Dusk falls over the U.S. Capitol on Monday in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Dusk falls over the U.S. Capitol on Monday in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Local leaders welcome the $900B pandemic relief package

The deal boosts jobless benefits, aids small businesses and provides $600 stimulus checks.

Congress approved a huge pandemic relief bill late Monday that will boost benefits for unemployed, bolster nutrition assistance and provide $600 direct checks for most adults and children.

The $900 billion package, which now goes to President Donald Trump for signature, also contains another round of financial aid for businesses and an infusion of money to public health departments to continue fighting the spread of COVID-19, while ramping up vaccination efforts.

State and local leaders hailed the agreement as critical for residents who have lost jobs and merchants who have closed down due to the spread of COVID-19 and are now struggling to pay bills and feed their families.

“While it is many months overdue, I am pleased Congress has reached agreement,” Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “This will provide sorely-needed support for hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians who are struggling with joblessness, hunger and housing insecurity.”

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring applauded federal lawmakers for getting it done.

“This is good because any kind of help economically for individuals and businesses who have been negatively impacted by COVID is helpful,” he said.

The absence of aid for state, local and tribal governments displeased the governor. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law in March, provided about $2.95 billion to state and local governments in Washington to help fund the response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Make no mistake — this package can only be considered a down-payment on the relief needed to fully recover from this pandemic,” Inslee said. “Our work must continue with the Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress to secure additional aid to families and ensure states have the resources to preserve core programs and services that Americans rely on.”

Count Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin as disappointed, too.

Cities and counties provide basic services such as police, fire, parks and roads but, she said, received no aid to offset the hit to their streams of revenue from a pandemic-induced recession.

“Any stimulus money is good for our residents and those who are unemployed and those living on the edge,” she said. “My major frustration is that there’s no relief for cities and counties in this package. Cities in every part of this country are hurting. It is extremely disappointing and I am really fearful that we don’t have any relief coming soon.”

U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen of Everett and Suzan DelBene of Medina, both Democrats, acknowledged there are people disappointed in the size and scope of the final package.

“It is also very true that there is a lot in the COVID-19 package that will help a lot of people right now,” said Larsen, of the 2nd Congressional District. “I think we have to see this as a down payment. The economy hasn’t recovered. People are still hurting.”

DelBene, whose 1st District includes cities and rural areas on Snohomish County’s east flank, said the deal “will provide meaningful relief to Americans during this challenging time.”

“Compromise is difficult but in a time of divided government, it’s the only way we get things done,” she said. “This virus will not simply vanish starting next year and additional relief must be Congress’ top priority going forward.”

Larsen also expressed optimism the incoming Biden administration will look to develop another package.

“And I’m confident Congress will act,” he said.

Under the new deal, those out of work will receive a $300 a week federal benefit. Also, the deal increases the maximum number of weeks people may make unemployment claims from 39 to 50, and it extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to March 14. In some cases, a person will be eligible to receive benefits through April 5 if they have not reached the maximum number of weeks.

There will also be round of stimulus payments, this time with direct payments of up to $600 per adult and dependent child. Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is also boosted and will be available to eligible college students.

And the Paycheck Protection Program will get a $284 billion infusion, along with new rules enabling some companies to qualify for a second loan under certain circumstances.

Those direct payments and additional unemployment benefits will stimulate spending and be a boost for the state’s economy, said Steve Lerch, executive director of the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.

“We would expect this to have a positive impact on both taxable retail sales and on sales of non-taxable necessities like groceries. How big an impact will depend in part on COVID,” he said. “Rising cases could lead to additional restrictions on businesses, which would tend to slow down spending. Even without any further business limitations, rising COVID cases will tend to cause at least some consumers to stay home and could reduce how much of the additional stimulus payments get spent.”

The deal provides another year for local and state governments to spend CARES Act funds, which originally had to be expended by Dec. 30.

That extension simplifies things for Snohomish County leaders, who had planned to meet that deadline by spending some $13.2 million left from the original relief package on public safety and earmarking an equal amount of next year’s general fund to continue vital emergency response and economic assistance efforts.

Pushing that deadline eliminates some “administrative hoops” that county staff would otherwise have to jump through, including amending contracts associated with pandemic-related programs, said Ken Klein, a top staffer for county Executive Dave Somers.

A million dollars more could become available for local business grants next year.

Rules prevent the county’s general fund from being used for such grants. But because the CARES Act spending deadline has been pushed, Somers’ office is proposing that $1 million go toward another round of awards in the county’s Small Business Relief, Recovery, and Resiliency (R3) Grant Program, Klein said.

The relief package will provide $25 billion to local and state governments for rental assistance programs that have been inundated by requests.

The county has funneled some of its CARES Act money through a program run by Volunteers of America of Western Washington, which doled out more rental assistance during a four-month period this year than it did the previous seven years combined.

Somers is still recommending that the county council preserve $13.2 million for relief efforts in early 2021.

Of the CARES Act balance, $2 million would allow more families to receive rental assistance for three to five months next year; but county Department of Human Services officials expect the $2 million would be accounted for after just two weeks of enrolling new households.

The $13.2 million would also allow the county to continue funding through programs that provide food assistance to families in need, personal protective gear for frontline workers and shelter to homeless people.

The reserved sum would include a few million dollars for costs associated with vaccine distribution, should the county be called on to establish sites where people can get the shot, Klein said.

“We have a good plan in place to span the first three months of the year and continue the work that we’re doing,” he said.

The council is set to consider a measure allocating the rest of the unspent CARES Act funds at a meeting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos

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