Here’s how the state will spend $2.2B in federal pandemic aid

Lawmakers plan to use the money to fight COVID, aid renters and reopen shuttered schools and businesses.

OLYMPIA — Administer vaccines. Resume classroom instruction. Reopen shuttered businesses. Assist those who can’t make rent.

Those are the largest targets of $2.2 billion in federal money lawmakers will soon disperse across the state to fund the ongoing response to the pandemic and to restore a semblance of normalcy to public life.

But there also are sums earmarked to provide food to needy families, help homeowners avoid foreclosure, aid child care providers and assist people ineligible for federal stimulus payments or unemployment benefits due to their immigration status.

The blueprint for all this spending, House Bill 1368, is heading to a final vote in the state Senate this week after clearing the House on Feb. 1. Gov. Jay Inslee will move swiftly to sign it, likely before the end of the week.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of getting these dollars out the door quickly,” Michele Thomas, policy director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, told the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

With the pandemic in its second year, lawmakers of both political parties are keenly aware of the importance of this injection of funding.

“We have a long way to go to get back on our feet and get our businesses open and our people back to work,” said Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, the ranking Republican on the committee. “This is a really good path forward.”

In the House, Republicans pressed to augment the federal money with cash from state reserves to create a bigger financial package. Majority Democrats rebuffed the move while vowing this isn’t the Legislature’s last word on the subject.

They are expected to pencil funding for the COVID response into the next two-year state budget. And Congress and President Joe Biden are plowing ahead with a third pandemic package that might be larger than the first two.

“We are voting on $2.2 billion to support our residents and the needs they have at this time,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said before the final House vote. “Are we done? No. Of course we’re not done.”

Nitty gritty

The money contained in House Bill 1368 comes primarily from two sources. There’s $1.6 billion from the pandemic aid package approved in December known as the federal Consolidated Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Another $411 million comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, enacted last Spring.

Funding for the state Department of Health’s response to the pandemic will receive $618 million in the package, all of which will be deposited in a separate account.

Of the total, $538 million will be steered toward testing and laboratory analyses, as well as the labor-intensive work of case investigations, contact tracing, dealing with outbreaks and collecting and analyzing of data.

There’s $68 million for delivering and administering vaccinations, with Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah gaining wide discretion on how it gets spent.

Under the bill’s broad language, expenditures “must provide equitable access, prioritize hard-to-reach communities, and provide support and resources to facilitate the safe reopening of schools while minimizing community spread of the virus.”

There are no metrics to meet. However, Shah will have to provide lawmakers with a monthly report on vaccine distribution, containing — to the greatest extent possible — the demographic information of the recipients. The state has not yet shared with the public that information for the nearly 800,000 people vaccinated thus far.

Back to school

The single largest amount of the package, $668 million, will go to public schools to prepare for reopening for some in-person learning and to address students’ learning loss.

Money will be funneled through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which also will also get $46 million for non-public school assistance.

Public schools can use those funds to defray a wide array of expenses, such as upgrading heating and ventilation systems to improve air quality, acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE), covering unemployment costs and hiring staff for remote and hybrid learning.

For many districts, a portion of the money may also go to shore up budgets. Districts face a double whammy this year with a drop in state dollars due to enrollment declines and less transportation funding, due to a formula tied to bus ridership during the period when most campuses were closed. Lawmakers are looking to respond to both concerns.

The Everett School District, for example, anticipates receiving $9.1 million. The vast majority will offset the loss of state funding due to lower enrollment, officials said.

Money may be used to cover other costs associated with COVID, such as technology for students and teachers, and equipment, including washers and dryers, for cleaning PPEs, district spokeswoman Kathy Reeves said.

“Looking forward, we are working on aggressive ‘learning loss recovery’ measures and social emotional supports,” she said in an email.

While federal funds are not contingent on districts reopening schools, lawmakers are pushing them hard in that direction with this bill.

School districts, charter schools and state-tribal education compact schools are required to submit updated reopening plans to OSPI by March 1. At a minimum, each is supposed to have a schedule for reopening or expanding in-person instruction this school year.

A hand up, not a hand out

Housing issues, most notably assisting those who can’t pay rent each month, are the focus of $365 million in this package.

Michele Thomas of the Low Income Housing Alliance estimated 100,000 renters are currently unable to pay any or all of their monthly rent. And each month the tab of unpaid rents is around $100 million, according to a state Department of Commerce estimate.

What’s in front of lawmakers will drive $355 million through the state to local housing providers to serve individuals who are unable to pay rent and utility bills. The approach will be similar to what cities, counties and the state did last year with money received from the CARES Act.

In 2020, the Volunteers of America doled out $19.1 million in assistance for 6,298 households in Snohomish County. Most of the money came out of Snohomish County’s CARES allotment, though several cities also provided a portion of their respective federal allocations for the group to help families, said spokesman Cory Armstrong Hoss.

Money does not go to individual people. Rather, providers work with renters and landlords, and eventually steer money to the landlord for a portion of unpaid rent.

There is also $4 million in the package to help homeowners at risk of foreclosure for not paying their mortgage.

Keeping doors open

And $240 million is earmarked to provide a boost to those in the private sector.

There is $150 million pledged for businesses that are open but struggling to continue operations. To be eligible for a grant, they must have grossed $5 million or less in 2019.

The other $90 million is solely for reopening establishments that closed as a result of the statewide restrictions imposed in mid-November by Inslee. Those restrictions — which banned indoor dining, closed movie theaters and bowling alleys, and limited customers in retail stores — are still in effect in 32 counties.

Businesses could get up $75,000 to help restart.

Exactly how those dollars will be doled out is not yet known.

One source might be the Working Washington Small Business Grant program run through the state Department of Commerce. There have been three rounds already using prior CARES Act allotments. High demand led to funds being snapped up quickly each time.

In the last round, for example, 29,000 businesses applied, of which 2,080 came from Snohomish County businesses. Of those, 580 were approved for a $12,500 grant — about 22% of the statewide total, according to agency statistics.

Spending politics

On Thursday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee advanced the spending bill on a 23-0 vote with two members voting “no recommendation.”

It was a different story in the House days earlier. There it passed on a 61-36 vote, with just four Republicans joining the chamber’s 57 Democrats.

House Republicans made clear they didn’t disagree with most of where the money was going. They wanted to spend more in some areas. A pandemic, they argued, demanded tapping the state’s nearly $2 billion emergency reserves to get a bigger package.

Democrats stood fast, insisting state dollars will be spent later in the budget.

“This is not perfect. This is what we can do right now,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, the Democrats’ lead budget writer. “There is more to come.”

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, the ranking GOP member on the House budget committee, didn’t hide his disappointment.

“We could have done so much more good,” he said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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