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COVID-19 relief bill
COVID-19 relief funds: State to get billions of dollars for schools, transit and cities

SEATTLE — Dollars for COVID-19 vaccinations and contact-tracing. Relief for K-12 schools. Child-care funding. Rental and mortgage assistance. Aid to state and local governments. Help for transit.

Wednesday’s approval in the U.S. House of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package will channel billions of dollars to Washington state as schools, businesses, governments and people begin to chart a course toward recovery from a year living with a global pandemic. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the relief bill today.

Dubbed the American Rescue Plan, the legislation directs a fire hose of money to Washington, including its cities and counties. The state is set to receive $1.9 billion for K-12 schools; $655 million for higher-education institutions; and $635 million for child care, according to numbers shared by the office of Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina.

Washington also will receive $7.1 billion in aid for local, county and state governments that saw tax collections drop last year amid the economic downturn caused by the virus and restrictions to stem outbreaks.

Of that, $4.25 billion will go to the state level just as legislators in Olympia prepare new, two-year budget proposals that fund everything from schools and parks, to prisons, environmental programs and social services.

Local government aid includes money for each county, including $15 million for Chelan County. Money to cities includes $239 million for Seattle, $84.3 million for Spokane, $25.5 million for Yakima, $5.9 million for Wenatchee and $3.6 million for East Wenatchee.

The legislation contains $3 billion to help aerospace manufacturers meet payroll, Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office said.

The package will also deliver a new infusion of rental assistance to Washington, where the state’s eviction moratorium is expected to expire this month.

The state expects to get about $404 million in emergency rental assistance, according to the offices of Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee. The governor’s office is “still learning more, including how it would be distributed,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said.

Those dollars come atop funding in the package to combat COVID-19 and accelerate vaccinations, the much touted $1,400 stimulus checks and assistance for families with children.

“That is a massive package of relief for people who are hurting,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, said. “Money in people’s pockets.”

One change from previous COVID-19 aid packages passed by Congress, Jayapal said, is that smaller cities will get aid dollars.

The new package sprinkles that money in communities across the state, from Arlington, Bothell and Burien, to Chelan, Hoquiam and Twisp.

The funding is designed, in part, to get Washington’s K-12 schools back open. The money would help schools get equipped with protective gear and air-ventilation systems needed to reopen safely.

“I think this money will get out very, very quickly,” Jayapal said.

DelBene hailed a provision in the bill that expands the Child Tax Credit, which she said was modeled after an earlier proposal by her.

That component will give regular payments to families as much as $300 per month for each child and make that available for some lower-income families who don’t qualify, according to the statement.

DelBene described it as “an incredibly important provision that would help cut child poverty in half across our country.”

”By enhancing the credit, making sure we increase the amount, making regular payments to families, [that] means that we can give millions of children a fair shot at success,” DelBene added.

Republicans give bill thumbs down

Wednesday’s House approval came along party lines, with Jayapal, DelBene and five other Democrats voting in favor. Republican Reps. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside, Jaime Herrera Beutler, of Battle Ground, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Spokane, voted against it.

In a statement, Herrera Beutler noted her support for previous COVID-19 aid packages and said she would have supported a more narrowly tailored proposal.

But this package, “tacked on a bloated wish list of nonessential items like wiping out most of San Francisco’s budget deficit,” she said, and delayed the distribution of some education funding for later years, which won’t help schools reopen.

“ ... This bill as a whole is not what America needs right now,” said Herrera Beutler in prepared remarks.

In statements, Newhouse called the bill “a payoff to Speaker Pelosi’s far-left progressive base,” while McMorris Rodgers said it “simply fails to address the real needs of the American people.”

Education funding

About 88% of the $1.9 billion for K-12 education will go directly to local school districts, said Chris Reykdal, the state schools superintendent.

He said the districts should treat it as “one time money” for costs such as upgrades to ventilation systems, personal protective equipment and additional counseling and interventions for children facing severe learning loss or other problems.

