House and Senate act, bill goes to Trump
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Ind-MP) said the fiscal year 2021 federal spending bill, including $908 billion in COVID relief for individuals, businesses, schools, and healthcare, is good news for the Marianas. The legislative text (5,593 pages) was finished overnight Sunday, and the House voted on passage at 9pm in Washington last Monday (Tuesday in the CNMI). The final vote was 359 for, 53 against.
This was the third time the House has passed COVID relief, once in May and again in October. Each time before, the Republican Senate has refused to take action. But today, two hours after the House, the Senate also voted passage.
“Unemployed workers, who were afraid their weekly federal assistance would stop this month, can now breathe a little easier,” Sablan said. “Teachers and staff, who knew PSS was running out of money to pay them and keep our schools operating, can now breathe easy.
“Taxpayers will get a second impact payment, which means $2,400 for a family of four. Businesses and non-profits that have seen their revenues collapse will get a second opportunity for a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan. And Congress has doubled down on healthcare funding to help with testing, tracing, and the vaccine roll-out.”
$14M in Marianas food aid, $90M Community Disaster funds allowed
“As always, my primary goal in negotiations was to make sure the people of the Marianas were included in these national policies, just like Americans everywhere,” Sablan said. “But the appropriations and COVID relief bill also have very specific provisions that I worked to add for the Marianas.
“Gov. [Ralph DLG] Torres asked for $11,527,811 in additional food stamp funding in August. I got him $14,000,000 in the relief bill,” Sablan said, “more than he asked for, and enough to allow the governor to reinstate everyone who lost food stamps in October or had their benefits cut, which I hope he will restore immediately.”
Sablan was also able to include an amendment to FEMA’s Community Disaster Loan program, which Torres wanted. The loans are generally only for municipalities, not state-level governments like the Commonwealth. The amendment Sablan included makes the Commonwealth eligible. In addition, Sablan lifted the cap of $5 million that normally applies and allowed FEMA to base funding on the tax loss and unbudgeted expenses related to a disaster. The Commonwealth expects the Community Disaster Loan from Super Typhoon Yutu to be in excess of $90 million. And the loan will be forgivable.
“One of the biggest roadblocks to COVID relief was that Republicans in the Senate are opposed to giving any relief to state and territorial governments,” Sablan said. “As a result, there is no direct aid to governments in the bill passed today. However, by including the CDL language we will be able to get the Commonwealth what other states and territories did not get: a significant amount of operating capital to provide public services.”
Unemployment extended; CWs qualify
People who lost their jobs because of the pandemic also get relief. Sablan included the Marianas in the unemployment benefits in the CARES Act last March, even though the Commonwealth has never provided unemployment insurance for workers. A special Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program ran from March to July with a $600 weekly payment. And a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance base payment of up to $345 weekly began with the CARES Act and is set to run out this month.
With passage of the new COVID relief package FPUC will restart with $300 weekly through March 14; and PUA will continue through April 5.
“We also spelled out very specifically that CW workers, who get laid off because of coronavirus, are eligible for PUA and FPUC,” Sablan said. “This is what Congress intended in the CARES Act, but the Department of Labor blocked it. Now, CW workers will be eligible for PUA and FPUC.
Through Dec. 12, unemployed workers in the Marianas have received over $172 million in PUA and FPUC. While it is not known exactly how many CW workers will qualify, Sablan’s language making them eligible is expected to pump tens of millions of additional spending into the Marianas economy, helping local businesses and adding to Commonwealth government revenues.
The relief act also provides over $284 billion for first and second forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans, so businesses and non-profits can keep employees working. $20 billion is included for new Economic Injury Disaster Loan grants for businesses in low-income communities, $3.5 billion for continued SBA debt relief payments, and $2 billion for enhancements to SBA lending. The legislation also dedicates $15 billion to help for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions.
Education funding will keep schools running, teachers and staff paid
The COVID relief also provides significant new funding for education in the Marianas. According to Public School System officials, kindergarten through high school will receive $68.7 million. Their estimate is based on a set-aside for the Marianas, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands’ K-12 schools of $404 million. The funds are expected to be allocated based on the number of children in each area from families with incomes below the federal poverty line.
This is the second time this year that Sablan has made sure PSS teachers, support staff, and school administrators would be paid with federal money, when the Commonwealth government could not provide sufficient budgeted funds. Congress also expects the money to support ventilation system repair and replacement to prevent virus transmission and allow for classrooms to reopen.
College students will benefit, too. The maximum Pell grant for award year 2021-22 is raised to $5,435 and hundreds of thousands of new students nationwide will be made eligible.
Sablan’s Simple FAFSA Act has also been incorporated in the relief bill. His bill makes it easier for students to apply—and qualify—for federal student aid by streamlining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Sablan’s bill cuts the number of questions in half for many low income families. His bill, also, repeals a ban on Pell grants and other federal aid for people with drug convictions, so they can get an education and successfully reenter their communities.
Northern Marianas College will also qualify for assistance from several nationwide programs, including the $22.7 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund; $20.2 billion for public and private, non-profit institutions of higher education, including those that serve students enrolled exclusively in distance education; and $113 million for institutions of higher education with unmet need.
More health care for minority communities
The relief measure also addresses directly the on-going pandemic, particularly addressing minority communities that have been hardest hit by the disease. There is $20 billion for procurement of vaccines and therapeutics, nearly $9 billion for vaccine distribution, and more than $3 billion for the strategic national stockpile. $300 million is specifically directed to high risk and underserved areas for distribution, including communities of color.
The bill provides more than $22 billion for testing, tracing, and COVID mitigation programs. Of this total, $2.5 billion will be sent out as grants specifically targeted at needs in underserved areas, including both communities of color and rural communities.
And the legislation reverses a long-standing injustice against citizens of the Freely Associated States, living in the U.S. Their eligibility for Medicaid, which was promised in the original compact negotiations, was taken away by the 1996 welfare reform act. Today’s relief bill restores eligibility for Medicaid in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Eligibility in the Marianas and other U.S. territories will be at the discretion of territorial governors. Sablan insisted on this option, because there is a local match required for Medicaid and the Marianas government is barely able to make that match for its own resident U.S. citizens.