According to Bellevue Chamber of Commerce president Joe Fain, hundreds of people tuned in for a webinar with state legislators discussing COVID-19 impacts.
State Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland), state Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville), state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) and state Rep. J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) all discussed the state’s response and potential actions. The webinar was organized by the East King Chambers Coalition and the Bellevue Chamber and was moderated by Kate Riley of The Seattle Times.
The overarching message is best summed up by closing remarks from Springer: “For all of us as electeds, we should be thinking on a two-track basis, consequently, contain the virus and recover our economy — and you can do both at the same time.”
“We in fact have to do everything we can to contain this virus — social distancing, lockdowns, restricted movements, whatever it takes. But that does not mean that we can ignore the initiatives and the actions we need to take now while trying to contain the virus that will help us recover economically when this virus is handled,” Springer added. “Without that kind of activity now — that strategic thinking now — we will just delay the recovery, and our economic situation will get worse.”
Riley first posed her prepared questions to the legislators before accepting questions from people who had tuned in to watch the discussion.
Topics included online learning, recovery efforts, stay-at-home orders, agricultural impacts, nonprofit support, transportation and infrastructure, governor enforcement, affordable housing, essential workforce designations and childcare.
Both recovery efforts and transportation/infrastructure saw the most discussion.
Schoesler and Springer both were lawmakers when the recession hit in 2008, and they were there during the state’s recovery.
“The key probably is early action — a dollar saved now is probably worth a dollar and half in January,” Schoesler said when asked about potential lessons learned from 2008.
Schoesler noted that the governor had tools at the ready, such as line item veto powers and executive orders, to ensure the economic impacts are not compounded, and he noted that constituents need to be informed of the tools available to them.
Springer said the biggest lesson learned from multiple recessions he’s endured as a legislator is: “Always assume in your budget development that you’re going to have another recession because they always come… and then plan accordingly.”
The state created a rainy day fund (the constitutionally-mandated budget stabilization account) that Springer hopes will help ease the hurt of COVID-19’s economic impacts, but he cautioned that the virus could do more damage than expected.
“It’s going to serve us really well when we see just how severe the downturn is going to be after we recover from the COVID virus,” Springer said. “I think the numbers are going to be staggering.”
A viewer asked about potential transportation or infrastructure projects and how the current traffic situation (basically, nonexistent as most residents have been ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee to stay at home) might inform future projects.
“There is going to be an assessed need to rethink almost everything we do as a state,” Wilcox said. “There have been some people who have been really profound in their understanding that things are not going to go back to being just the same as they were. Not even after we are able to get back on our feet economically.”
Billig suggested considering transportation and infrastructure improvements as an economic stimulus package.
“One of the great things about investing in infrastructure as part of a recovery plan is that it creates jobs now — important construction jobs in the short term, which is crucial for getting people back to work and having living wage jobs,” Billig said. “We had a need for a transportation package before this, and now it’s even greater. And we can see even bigger benefits.”
Billig agreed with Wilcox that the status quo likely would not return after the pandemic eases.
Springer noted that the state has long needed to review how it funds transportation improvements.
“What it will point out is something we’ve known for a long time — we have an inadequate system for paying for our transportation costs. Relying on gas tax almost alone to pay for transportation projects is just not going to be sufficient moving forward. We’ve known that probably for a decade,” Springer said.
And the vast needs should be addressed in order for effective improvements, Springer added: “We’re really talking about funding state highway projects right now, but some of the real struggles here in east King County, the county roads are insufficiently funded as well. You can have a great highway, but if the road getting to it isn’t any good, you really haven’t accomplished much.”
The legislators were asked if the governor’s stay-at-home order should be enforced.
On March 23, the governor officially ordered state residents to stay home for two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. During a press conference on March 30, Inslee warned that a lack of voluntary compliance could mean enforcement measures.
Billig said enforcement could be warranted in the future, despite the economic pains that are being felt from nonessential workers having to stay home.
“We have to remember we have a health crisis,” Billig said. “So while it’s inconvenient and frustrating to be home, we’ve got to first address the health crisis, and then we’ve got to come back and address the economic recovery. They’re intertwined”
“If we rush the health recovery too fast, we’re just going to make the health issue worse and make the economic issue worse,” he added. “I think the stay-at-home order is exactly the right thing to do, and I fully support it, and I think we’ve got to keep doing it. And if people are not complying, then I think enforcement is reasonable.”
Later in the webinar during closing remarks, Wilcox hoped for a grassroots solution rather than enforcement.
“I hope that in response to the governor thinking about compliance, people will solve their problems among themselves as neighbors first rather than involve the authorities in that,” Wilcox said.
The conversation about enforcement was followed by a question about the impact COVID-19 might have on affordable housing. The legislators seemed to agree that deeming some workers essential and others as nonessential was an unenviable task that fell on the governor.
“Difficult to explain nonessential,” Springer said.
Wilcox added that he’d like to see further considerations as the situation develops.
“I think the governor was appropriate in using the filter of what’s essential to start this off,” Wilcox said. “As we move forward, I would hope that there would be another category and that would be: What can we do that contributes to the economy that’s safe?”
Billig noted that while some jobs individually seem safe, the entire industry continuing to operate is a problem.
“Individually each of these exceptions makes so much sense. It’s just when you think about them in total that’s a lot more people going back and being together with a lot of other people,” Billig said. “My default is to go with the scientists and go with the public health experts.”
Some specific industries the legislators noted could use some additional consideration include auto sales when performed entirely online, along with outdoor construction work.
Wilcox was asked to weigh in on the impact to the state’s agricultural industry and said: “There’s lots of important foods that really depend on an everyday workforce being ready to operate a press sequence, distribution, the supply chain. In my mind, one of the next real concerns that we’re going to have is how are we going to make sure these critical facilities have protective equipment?”
“This is not a concern just for farmers or people who are involved in the grocery business or food processing — this is what the people of Washington and all of the country really depend on,” he said.
Biling noted that childcare issues has been a focus of his during his political career. Some bills were approved this recent legislative session that would help the childcare industry, and Billig said he hopes those bills aren’t vetoed to solve economic concerns brought by COVID-19.
“We were in crisis before this crisis, and now the childcare crisis is going to be even deeper,” Billig said.
The entire discussion was about an hour long. Like many people are doing worldwide, Billig offered a positive outlook to the situation in his closing remarks.
“If there’s a silver lining to be found here, it is how people are coming together,” Billig said.
See a recording of the full webinar online at https://youtu.be/yZuhCdBC2x8.