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State Leaders Push for COVID Relief Package Before Deadline

Several Washington state lawmakers are calling upon Congress to enact a coronavirus stimulus package before the Dec. 30 deadline to address a wide range of costs and hardships for health, jobs, local government and more.

(TNS) — Before COVID-19 came along, Ariel McSpadden was used to being independent.

The 25-year-old lifelong Spokane Valley resident had never had trouble paying bills and had usually been the primary breadwinner in her family. But after losing her job when pandemic restrictions forced the massage therapy office where she worked to close, she and her partner were forced to rely on his paycheck from Walmart and fell behind on rent, utility and car payments.

Now, like thousands of other Inland Northwest residents, McSpadden is counting on rental assistance and other programs with funding drying up. With the coronavirus relief measures Congress passed in March set to expire at the end of the year, Republicans and Democrats are still at loggerheads over a new stimulus package while Americans like McSpadden are on the verge of losing a critical safety net just as COVID-19 numbers are swelling across the country.

McSpadden found another job a few months ago, but with a new wave of statewide restrictions on businesses going into effect this week, she worries she could be out of work again and unable to get the help she needs. "There should be more resources and opportunity," she said, "because we're not in control of what gets shut down or not."

Democrats, including Washington Sen. Patty Murray, are pushing for an expansive new relief package that would address the pandemic's impacts on health care, jobs, education, housing, local governments and more. The Senate's third-ranking Democrat said she was hopeful her colleagues would be spurred to act after returning to their home states and "really seeing that the pain on the ground at home is real."

"It is, I think, really imperative that we get something done," she said. "We have a health care crisis that is causing an economic crisis right now, and until we get that under control, we're going to continue to have an economic crisis."

Republicans, meanwhile, favor a much narrower relief package and insist any compromise must include a provision to protect businesses from COVID-related lawsuits, something Democrats have so far opposed.

But while lawmakers are deadlocked over another round of economic stimulus, a raft of crucial existing protections is set to expire at year's end.

The provisions ending after Dec. 30 or 31 include one extending eligibility for unemployment insurance, another that expands jobless benefits to gig workers, a freeze on evictions, student loan forbearance and debt relief for small businesses. Perhaps most crucially, federal funds provided to state, local and tribal governments must be spent before the end of December.

"This pandemic is far from over," said Tyrel Stevenson, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's legislative director. "That hard-and-fast deadline is really artificial in the face of what's happening on the ground. The pandemic is clearly going to extend past Dec. 30. We're clearly going to experience costs and hardships beyond Dec. 30"

Who Wants to Extend the Deadline —And How

Kansas Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, both Republicans, have introduced a standalone bill to extend that deadline, but Sen. Jim Risch, R- Idaho, said such a measure may have better odds of passing in a broader relief bill.

"I can boldly predict that if we do another coronavirus bill, there will be a provision that (extends the deadline)," Risch said. "The standalone bill is much more problematic, simply because ... standalones pass very rarely except on unanimous consent, and when you're talking about spending money, unanimous consent is hard to come by."

Congress swiftly passed a wide-ranging relief package worth nearly $3 trillion in March, dubbed the CARES Act, but since then the two parties have staked out starkly different positions. After House Democrats passed another sprawling, $3 trillion relief package in May, Senate Republicans showed less urgency and more thrift, unveiling a $1 trillion counteroffer in late July and proposing even smaller packages since.

Negotiators have blown past several deadlines, including the end of $600-a-week supplemental jobless benefits in July and the expiration of the Paycheck Protection Program — forgivable loans that kept many businesses afloat — in August. Election-year politics played a role, with neither party willing to give in or give the other side a political victory ahead of the Nov. 3 vote.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R- Spokane, said the top Democrat in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, is to blame for the inaction before Election Day.

"There was not the political will by Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats to give President Trump any kind of a win," McMorris Rodgers said.

Democrats, meanwhile, blame Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for stymieing any progress. Prior to the election, McConnell largely took a back seat to White House negotiators in talking with Pelosi.

"There is a key part of this that is missing," Murray said, "and that is Mitch McConnell's commitment to do it. Because, unless he as majority leader brings it to the floor, nothing will happen."

McConnell has dismissed Democrats' $3 trillion bill in May and a slimmer, $2.1 trillion bill the House passed in October as nonstarters, and said Tuesday he would support only a narrower, $500 billion relief package. Democrats, afraid to lose negotiating leverage, have spurned a piecemeal approach and insisted on comprehensive legislation.