The rest of the money would be directed by the state budget through the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI), which Reykdal oversees, and with the guidance of the Legislature.

The money for local school districts, combined with broader spending on state and local public-health systems, said Reykdal, should help hasten a return to in-person classes. Roughly 41% of the state’s K-12 students have returned to at least some in-person classes per week, according to survey data collected by OSPI.

Reykdal also predicted the massive spending could foster changes that last beyond the pandemic. For example, Reykdal said, with the slice his office is able to direct, he’d like to offer grants for districts to think about changing school calendars to eliminate long summer breaks in favor of shorter breaks distributed throughout the year.

“Traditionally, students take three steps forward during the school year and then one step back,” he said. “That’s why we want grants to districts to explore how to rebalance their calendars.”

State colleges and universities are in line for an estimated $655 million.

Victor Balta, a University of Washington spokesman, said based on early estimates, the UW could receive around $100 million, but he cautioned the figure needs final confirmation from the U.S. Department of Education.

Balta said he was not sure what conditions will be placed on the funding, but that previous COVID-19 relief was spent by the UW on programs including emergency student financial aid, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, housing and food-service costs, and facility and cleaning expenses.

”The new pandemic stimulus package is critical to help cover ongoing losses and extraordinary expenses COVID has brought upon on the UW and colleges and universities across the state,” Balta said in an email.

Officials at Washington State University said the school expects to receive roughly $60 million from the new package. Like the previous pandemic aid bills, the money will help students struggling with housing and food costs, said Colleen Kerr, WSU vice president of external affairs.

In addition to the direct aid to universities, Kerr said she hopes the money for state and local public-health programs will speed vaccinations, helping students return to campus safely as soon as possible. WSU is operating mostly remotely, but plans in the fall call for a hybrid model with more in-person classes. Kerr said the isolating effect of the pandemic on students has been extremely difficult. Over the weekend, the school held a mental-health roundtable on campus to hear from students about the effects. “It was devastating,” Kerr said.

Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges also will get a share — an important boost for a system whose student population is nearly half students of color and is the front line for laid-off workers seeking job retraining, said Jan Yoshiwara, executive director for the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges. The system is awaiting guidance on the exact amount various schools will receive from the Department of Education. “If we want to think about an equitable economic recovery, we have to think about the tools the state has to support an equitable economic recovery,” Yoshiwara said.

Yoshiwara said the new pot of money will help backfill funding lost caused by lower enrollment and the student-financial aid may be somewhat more flexible compared with previous pandemic-aid bills, broadening eligibility beyond just Pell Grant-eligible students.

Aid for governments

Seattle’s elected officials Wednesday were glad to see the bill pass and said they would discuss in the coming weeks how to use the government aid. In a statement, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she would be proposing a plan to “kick start our economic recovery, support downtown and neighborhood small businesses, and address the critical needs of our residents including individuals experiencing homelessness.”

Of Seattle’s expected $239 million, it’s not yet clear how much of that will go to rent and mortgage assistance, said Anthony Derrick, a spokesperson for Durkan.

Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González said in a statement that the council would meet in the coming weeks to discuss how to spend the $239 million coming the city’s way.

She anticipated using funds for food access, rental, mortgage and utility assistance and child care. And she said the bill is “a life preserver for our small businesses, especially the restaurant and hospitality industry.”

The $4.25 billion for state government comes as Washington’s tax collections already have recovered more quickly than expected compared to the steep drop-off during the early pandemic. It’s a significant amount of money for a budget that Inslee had proposed as $57.6 billion over two years.

The influx arrives as House and Senate budget writers prepare to release their proposed budgets later this month.

”While we have a good idea how much money will be coming to Washington state, we are still sorting out the details of how and when it will be distributed,” said David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management, in a statement. “We will be working with the Legislature and state agencies in the coming weeks on many of these decisions as part of the biennial budget process.”

