Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Since my last update, the House has passed two COVID relief bills, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi Levine has resigned, and we learned hackers stole the personal data of 1.4 million Washingtonians who filed for unemployment last year.
Let's start with the relief bills.
Senate Bill 5061 is a good bill that could have been a lot better. Signed into law yesterday by the governor, it will limit the massive unemployment insurance tax increases businesses are facing. That's a very good thing, but House Republicans offered a number of amendments that would have provided even more relief for our job creators.
One amendment, which I spoke in favor of, would have suspended all unemployment insurance tax increases until the governor's termination of the current state of emergency.
Another amendment would have allowed business owners to defer unemployment insurance tax payments for two quarters. This would have provided them with some much-needed breathing room financially.
The third amendment we offered would have authorized a one-time transfer from the state's rainy-day fund to the unemployment trust fund, which has been depleted as a result of the pandemic and theft by foreign fraudsters. This would have ensured we're not relying solely on business owners to replenish that fund. Our state's rainy-day fund exists for a reason. Now is the time to draw from it.
All three amendments were rejected, which was disappointing. However, I still voted in favor of Senate Bill 5061 because our small businesses need our help now more than ever, and this legislation will help keep many of them afloat.
The other COVID relief bill that came to the floor was House Bill 1368, which will provide $2.2 billion for Washington families and businesses. Of the six amendments Republicans offered, mine was the only one accepted by the Democrats. It provides flexibility for the Department of Commerce in allocating $240 million in grants for small businesses that need assistance reopening or maintaining operations. It also bumps the maximum grant award from $20,000 to $75,000 per business. I want to thank Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, both of whom worked with me to get the amendment approved.
Although Rep. Drew Stokesbary's House Bill 1334 (I'm a cosponsor on the bill) would have provided $2 billion more in relief, House Bill 1368 will still do a lot of good for Washington families and businesses. It's a good first step in our effort to rebuild our economy and safely reopen our state.
Suzi LeVine leaves her post to serve in the Biden administration
On January 22, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine sent out an email announcing she would be leaving ESD for a job in the Biden administration. When I read her email, my jaw dropped. Despite overseeing an agency that paid out $600 million in unemployment benefits to an international fraud ring, obstructing the investigation, and failing to correct ongoing problems, LeVine was not fired. Instead, she was repeatedly praised by the governor for her performance and then offered a job in D.C.
Below are excerpts from some of the emails my office has received from those of you who have had to deal with ESD over the past year. As you read them, please know we have been doing everything we can to provide assistance and get you the help you need. We will continue doing so until every problem is resolved.
“After weeks of trying to contact the ESD Office customer service via phone, chat, and email, I finally got ahold of an agent today who even noted my phone number in case we got disconnected. The agent confirmed my eligibility and as she started to tell me what the issue was in my claim, the call dropped on her end! I waited and waited for a callback which never happened. I tried calling back, but got the same continuous recording. I tried the chat option twice, but was referred back to the customer service main number. Please help! I am a single mother of a 5-year old, need to pay rent, utilities, food, etc. I am desperate.”
“I am a single mother to a 6 and 7 year old. I work as a supported living aid for mentally disabled adults. I had to stop because of COVID. I have NOT been able to get ANY sort of response from unemployment and I have NO funds. I need help I don't know what to do I can't contact anyone from unemployment and nothing is moving forward. Please please please help me!! Thank you!”
“I had to quit my job because of COVID-19, and I have not received any communication, information, or contact about my claim for two and half months from ESD, which is creating severe emotional and financial hardships paying for rent, food, utilities, healthcare, and all other costs for my household.”
There are hundreds of emails like these in my inbox.
Suzi LeVine oversaw one of the most catastrophic failures in our state's history. As Washingtonians waited for unemployment checks, she kept cashing in on her $170,000+ annual salary. At no point did the governor hold her accountable. What kind of message does that send to Washingtonians who suffered as a result of LeVine's incompetence? It's little wonder why so many people have lost confidence in state government.
It would have taken courage for the governor to fire someone from his own political party; someone he had hand-selected for the role. But that's what he should have done. Leadership is about making tough choices. It's not about patting your political allies on the back after they've caused enormous damage.
With LeVine now in D.C., I can only hope she'll serve our nation better than she served our state. The bar she set for herself is extremely low.
Yet another data breach in Washington state
Last week, news broke that hackers exploited a vulnerability in the state auditor's office to steal the personal data of the 1.4 million Washingtonians who filed for unemployment last year. The stolen data includes social security numbers, driver's license numbers, bank account numbers and employment information.
One of our priorities as House Republicans this year is holding government accountable for mismanagement at all levels. It is clear that we must pass legislation this session to increase accountability and transparency at our state agencies. We also need to hold oversight hearings to find out why they continue to fail. It's not just ESD or the auditor's office either. We've seen other massive data breaches, the early release of prisoners, the decertification of Western State Hospital, heartbreaking outcomes for children in our foster care system, cost overruns for transportation projects, and more.
There are a lot of great people working at our state agencies, but the fact is we've seen far too many failures from those at the top. Our agencies have to do better. Republicans and Democrats must work together this session to make the necessary changes to ensure that happens. We also need the governor to make accountability more of a priority going forward. Him doing so will help all of us.
Staying engaged this session
I encourage you to stay engaged in the legislative process by following House Republicans on Twitter and Facebook, visiting The Ledger, and utilizing the resources listed in this document. Finally, please bookmark my legislative website, where you can find my latest press releases, floor speeches, and more.
Please continue contacting me with your comments, questions and concerns. My email address is Kelly.Chambers@leg.wa.gov, and my district office number is (253) 840-4526. I look forward to hearing from you!