Southwest Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler has led the House's Republican minority in an as-yet-unsuccessful effort to circumvent Pelosi and extend the Paycheck Protection Program, which expired Aug. 8, through a procedure that would force a vote on a standalone PPP bill.

"I haven't let up on my effort to renew the Paycheck Protection Program," Herrera Beutler said in a statement, "because the PPP is a proven safety net program that has saved thousands of jobs in Southwest Washington and millions across the country."

In an interview Friday, Risch said the news of a highly effective vaccine has further changed the sense among some lawmakers of how much stimulus spending is needed.

"People are working at (COVID relief negotiations) in good faith, but there's a different view of how to do this," he said. "There is a feeling that we are going to move out of the COVID problem, probably, pretty quickly. We are on the cusp of having a vaccine."

But public health experts warn a vaccine may not be widely available until spring. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D- Wash., said in a statement Congress needs to provide more relief to get the country through a hard winter.

"With COVID cases at their highest-ever levels, Eastern Washington's hospitals are feeling the pressure and families are struggling to pay for housing and food," Cantwell said. "It's imperative that Congress pass another COVID package to get critical supplies to our health care workers and provide families and small businesses with the economic resources they need to survive."

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Central Washington Republican, said he is hopeful the nationwide surge in virus cases will push his colleagues to get a deal done.

"The fact that we're seeing, across the country, an increase in the number of cases, and increase in the number of states that are putting restrictions on, I think the sense of urgency should be increasing here in Congress," Newhouse said. "And now that the election has passed, I think some of the political dynamics should be taken away, and that should allow us to move forward and get something passed."

For Local Leaders, 'It's Been a Challenge'

While Congress mulls another relief package, some Spokane-area leaders have been ambivalent about the need for more federal stimulus money.

In an interview before Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new round of COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday, State Rep. Jenny Graham balked at the notion of another shutdown or new stimulus from the state's coffers.

It doesn't "do us any good to offer more in the way" of unemployment benefits, Graham said, pointing to the massive fraud that roiled the state's Employment Security Department and its struggles to keep up with a surge in demand early in the pandemic.

Graham said her office still gets calls from people who struggle to obtain unemployment benefits. Even as Spokane's COVID-19 case counts continue to sharply rise, Graham said the state's focus should be on finding ways to safely reopen.

Larger corporations, not mom-and-pop businesses, have been the largest beneficiaries of stimulus, Graham argued.

In an interview Nov. 7, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said she had not been lobbying federal leaders for a new round of economic stimulus as talks in Congress stalled, saying the city and county had "barely had time to get all the CARES act money out to the community" before deadlines imposed by the federal government.

"We can say we want more stimulus money or more bailout money, but it's been a challenge for some cities to actually find facilitators to actually get money out," Woodward said.

But on Monday, following Inslee's announcement, Woodward vowed to campaign for more federal support, saying she will reach out to McMorris Rodgers to ask for support for "businesses that are really going to need help, because here we are again where we are restricting their ability to keep people working and to keep their doors open."

"At the federal level, we're going to have to see some assistance," Woodward said. "That's where the bulk of money is going to come from, because I don't think the state of Washington has it."

How the Funds are Distributed

Other Inland Northwest leaders said they hope Congress will give counties, cities and states more time to spend CARES funds, more funds or just more flexibility.

The state of Washington received a total of about $2.9 billion in COVID-19 aid funding, Idaho received about $1.25 billion and cities and counties with populations above 500,000 also received direct payments from the CARES Act based on their population.

All cities and counties smaller than 500,000, about 315 local governments, received much smaller CARES funds allocations through the state, and many have already spent their allotment, though they have until Nov. 30 to do so.

Spokane County receive about $91 million in CARES money and has spent about $71 million so far, with the largest share, about $21 million, going to small business and nonprofit grants. The county has also given Second Harvest about $9 million for food and food storage, the Spokane Regional Health District about $8 million for contact tracing and has used CARES funds to help schools cover the costs of re-opening, and on other COVID-related issues in the county.

Of the $20 million remaining for the county to spend, about $5 million has been set aside by commissioners for potential elevated costs at the Health District.

County Commissioner Al French noted the pandemic and the issues it has caused will not be over at the end of the year.

"In 2021, where are we going to get resources to help people?" French said.

