Kilili: Millions in aid to CNMI, schools, hospital, workers, taxpayers, business
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. House of Representatives passed a third coronavirus relief bill Friday afternoon and the President signed it into law.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), who has been in Washington, D.C. all week for the negotiations, reports tens of millions of dollars were added to help the Marianas in the final version of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.
The delegate’s four primary goals—direct aid to the Commonwealth for education, healthcare, and other government expenditures; cash for laid-off workers; federal funds to the CNMI treasury for tax-based payments to individuals; and help for tourism-related businesses—were all met. In addition, the Marianas shares an additional $200 million in food aid with American Samoa and Puerto Rico and is eligible for a range of federal programs from childcare to economic development that are all receiving additional funds to help America weather the coronavirus crisis.
“Although the CARES Act will be a tremendous help to our islands and our nation in the weeks ahead,” Sablan said, “we face an uncertain future. More work remains to do in Congress to make sure that we contain the spread of the coronavirus and minimize the economic damage.”
Direct aid to the CNMI government
Sablan reports the Commonwealth government will receive an estimated $37.8 million from the CARES Act. A $3 billion set-aside in the law for non-state governments is divided among American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Marianas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands based on population.
Sablan made this direct payment to local government a top priority in his personal advocacy for the Marianas and also rallied other insular area Delegates around this effort.
The CARES Act, as originally introduced by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, had no direct aid for insular government or for state governments. That gap was fixed in the final negotiations leading to passage of the law. The Commonwealth and other insular governments receive about $700 per capita in direct aid. The average for state governments is about $460 per capita.
Nevertheless, the CARES Act provides less assistance to insular governments than legislation introduced by House Democrats last week as a counterproposal. “Of course, it was important to get some money for local government in the CARES Act,” Sablan said. “I do not think it will be enough, however. So, as we move to drafting a fourth coronavirus relief package, getting more direct aid to the Commonwealth government will continue to be one of my main concerns.”
The Commonwealth government will also be eligible to receive technical assistance funds through the Department of the Interior. “The insular areas have needs uniquely different than the rest of the nation and have limited financial resources,” Sablan said. “So, we included $55 million for Interior’s Assistance to Territories account in the CARES Act.”
This week, Interior announced award of $858,924 from this account to the Pacific Island Health Officers Association. The money will be used to purchase coronavirus test kits for American Samoa, Guam, the Marianas, and the Freely Associated States.
Last week, Interior awarded $366,900 to the Marianas from this assistance fund to procure personal protective equipment and hygienic supplies for government workers and others at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“The need is clear,” Sablan said, “and now there is additional funding.”
Money for teachers, schools increased
The final version of the CARES Act includes up to $153 million for schools from Kindergarten through high school and for colleges in the insular areas. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, Sablan prioritized school funding during negotiations. Funding for schools nationwide was increased and what insular school got was lifted from $100 million in an earlier stage of the bill.
“With the Commonwealth government unable to keep up with what it owes the Public School System, this new money will pay teacher and staff salaries in the weeks and months ahead and eventually help our schools reopen,” Sablan said.
PSS and Northern Marianas College may also be able to use the money to invest in their distance-learning infrastructure, so young people in the Marianas can continue their education, even in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.
Funding allocations for each insular area will be determined by the Secretary of Education based on her determination of need.
$960 per week unemployment benefit
Workers in the Marianas, who lose their private sector or government job because of the coronavirus, will receive weekly unemployment checks, even though the Marianas does not have an unemployment compensation system that employers pay into.
“According to staff of the House Ways and Means Committee, who worked with us on making sure laid-off workers in the Marianas would get an unemployment check, this should be about $960 per week in total,” Sablan said. The weekly benefit in the Marianas will be equal to the national average unemployment compensation benefit of about $360, plus an additional federal supplement of $600.
Press reports generally say the CARES Act provides four months of unemployment benefits. But that is an extra 13 weeks (four months) on top of the normal 26 weeks that state systems provide. For the Marianas Sablan was able to get the same total number of weeks—39 weeks or about nine months.
“This direct help for workers and their families to make up for lost income was another of my top priorities,” Sablan said. The unemployment payments were difficult to include in the new law, because the Commonwealth has never set up an unemployment system to protect workers who lose a job through no fault of their own. And Congress usually uses state unemployment systems to get checks to laid-off workers. So a special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program had to be set up to cover workers in the Marianas and other areas not covered by an existing unemployment system.
The Commonwealth government will administer these new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments with 100% federal funding.
Taxpayer recovery rebates: $1,200, $2,400
Marianas taxpayers are eligible for the same “recovery rebate” being paid everywhere else in the United States and the federal government will cover the cost, another of Sablan’s negotiating points last week.
Individual taxpayers will receive up to $1,200 and joint filers up to $2,400, with an additional $500 per child. The rebate phases out at annual incomes over $75,000.
Social Security recipients, who did not file an income tax return, will receive the credit automatically based on information in their 2019 Social Security Benefit Statement.
A person, who is not a U.S. citizen or national, is generally eligible for the rebate, if they resided in the Marianas for at least 31 days in 2020.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the rebates will be delivered within three weeks to U.S. taxpayers. In the Marianas, the Commonwealth government is responsible for how quickly rebates are processed and how quickly the money gets into the local economy.
Grants, loans for business: $375B
The CARES Act has a total of $375 billion in grants and loans for businesses to get through the economic crisis. And there is a loan forgiveness program for businesses that keep employees on payroll through the downturn.
“Included is the aid for airlines I asked for,” Sablan reports. There is $29 billion in grants, plus $3 billion for contractors, and another $29 billion for loans and loan guarantees to airlines, repair stations and ticket agents in the new law.
“The aviation industry is critical to our tourism economy and our everyday life,” Sablan said, “so the CARES Act also provides assurances that air carriers, who get federal help, maintain service to remote communities like ours.” A total of $10 billion in grant aid is also provided for airports, if they agree to retain 90% of their workforce.
The Small Business Administration’s Emergency Economic Injury Grants program gets an infusion of cash to address demand caused by the coronavirus. A Small Business Debt Relief Program will help cover monthly loan payments for cash-strapped businesses. And the CARES Act will provide free counseling through Small Business Development Centers to help businesses find the right federal program to meet their needs.
For hospitals, health workers, research: $200B
The CARES Act makes $100 billion available to reimburse Medicare or Medicaid-enrolled suppliers and healthcare providers and for public hospitals to cover costs associated with the coronavirus. Funds can be used for:
– Building or construction of temporary structures
– Retrofitting facilities
– Leasing of properties
– Medical supplies and equipment including personal protective equipment
– Testing supplies
– Increased workforce and trainings
– Emergency operation centers
– Surge capacity
Guidance on applying for the aid will be issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Sablan reports.
Kagman and community health centers nationwide get $1.32 billion in supplemental funding. The National Health Service Corps, a program that incentivizes healthcare providers to practice in medically underserved communities, is extended at current funding levels through November 30, 2020.
Telehealth services are expanded so providers, including community health centers, may treat patients using e-visits and reduce the contact that spreads the disease. And there is a substantial investment in research for coronavirus treatments and vaccines. (PR)