Local reps, officials say Senate GOP stimulus proposal doesn’t do enough for counties, towns

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., during a news conference on on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 27, 2020, to highlight their proposal for the next coronavirus stimulus bill. McConnell is joined by, from left, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Oswego County’s members of Congress say a proposal for a second coronavirus stimulus package doesn’t do enough to help states and local governments.

Unemployment assistance, eviction protections and other relief for millions of Americans are at stake as White House officials launch negotiations on a new coronavirus aid package that's teetering in Congress ahead of looming deadlines.

While Senate Republicans struggled to roll out their own $1 trillion proposal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi implored the White House and GOP lawmakers to stop the infighting and come to the negotiating table with Democrats. Aid runs out Friday for a $600 weekly jobless benefit that Democrats call a lifeline for out-of-work Americans. Republican want to slash it to $200 a week, saying that the federal bump is too generous on top of state benefits and is discouraging employees from returning to work.

With unemployment still at a high 11.1 percent and hiring potentially slowing in July, the economy is likely to weaken further without more government aid. What's needed, most economists say, is continued extra aid for tens of millions of unemployed Americans, along with more funding for state and local governments and more grants for struggling small companies, many of which could go out of business.

State and local government aid is also glaringly lacking, in the Senate Republican proposal, say Oswego County’s members of Congress.

“It’s crucial we get state and local assistance in the next stimulus package before our local governments start cutting critical programs that we rely on,” U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, told The Palladium-Times on Monday.

Counties and cities in central New York are already cutting back because of revenue drop-off, he said, which could lead to layoffs in public safety and services.

“If New York doesn’t get some federal help soon, we’re going to see a lot of job loss among health care workers, teachers, support staff, construction jobs,” Brindisi said, reached by phone in Washington where the mood is one of “urgency.”

“There’s a strong consensus on both sides of the aisle that we must have some sort of state and local aid,” he added.

On the other side of that aisle, U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, said he was “deeply troubled” by the Senate’s reported proposal.

“Over the past few weeks, I've heard loud and clear from our local and county governments – they need additional aid,” he said, praising those local governments as “at the forefront of our effort to combat the pandemic.”

“As Congress moves forward to negotiate a bill, I will continue to advocate within my own party and across the aisle for adequate relief for our local governments," Katko said.

Oswego County administrator Phil Church told The Palladium-Times county officials will soon begin detailed budget work on next year’s revenue and spending plan, and local governments so far don’t know “what we can and what we can’t count on.”

“The level of government that’s bearing the brunt of COVID-19 both economically and operationally is counties,” Church said. “We have the health districts and it’s hitting us, and every county, very hard.”

Church said county accountants are “keeping a close eye” on sales tax revenue and how harsh cuts for state- and-federally mandated services will end up being. Reports indicate 20 percent is the starting point, and some programs could see their budgets reduced by half. Some of the most high profile cuts will be seen in public works including paving and bridge and snow service, social service programs, youth programs and programs for aging adults.

“It’s really across the board,” Church said. “We don’t want to hurt taxpayers any more than they already have been, so we have to figure out how to make up for those losses and try to maintain as many services as we can.”

President Donald Trump signed the first coronavirus stimulus package, known as the CARES Act, into law on March 27. The CARES Act contained $2 trillion in relief efforts, including an initial $1,200 payment to eligible taxpayers. The delay in the latest stimulus is the fault of the Republican-controlled Senate, Brindisi said.

“Why is it taking so long? Blame Mitch McConnell,” Brindisi said. The Democrat-led House of Representatives sent another $3 trillion aid package, known as the HEROES Act, to McConnell in May.

“They still have not acted (on the HEROES Act),” Brindisi said. “If I’m a small business owner or a worker or school teacher, I’m certainly wondering what’s taking so long.”

With the virus death toll climbing and 4.2 million infections nationwide, both parties are eager for a deal. There is widespread agreement that more money is needed for virus testing, to help schools prepare to open in the fall and to shore up small businesses. Voters are assessing their handling of the virus crisis before the November election, and President Donald Trump’s standing is at one of the lowest points of his term, according to a new AP-NORC poll.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows worked through the weekend on the GOP proposal and agreed to meet with Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer at the speaker's office late Monday for talks. 

