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When members of Congress first considered a bill to help Americans and businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic, many in the U.S. believed that harm from the virus and the economic consequences associated with it would be short lived. Now, due in part to the totally inadequate White House response to the virus, lockdowns and economic disruption are likely to be part of life in America for many months to come. That’s why another round of federal financial support is essential.
Despite more than $2 trillion in federal relief this year, the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 11.1 percent in June. It peaked at 14.4 percent in April, the highest since the Great Depression. In the first week of July, one in five Americans were behind on their rent and 26 million adults and 7 million children did not have enough to eat, according to new analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The numbers were significantly worse for people of color and immigrants.
Faced with this reality, another federal stimulus package, likely the last this year, must be large enough and contain the right elements to both protect the health of Americans and to bolster our economy, which isn’t likely to fully reopen any time soon.
Vital elements of a relief package include: funding for states to improve and continue testing and contact tracing; financial support and flexibility for state, local and tribal governments, including money to be directed to schools; payments to families and workers that will boost the economy; and increased support for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps that directly help low-income families.
Another round of forgivable loans, targeted to small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program, which pumped $2.2 billion into more than 16,000 Maine businesses, including the Bangor Daily News, should be coupled with additional direct financial support to American workers and families.
The U.S. House in May passed a $3 trillion bill that includes an extension of the $600 increase in unemployment benefits, a second $1,200 stimulus check for individuals and families, about $1 trillion for state and local governments, and increased funds for testing and contact tracing.
Details of a $1 trillion Republican Senate package are emerging this week, although there is disagreement over many elements. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said a “final” stimulus bill would include money for schools and direct payments to American families and small businesses.
The Trump administration has objected to additional money for coronavirus testing or contact tracing grants for states and the funding was missing from an early Republican proposal. This is unacceptable.
President Donald Trump is again pushing for lowering payroll taxes, which may help around the margins as workers will spend the additional money that shows up in their paychecks, but the amount is too small to truly stimulate the economy. And, of course, a payroll tax reduction does nothing for Americans who are out of a job.
There is also disagreement over whether to continue enhanced unemployment benefits of $600 a week, which expire next week. Maine workers, whose average income ranks lower than in many other states, benefited the most from the $600 boost, according to the New York Times. Rep. Chellie Pingree is the only member of the Maine delegation to support an extension of this benefit at the $600 level. The others support a smaller amount.
“I have been working with both Republicans and Democrats on a compromise that can receive bipartisan support,” Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News. “Some of my top priorities for a Phase 4 package include securing funding for Maine’s cities and towns so that they can avoid laying off firefighters, police officers, school teachers, sanitation workers, snow plowers, and other essential employees; allowing especially hard-hit small businesses to receive a second Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan; ensuring our schools have the resources they need to safely reopen in the fall or adopt a hybrid approach; increasing testing; providing relief to lobstermen, fishermen and farmers; and supporting the Postal Service.”
Sen. Angus King’s list looks much the same. His priorities include: state and local relief, including funding for education, first responders, transportation, state labor departments and elections; funding for health care supplies and telehealth as well as nonprofits; and support for the fishing and lobster industry, logging, tourism, and the postal service.
King also supports extensions of enhanced unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection Program, in some form.
Concerns about the federal deficit matter but are secondary to crafting a targeted stimulus plan to help American families and businesses. The yet-to-be negotiated plan, along with previous stimulus packages, will require “an inconceivable amount of money,” Collins told the Sun Journal last week. But, she said, that is necessary to avoid falling “further into a depression.”
With so many different proposals, there is room for compromise. A focus on containing the coronavirus, which is on the rise in every state except Maine, Arizona and Delaware, and limiting economic hardship must guide discussion and negotiations.