May 23, 2020
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Maine gets $625M to cover pandemic costs, but it’s unclear who decides how to spend it

Evan Vucci | AP
Evan Vucci | AP
In this March 27, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump signs the coronavirus stimulus relief package, at the White House in Washington, as from left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Minority Kevin McCarthy of California, and Vice President Mike Pence, look on. Beginning this month, Americans will see financial relief checks from the federal government’s $2 trillion stimulus plan flow into their bank accounts to assist them during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Maine’s state government received a first, $625 million installment from the federal stimulus package this week that’s meant to help the state cover costs related to the coronavirus pandemic. The state expects ultimately to receive $1.25 billion from the $2.2 trillion federal package signed into law late last month.

But questions remain about the full scope of costs the funds can cover and who decides how it will be spent.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Gov. Janet Mills said Thursday the state will be able to use the money to reimburse itself for the costs of fighting the new coronavirus, while members of the Legislature’s budget committee say they need more guidance.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has said that states, cities and other governments receiving the funding can use the money only on costs related to the coronavirus pandemic that they hadn’t budgeted for before President Donald Trump signed the stimulus package into law on March 27. In addition, the money can cover costs incurred only between March 1 and Dec. 30.

But Maine State Treasurer Henry Beck said the federal government has not issued guidance on whether states can use the money to cover costs related to “secondary effects” of the virus, such as replacing state revenues from sales and income taxes that are predicted to fall sharply as a result of much of the economy shutting down and the state delaying its income tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15.

Mills said her administration would treat the money like “any other federal grant” and use it to directly reimburse state departments that have incurred expenses. Spokesperson Lindsay Crete said after the press conference that Mills was stating her understanding of federal Treasury guidance on the issue thus far and is awaiting further guidance.

But Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee, said Thursday that it was unclear how exactly the money is supposed to be used and who decides how it is distributed.

“We need to figure out how to equitably distribute that money and what the definition of those expenses are,” she said.

While the state has spent money on coronavirus-related costs, Breen said one of the lingering questions is whether the money can also be used to reimburse municipalities and counties. She said the state had been waiting for guidance as of Wednesday.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, who also serves on the budget committee, said there are “a lot of unanswered questions” about how the money is supposed to be spent. He predicted the budget committee would take up the issue in late summer, when a better picture of how the state’s revenues have been affected by the coronavirus would be available.

The issue of who is responsible for spending the stimulus money has caused problems in neighboring New Hampshire. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu created an executive office to spend the money, but Democrats on the state’s budget committee have sued the governor, saying they are required to be included.

The money earmarked for the state government is one of a number of pools of stimulus money that have started to flow into Maine. Recent announcements from Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King last week have included $146 million in relief money for health care providers and $41 million for colleges, universities and their students.

Watch: Why the Maine CDC breaks down coronavirus cases by county, not town

 


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