“The coronavirus has hit New York families especially hard and without action this week in the Senate, millions of those families who have been financially hanging on by a thread would be hurt even more,” warned Schumer.

“Undoubtedly, without action this week to cushion the economic blows of the pandemic we face three dangerous cliffs that include unemployment insurance, renter protections and state and local budgets that are going broke. So, we are here today to demand Leader McConnell stop the dithering, present the next coronavirus relief bill, start negotiations and then get that bill on the floor because a failure to do so will mean too many fall off that veritable cliff,” Schumer added.

The Republicans come to the negotiating table hobbled by infighting and delays. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wanted to hit “pause” on new spending after Congress approved a sweeping $2.2 trillion relief package in March. But Pelosi, D-Calif., took the opposite approach, swiftly passing a $3 trillion effort with robust Democratic support. In the intervening months, the crisis deepened.

McConnell, flanked by top GOP chairs Monday at the Capitol, unveiled his long-awaited proposal. It provides some $105 billion to schools and colleges, the K-12 funds tilted toward campuses that reopen with in-person learning. There's more money for virus testing, $15 billion for child care centers and benefits for businesses, including a fresh round of loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, tax breaks and a sweeping liability shield from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

The Republican proposal would also provide another round of $1,200 direct payments based on the same formula from the earlier aid bill. People making $75,000 or less would receive the full amount, with the benefit phased out for those earning above $99,000, or double for married couples filing joint taxes.

It also provides $1.7 billion for a new FBI headquarters in Washington, a non-pandemic-related expense that's a top priority of the president but not of lawmakers or McConnell. Trump's hotel is across the street from it on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Senate Republicans have offered another bold framework to help our nation,” McConnell said. He called it a starting point in talks.

But conservative Republicans quickly broke ranks on McConnell's plan, arguing the spending was too much and priorities misplaced. Half the Republican senators could vote against the bill, some warned, and their opposition leaves McConnell heading into negotiations with Pelosi without the full force of the Senate majority behind him. 

“The focus of this legislation is wrong,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the bill's most vocal opponents, told reporters at the Capitol. “Our priority, our objective, should be restarting the economy.”

As bipartisan talks unfold, the White House is now suggesting a narrower relief package may be all that's possible with Friday's approaching deadlines. 

Mnuchin and Meadows, in appearances Sunday, cited unemployment benefits, money to help schools reopen, tax credits to keep people from losing their jobs and lawsuit protections for schools and businesses as priorities for quick relief.

“We can move very quickly with the Democrats on these issues,” Mnuchin said. 

Pelosi has resisted tackling a relief package in piecemeal fashion, arguing that broader aid is needed for Americans. She panned the Trump administration’s desire to reduce the $600 weekly unemployment aid to ensure no more than 70% of prepandemic wages. 

“Children are hungry, families cannot pay the rent, unemployment is expiring and the Republicans want to pause again and go piecemeal,” Pelosi said.

“We have stood ready to negotiate for more than two months," she said. She urged them to come to her office “and get the job done.”

The $600 weekly jobless benefits boost, approved as part of the March aid package, officially expires July 31, but because of the way states process unemployment payments, the cutoff was effectively Saturday.

Under the GOP proposal, the jobless boost would be reduced to $200 a week for two months through September and phased out to a new system that ensures no more than 70% of an employee’s previous pay. States could request an additional two months, if needed, to make the transition. 

Democrats pointed to an assessment from economist Mark Zandi, who called it a “poor policy choice.” Zandi said that if the GOP proposal became law, nearly 1 million jobs would be lost by year's end and the unemployment rate, now above 11%, would climb more than half a percentage point.

Friday is also the end of a federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units that the White House said it wants to extend in some fashion. 

At the same time, budget watchers are wary of the rising debt load as Washington piles on unprecedented sums in trying to contain the pandemic and economic fallout.

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