OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars in 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.
Inslee vetoed on Friday nearly two dozen bills in their entirety, as well as more than 140 separate budget items in the $53.4 billion state supplemental budget passed by the Legislature last month.
The vetoes 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.
Areas of the budget that did not see reductions were areas that dealt with public health, homelessness and child care, Inslee’s budget office said.
Inslee called the savings “a substantial step to try to right our fiscal ship that we know will be in very, very troubled waters.”
He said while it’s too early to predict how much of an impact the state will face, he said he is concerned about the potential of running through the approximately $3 billion the state has in reserves.
Inslee said his actions to reduce spending combined with the state’s ongoing social distancing measures will be key.
“The best way to solve our economic challenges are to solve our COVID-19 challenges,” he said. “The faster we get through this pandemic, the faster we will be able to get our economy up and running again.”
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 280 people have died and there are more than 6,900 confirmed cases.
Following last month’s statewide closure of bars, dine-in restaurants and gyms, and a 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.
Last week, there were 181,975 new claims for unemployment benefits, a 3,513 percent 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.
Rep. Timm Ormsby and Sen. Christine Rolfes, the Democratic budget writers, said in a joint statement that they supported Inslee’s budget reductions, writing that they were “necessary to help address the sudden and dramatic change to our state’s fiscal situation and to maintain focus on the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”
“The health and safety of all Washingtonians is paramount, and these reductions will help our state remain nimble as we face declining revenues,” they wrote.
Republican Rep. Drew Stokesbary also commended the governor for the vetoes, but encouraged the governor to work with state agencies to begin reducing current spending across state government “to ensure the state has adequate fiscal resources to continue providing critical services to those who depend on them.”
Inslee signed the budget a day after he extended the stay-at-home order to six weeks, through 11:59 p.m. May 4.
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.
Inslee thanked people who are staying home to slow the spread of the virus.
“If we’re going to right our economic ship, we simply have to get through this pandemic,” he said. “Once we get through this pandemic, then we can start rebuilding.”