The aid package also sends money to rural communities. In Southwest Washington, Pacific County will get $4.3 million and Grays Harbor County will get $14.5 million. Okanogan County in Central Washington, will get $8.2 million, and Chelan County will get $15 million.

In Eastern Washington, Spokane County is set to receive $101.4 million, while Whitman County will get $9.7 million. Garfield County, the state’s least populated with about 2,225 people, is in line to get $430,000.

Funding for transit

The American Rescue Plan Act provides another round of operating subsidies for transit agencies, including 11 in the Puget Sound region that received a total $521 million cash during 2020.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff anticipates the region might divide $800 million this time, of which Sound Transit could see $260 million.

Those dollars keep buses rolling — emptier than usual — for essential trips and sustain a living wage for drivers and mechanics, despite temporary losses of local sales tax and fare revenue.

The American Public Transit Association says the supporters’ objective is for federal aid to actually exceed the typical operating costs of urban transit systems, figuring they took on extra burdens including sanitizing, debts, or sudden personnel changes.

Washington state transit ridership is about 42% of pre-COVID-19 levels, while Sound Transit’s weekday travel is about 20% of normal.

Nationally, the bill provides $30.5 billion to transit and $1.7 billion to Amtrak through 2024.

Importantly for Sound Transit, those funds include $1.4 billion in extra money for 23, high-capacity transit megaprojects nationwide, that already get partial Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grants.

Two of those projects — light rail to Lynnwood and to Federal Way — are under construction by Sound Transit. Rogoff expects Sound Transit to receive approximately $250 million.

He called this money “a meaningful down payment,” toward $1.9 billion the agency seeks in some future package that new Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says is on the way. Rogoff’s number is based on language the House passed last year, that would increase the federal contributions to the 23 megaprojects.

The package now heads to the desk of President Joe Biden for his signature.

House sends $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief bill to Biden's desk

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic aid package Wednesday, sending to President Joe Biden a sweeping measure that includes not only pandemic-related $1,400 checks and expanded unemployment benefits, but also the biggest-ever expansion of Obamacare and hefty new tax credits to combat child poverty.

The White House announced this morning that later today Biden will sign what is likely to become a signature achievement of his presidency, days before unemployment insurance expires for more than 10 million Americans on March 14.

In the end, not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for the package, guaranteeing it will become a political football in the midterm election and perhaps for years to come. Biden and Democrats are embracing what they say is delivering on their 2020 campaign promise to help struggling Americans. Republicans are betting that current soaring popularity of the bill will wane and that they’ll be able to hang its costs on Democrats.

The Senate passed it Saturday 50-49, but only after stripping an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, narrowing the weekly federal unemployment supplement from $400 to $300 and reducing the number of Americans who will qualify for the direct payments.

The package, which passed the House 220-211, could be Congress’ last major response to the pandemic. It includes mortgage and rental assistance, targeted aid to the restaurant, child care and airline industries, funding for vaccines and testing, aid to small businesses, schools and tribal governments and billions of dollars to help state and local governments deal with the economic fallout of COVID-19-related closures.

It was by far the most partisan of the total $5.5 trillion in COVID-19 bills passed by Congress to fight the disease and prop up the economy. It is the only one of the five bills passed to have no Republican support. Only one Democrat — Rep. Jared Golden of Maine — voted against the plan.

Democrats used the budget reconciliation process to speed it through without the ability for Senate Republicans to filibuster. That meant it took just a majority to pass the bill, rather than 60 votes. But it also meant Democrats had to scale back the bill to make it more palatable to centrists in their own party.

Progressive representatives weren’t happy with the Senate’s changes, but agreed to support it.

“While I will continue to pressure my party to live up to its banner as the party of the people, I cannot ignore the immediate need for relief,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.

Both parties are primed to use the bill against the other in the 2022 midterm election that will decide whether Democrats continue to control the House and Senate.

