Businesses deserve more credit than they’re getting from Olympia

We should trust that our businesses have every reason to make their customers and employees feel safe as possible

A person has to feel for the auto dealers and professional landscapers and car wash businesses who were pretty much snookered by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office the other day.

Imagine being forced to shut down in late March, then be told you could reopen May 5 under new safety regulations – only to be forced to wait again because the governor’s team had yet to complete the writing of those regulations and wouldn’t for several more days.

You can’t make that stuff up.

I know Gov. Inslee and his team have had their hands full with the COVID-19 situation. Still, if you push someone to the ground – which is what the governor’s March 23 stay-at-home proclamation was like, for roughly 700,000 Washington workers who were suddenly labeled “non-essential” – it shouldn’t take a month-plus before you get around to telling them when and how they can finally get up.

It’s as though the governor and his team of unelected (and therefore unaccountable) advisers simply don’t trust Washington employers to care about their employees and customers. As a result, they end up micromanaging to an extreme degree. Did you know car wash businesses now have to follow 22 new requirements to operate, including one to “arrange furniture in a manner that promotes social distancing”? Again, you can’t make this stuff up.

Here in Clark County the frustration over the shutdown was amplified by the fact that Oregon’s limits on business were less restrictive. Our state’s top three sources of tax revenue are construction, auto sales and food service/bars, in that order. Gov. Inslee shut them all down, yet construction and auto sales (and golf, and fishing) were allowed to continue south of the Columbia River.

Republican legislators listened to the businesses that were shut down by the governor and left hanging for weeks afterward. This led us to put the Legislative Republican Safe Economic Restart Plan on the table April 17. I was proud to head up the work done by Republican senators to develop this three-tier plan.

While Gov. Inslee did not publicly acknowledge our work, you know what they say about imitation. A week later he loosened the restrictions on existing construction projects (although not all construction, as we’d proposed). Other low-risk businesses we listed (like landscaping) were put first in his “phased approach” to reopening. Had the governor let us know he was finally working on a recovery plan, our side would have happily steered more good ideas his way.

After shutting the Legislature out of the dialogue that led to his original stay-at-home order, Gov. Inslee quietly invited each legislative caucus to appoint two members to a Business Recovery Legislative Task Force. It met just five times over two weeks, then he abruptly pulled the plug. This means legislators, including the many of us with experience running a business, no longer have a direct path to offer recommendations.

The shutdown of so many businesses is also threatening the state’s ability to fund important and popular state programs, from K-12 education to social services – including those for our most vulnerable citizens. I and other members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee learned earlier this month that the loss of economic activity due to Washington’s COVID-19 response has state government heading toward a budget shortfall of at least $7 billion. Considering the state was about $1.5 billion to the good in mid-February, it’s a stunning reversal.

The governor appears intent – and content – to wait at least until mid-July before allowing the economy to fully reopen. That’s disappointing, especially for the many professional-services providers in Washington hit with a big B&O tax increase this year (the first bill passed by the Legislature’s majority party in 2020).

I recognize businesses, particularly local small businesses, have every reason to make sure their customers and employees feel safe as possible. I wish the governor would do the same and trust them to reopen safely without all the government micromanaging and delay. Employers deserve more credit than they’re getting from Olympia.

Senator Ann Rivers, R-La Center, serves on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

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