French said he has spoken to members of Washington's congressional delegation about more time or more money and is hoping Congress will act.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns expressed similar concerns, saying even if Congress decides against providing communities with more money, he's hopeful Congress will meet before the end of the year to extend the deadline.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said she is concerned about the need for increased funding at the Health District next year because of the rising local case count and the need for contact tracing and other pandemic-specific costs.

In Idaho, all CARES funds were allocated through the state. Idaho State Budget Director Alex Adams said the state divided the funds into several categories. The state has allocated about 89 percent of its funds, which total over $1 billion. But some of the funds that were sent out, such as about $44 million that went to local governments, were not spent and will return to the state in the next few weeks to be reallocated.

Adams said counties given CARES funds only spent about 9 percent and cities only spent about 11 percent of what they were given. He said when that money comes back to the state, some of it could go to pay for elevated National Guard costs the state has accrued in its response to the pandemic, as well as other projects.

He said the state also spent about $50 million on broadband projects in response to the pandemic, and allocated about $300 million for small business grants. Only about $110 million of the small business grants ended up being used, so the remaining funds were put into the state's Unemployment Trust Fund.

Adams said Gov. Brad Little's staff had connected with the state's congressional delegation to discuss extending the CARES funds and relaxing the requirements so they could be used on other stimulus and infrastructure projects once the state's health care needs are taken care of. He said even if the state does not get more flexibility, it is hoping for more time.

"It seems like the lowest hanging fruit for ensuring we have the resources necessary to address this pandemic," he said.

As Debate Carries On, So Do Residents' Fears

McSpadden said she fears when her lease expires in January, she will still be in debt and there won't be many programs with rental or utility assistance left that she qualifies for. She and her partner hoped to move from a one-bedroom apartment to a house next year, which would give them more space for her nephew and stepchildren to visit.

Currently, there are assistance programs available across Spokane County that will cover rent, utilities and food, but much of the funding for those programs is provided through the CARES Act funds that will expire Dec. 30.

According to data provided by Second Harvest, an organization that supplies most food banks in Spokane County and Eastern Washington, the organization was doing nearly four times as many mobile food events for the community — and sending out millions more pounds of food — than it has in past years. The need is expected to continue to trend upward into next year.

Nicole Bishop, marketing and communications specialist for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP), the nonprofit that handles a significant portion of rental and utility assistance in Spokane County, said one of the biggest rental assistance grants is backed by CARES funding and will end at the end of the year.

The organization has received thousands of calls or online requests over the course of the pandemic inquiring about assistance and Bishop said she expects a "tsunami of need" to hit the community in January when eviction protections expire.

Bishop said additional time would likely give the organization the ability to serve more people, especially underserved communities. She said managing a large amount of rental or utility assistance in a short time is difficult, because the agency can only process a set number of applications at a time. Every person who receives assistance must submit paperwork first, and if they've never sought assistance before, there can be a learning curve that may make their application take longer.

Both Second Harvest and SNAP are now serving a significant number of people who have never sought food, utility or rental assistance.

The response to the pandemic has struggled to provide businesses the support they actually need, according to Mariah McKay, executive director of the Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance, or SIMBA.

"My business owners are drowning in hand sanitizer and face masks," McKay said. "That need was met, by and large."

Accessing the various forms of financial assistance available during the pandemic can be a messy prospect for a sole proprietor operating a small business. Business owners have to learn about a grant and determine if they're eligible for it, which in some cases can be as specific as proving "beyond a shadow of a doubt lost revenue from year to year."

Then they have to fill out the grant application and make a compelling case, all while continuing to operate a business during a pandemic.

"That's a lot of asks to put on a small business owner who's also having to install plexiglass, and maybe lay people off temporarily or reduce hours," McKay said.

About 15 percent of SIMBA businesses are on the brink of insolvency in the short term, and more in the long term, McKay estimated last week, before Inslee announced new restrictions.

"We need additional stimulus, and we need a reality-based framework for getting those funds into the hands that really need them," McKay said.

McSpadden said her time in quarantine and out of work made her even more frustrated with the country's leaders, because she had to take almost two weeks in unpaid time off to isolate in addition to spending months without a paycheck after being exposed to the virus.

Members of Congress, she said, don't seem to understand how much average people have struggled to get through the pandemic.

"They need to take a step back," she said, "and think about if they were in our shoes, what they would do."

(c)2020 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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