Republicans have lambasted the bill as too broad for a moment when the economy is beginning to rebound and vaccinations are speeding along. They say it doesn’t prioritize getting people back to work and school.

“The most insidious part of this bill is the economy is already improving,” Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., said.

Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t running away from Republican criticism that the bill is full of progressive priorities, pointing to multiple national polls showing the bill is supported by the vast majority of Americans.

A poll released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found 70% of Americans in favor of the package, with 28% opposed. Despite the unanimous opposition of GOP members of Congress, 41% of Republicans favored the bill and 57% opposed it, Pew found.

“We have come together as a party in the Congress to do something monumental, but something that also clearly reflects our values as a party and commitment to using government to improve the lives of as many people as possible,” Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John Yarmouth, D-Ky., said.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said at a news conference Tuesday that he is weighing how to make Child Tax Credit increase permanent.

“Getting something out of the code is oftentimes harder than getting something in the code,” he said. “What we did is unlikely to go away.”

It also includes billions for food aid programs, extends the 15% SNAP increase through September and sets aside $45 billion for rental, mortgage and utility assistance. It also includes billions to help schools and colleges upgrade ventilation systems, retain teachers and address student mental health or education delays.

To directly address the coronavirus, the bill includes $14 billion for vaccine distribution; $49 billion for COVID-19 testing, tracing and genomic sequencing and $8 billion to expand the public health workforce. Another provision would expand the number of middle-class Americans who can get help with the cost of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act if premiums cost more than 8.5% of their incomes.

The bill also includes $350 billion for states, counties and cities dealing with a drop in tax revenue because of the economic effects of the pandemic shutdowns.

Confluence Health Foundation puts $200,000 to COVID-19 vaccine equity initiative

WENATCHEE — Up to $200,000 has been allocated by the Confluence Health Foundation for a new initiative to improve access to COVID-19 vaccines among Latinos.

“It’s the right thing to do,” JoEllen Colson, Confluence senior vice president, said. “We know that our Latinx population was adversely impacted during COVID. We want to ensure that allocation and support are addressing disproportionately-impacted communities. Our support needs to be culturally appropriate and accessible.”

Provided photo 

Teresa Bendito

Parque Padrinos co-founder

The funds will be used to support efforts led by community activist Teresa Bendito, co-founder of Parque Padrinos and owner of Teresita’s Consulting, to increase the amount of in-person outreach into the Latino community, according to a Confluence Health press release.

Funds came from small donations from the community to the Confluence Health COVID-19 Fund, according to Sue Ozburn, Confluence Health Foundation Board president. No single, large donation from a business or individual makes up these funds, just a supportive community, Ozburn said.

“The support for the foundation is incredible in our community, and with COVID-19, people felt they needed to help,” Ozburn said.

Confluence Health has already been collaborating with Parque Padrinos with weekend clinics at Central Washington Hospital. Last week, around 20% of COVID-19 vaccinations went to Latinos, which Colson said is very exciting.

With the new initiative, Bendito said their vision is to partner with local businesses or nonprofits to have their outreach workers talk about the vaccine, answer questions and help people schedule appointments. And now that the group has been approved for more funding, Bendito said they will be able to increase the scale of the outreach.

Bendito’s group has been receiving calls from Latinos interested in the vaccine ever since Gov. Jay Inslee announced that farmworkers and other essential workers would become eligible toward the end of March.

But Bendito said many callers to her team are confused why they are not eligible until the end of March.

Bendito said callers to her team were not getting explanations about eligibility they needed from websites or automated call centers.

“We are talking to them right through the phone or in-person, so we have to explain the reasoning why,” she said.

It takes time to explain in a culturally sensitive approach with examples they will understand, but it is well worth it, Bendito said. Bendito’s team is currently talking to people and making a list of people who will qualify in the next phase of vaccinations.

“We have to start getting ready for that,” she said. “Once March 22 hits, it’s going to be all hands on deck.”