State legislators discussed Friday morning their priorities and heard what was on the minds of Skagit County business leaders.

More than 60 attended the online call organized by the Skagit County chambers of commerce. It was held in advance of the first day of the legislative session on Monday.

Four Republicans from the 10th and 39th legislative districts, and two Democrats from the 40th district, all representing parts of Skagit County, attended.

Several Republicans expressed frustration over ongoing COVID-19 business closures.

“We need to open up our businesses and let them start earning a living again,” said Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Snohomish.

Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, said he planned to introduce a bill Monday to allow restaurants to reopen.

Both Republicans and Democrats expressed support for unemployment tax relief for businesses.

According to a fact sheet from the Association of Washington Business, many employers will see large increases in unemployment tax rates this year due to COVID-19 layoffs out of their control, and to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund amid widespread job losses.

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, said she knows of a business facing a 1,000% increase in its unemployment tax rate.

Gov. Jay Inslee has unveiled a budget proposal to help employers with the projected increases.

John Sternlicht, CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, said unemployment tax relief is one of the most important issues for businesses.

“It is really important it be addressed early in the session because the Employment Security Department has to have time to implement those changes and it’s a nightmare to do,” he said.

Eslick had other ideas to help small businesses, including suspending the business & occupation (B&O) tax until April, and a $5,000 credit for businesses on their B&O liability.

She said another top priority for her is ensuring child care providers remain open amid the pandemic.

In a question posed in the Zoom chat, Boys & Girls Clubs of Skagit County CEO and Executive Director Ron McHenry asked legislators to consider opening up pools of funds, such as the Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) program, to license-exempt child care providers.

“We do not receive any of the regular state subsidies via (WCCC), and have received very limited support toward child care costs thus far,” he wrote.

Another question concerned a proposal for a payroll tax on companies with employees making $150,000 or more, similar to what has been done in Seattle.

Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, said legislators are considering a number of tax proposals to address the state’s budget shortfall.

“I am interested in solutions that will improve the broken tax system,” he said, and that those at the lower end of the income ladder should not have to pay more than their fair share.

Another question raised was whether to allow local governments to use lodging tax dollars — revenue from fees levied on hotel and motel stays — for non-tourism purposes.

Legislators from the 40th district, including Ramel and Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Samish Island, said they were undecided on the proposal.

Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Andy Mayer said he is opposed.

“It is truly important we rebuild what is called the visitor economy, and those funds do a lot to rebuild it,” he said.

Amy Spain, with the Washington Hospitality Association, said should the proposal go through it would harm retailers, restaurants and the hospitality industry.

“Stripping the hospitality industry from these needed funds at the time we are hurting the most is cruel,” she wrote in the Zoom chat. “Certainly, there must be a more equitable way to fill budget gaps.”

Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau asked legislators how they would work through conflict and maintain civil dialogue.

Lekanoff said she will rely on relationships and friendships with Republican colleagues to find common ground.

“We all open the doors for one another and help find common pathways,” she said.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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