Washington lawmakers approve $200 million for emergency coronavirus response

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington lawmakers adjourned their 60-day legislative session Thursday after passing a supplemental state budget that spends $200 million on the COVID-19 response.

Lawmakers’ final hours of work in the Capitol were overshadowed by the continued onslaught of coronavirus news in the state, as the number of deaths increased to 31 and Gov. Jay Inslee ordered that all public and private K-12 schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties close for six weeks.

Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes, the Senate’s main budget writer, said that this legislative session “has been like no other, and these last couple of weeks have been like no other in our memory.”

“A public health emergency has drastically altered the course of the budget, drastically altered the trajectory of our budget as well as the trajectory of many of our lives,” she said. “We are as well positioned as we can be to face the upcoming uncertainties.”

The $53.4 billion supplemental budget passed the House on a 56-41 vote and the Senate on a 28-21 vote.

Sen. John Braun, the budget leader for Senate Republicans, said there were some good things in the budget but that “we missed some opportunities.”

“The underlying budget spends a lot of money,” he said. “We are fortunate to have that money this year thanks to our great economy, but we know that’s about to be tested, and I worry about sustainability.”

Part of the budget includes money for coronavirus response. While first proposing $5 million for coronavirus efforts in early plans introduced last month, that amount quickly jumped to $100 million, and on Thursday, the Senate unanimously adopted an amendment that doubled the amount to $200 million, drawn from the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund.

Lawmakers have noted the sense of urgency to finish their work quickly due to growing concerns about the spread of coronavirus, which has infected more than 457 people in the state and led to more than 30 deaths.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness.

On Wednesday, Inslee announced a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people in virtually the entire Seattle metro area and on Thursday, Thurston County — the county the Capitol is located in — issued a similar directive after announcing its first confirmed case of COVID-19 Wednesday. The person who tested positive works for the Department of Health in Tumwater and is in isolation at home.

Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby, the chief budget writer for the House, said Wednesday there was a bipartisan, bicameral effort “to make serious commitments, serious investments to combat the coronavirus.”

Leaders said that the crisis also led them to spend less than they originally planned in several areas in order to build up the state’s reserves for future years.

Lawmakers said while they didn’t put as much as originally planned toward various programs, they still increased spending in high priority areas, including homelessness, early education, and health care.