the state is now also seeing record numbers of people applying for unemployment benefits.

Inslee signed the budget a day after he extended the stay-at-home order to six weeks, through 11:59 p.m. May 4.

Last week, there were 181,975 new claims for unemployment benefits, a 3,513% increase over the same week in 2019, according to the state Employment Security Department. Including the ongoing weekly claims previously filed, the agency saw roughly 350,000 cumulative claims come into its claims center last week, and officials said that more than $67 million in unemployment benefits have been paid out since March 15.

That cumulative number is expected to grow as additional new claims related to the impacts of COVID-19 are filed in the coming weeks.

When he extended the stay-at-home order Thursday, Inslee said that while he understands the financial burden placed on businesses and employees by the shutdown, the “fastest way to economic recovery is for a recovery of our health.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.