Budget shortfalls, school closures, wildfires
Republican legislators highlight state issues
Last updated 10/2/2020 at 3:02pm
MOSES LAKE – How can Washington state address a $4 billion budget shortfall if the governor will not call a special legislative session to discuss the problem?
This was one of many issues discussed during a media call Monday, Sept. 28, hosted by Republican legislators.
Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, expressed frustration that the governor has not called a special session to address the budget.
“Not in the history of this state have we been unable to meet. Other states have met and called a special session,” she noted.
Warnick’s district includes Lincoln County.
Sen. John Braun of Centralia pointed out that the state is in a dire situation with a projected $4 billion shortfall due to loss of revenue from COVID-19. It’s a situation he says could have been prevented.
“Starting July 1, we had $1 billion in new spending that paid state workers more than private sector workers in 38 of our 39 counties. A 3% raise for state employees in the middle of an economic crisis made no sense,” Sen. Braun said. “And that was on top of an already robust budget. If we had stopped the new spending, we would be in a better position.”
Braun said while some legislators are calling for new taxes to fill the gap, he noted taxes were already raised under the last budget cycle.
“We already passed $2.5 billion in new taxes in this biennium,” he said. “Sitting on our hands and not convening the Legislature to look at this issue is just wrong.”
Sen. Braun said that, along with mismanagement of state unemployment funds, is encouraging major employers like Boeing to consider moving out of Washington.
Earlier this month, reports circulated that Boeing may move the remainder of its 787 plane production out of state. The company laid off nearly 10,000 employees in July due to the coronavirus downturn.
“Our state has lost billions in unemployment claim fraud that is going to raise unemployment premiums to Washington state businesses by $1 billion,” Braun said. “This is a terrible time to consider raising new taxes.”
According to reports, fraudulent unemployment claims may have cost the state upwards of $650 million.
Legislators discussed the challenges facing families throughout Eastern Washington as students continue to try and adapt to distance learning due to COVID-19 closures.
“It is incumbent on the state to help students get back to school,” said Seventh District Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said: “We are being told that there is a lack of personal protection equipment for teachers, but if that is the case the governor and the superintendent of schools should look for ways to help.”
Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, said he is concerned that students in his district, many who are the children of migrant farm workers, are experiencing an “opportunity gap” when only distance learning is offered.
His district includes Lincoln County, including the cities of Odessa, Almira, Wilbur, Creston and Davenport.
“A lot of the kids in my district are ELL learners, meaning they can’t speak English when they first attend school,” he said. “Generally, this creates a 20-point education gap in student achievement before COVID-19, but now the gap will be even larger.”
Wildfires and grazing
As a number of large wildfires have swept through Eastern Washington, legislators said they are working on ways to help those affected.
Sen. Warnick said she is hoping to work with state agencies, like the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, to increase grazing opportunities on state land to help those who have lost grazing areas due to fires in Okanogan, Grant, Douglas, Lincoln, Whitman and Spokane counties.
“We need to work on solutions that involve agricultural producers and get funding for the loss of feed and fencing,” Warnick said. “We also need to coordinate with the federal government to help get the funds to keep our ranchers in business.”
Rep. Jacqueline Maycumber, R-Republic, said she has been proposing legislation that would allow state agencies to remove diseased trees without lengthy environmental reviews.
“Fireproofing our forests is so important,” Maycumber said. “We are spending two to three times what we had budgeted on wildfires. We need to talk about forest management and we need to talk about it now.”
Sen. Short said she is also keeping tabs on proposals that would discourage grazing, including a recent proposal by Fish and Wildlife to prioritize wolf habitat over grazing and remove livestock from Fish and Wildlife lands if wolves are present.
“WDFW has been the largest impediment to dealing with wolves on the landscape. I will be reaching out to the Fish and Wildlife Commission on their plan,” she said. “It is unconscionable for them to put that proposal out there and take advantage of the crisis because people are not watching.”