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When President Joe Biden outlined his American Rescue Plan in January, he stressed the need to act quickly.
“The crisis of human suffering is in plain sight. We have to act and we have to act now,” Biden said during a Jan. 14 speech. “We cannot afford inaction.”
He may want to reemphasize that point to his treasury department.
Congressional Democrats eventually passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act with no Republican support. Biden signed the bill into law on March 11. It is now almost May, and states are still waiting for some of this money and guidance on how they can spend it.
Unlike a previous COVID-19 relief package passed in December, the American Rescue Plan included $350 billion in direct relief for state, local and tribal governments. And this funding is more flexible than the state, local and tribal aid included in the CARES Act passed last March.
There is tremendous potential for this money to help in Maine’s pandemic recovery and position the state well for the future.
For states to finalize plans to address current needs and make forward-thinking investments with this money, however, they need the actual guidelines (beyond what’s written in the law) for how to spend it.
The U.S. Treasury Department web page for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds has some broad information, but offers little clarity on when the more specific guidance might arrive, other than noting that it will be “released in the coming weeks” and online “in the near future.”
To us, this is puzzling to say the least. It is a challenge to match the Biden administration’s message of urgency in the push to pass this legislation with the amount of time that same administration is now taking to tell states what they can and can’t do with some of the funding. There’s not even a clear timeline for when the federal government is going to provide this clarity.
We reached out to the Treasury Department twice asking if it has a more precise timeline than “in the coming weeks” and if there are specific challenges that have been preventing the department from issuing this guidance sooner. We received no response.
We also reached out to the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, wondering if the wait on guidance is creating frustration or complications as her administration contemplates a supplemental budget proposal on how to spend federal aid.
“Anticipated details from the U.S. Treasury will be vitally important as this Administration works with the Legislature on the American Rescue Plan,” Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services spokesperson Kelsey Goldsmith said in a response to the editorial board last week. “Guidance has begun to trickle out, and we are beginning to formulate a general idea of how the money can and should be appropriately spent.”
While the Mills administration feels it has enough information to start designing program mechanics for the Local Fiscal Recovery Fund money that will go to counties and municipalities — and the Legislature voted Wednesday to set up the process for accepting and distributing those funds — the same does not appear true for the State Fiscal Recovery Fund.
Goldsmith added last Friday that Maine, like the rest of the country, is still awaiting the state fund guidance and that “depending upon receipt of that guidance, we hope to introduce a proposal as early as the coming weeks, so that we can begin injecting the money into the economy.”
The state estimates that nearly $494 million is coming to Maine counties and municipalities through the Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. So we were wondering if Maine has a similar estimate for the level of funding expected for the state and tribal elements of the coronavirus fiscal recovery funds, and if the stake knows whether the tribal funding will go directly to tribal governments or pass through the state government first. Goldsmith told us on Monday that, like us, the state is “awaiting details on these finer points as well.”
Our quibble here is with Washington, not Augusta, but we’d suggest that questions about how much money the state and tribal governments are getting, and whether the tribal funding will go directly to the tribes, are not exactly “finer points.” These are basic, fundamental questions about the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds that the federal government should have provided to states by now.
As Maine Senate Republicans have pointed out, nursing homes could use more support as COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities are on the rise again. That’s a need American Rescue Plan funds should be helping now, not “in the coming weeks.”
To be clear, the American Rescue Plan Act gives the federal government 60 days to start releasing this funding. We understand it takes time to put programs of this size and complexity together, and that the legislation also provides a window of multiple years to spend some of the funds. But just because the Treasury Department legally has 60 days to move things along doesn’t mean it’s a good idea practically for it to take that long. There are decisions that state, local and tribal governments need to make sooner rather than later.