Baker: More fed aid critical to rebuilding economies

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – As Democrats in Washington, D.C. began rolling out the various components of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal Monday, U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal was in Boston to promote the package alongside Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

Billions of dollars have already flowed during the pandemic from the federal government to Massachusetts and its residents, but Baker said another round of funding is essential as states take on vaccine distribution and economic reopenings while facing many of the economic problems that have lingered for the better part of a year. In Massachusetts, there are about 330,000 fewer jobs compared to a year ago, many businesses are struggling to stay afloat and the state projects it will miss out on about $1 billion in tax revenue this year, compared to pre-pandemic expectations.

“As cities and states ramp up their vaccination recovery efforts, support from D.C. will continue to be a critical part of how we get from here to there. The feds can play a huge role with respect to vaccinations, testing, school reopenings for both K through 12 and higher education, food insecurity, housing, rental, energy and water assistance, small business support, and support for states, local governments and territorial governments … , ” Baker said.

State and local officials, he said, are going to do the “hard work that’s going to be associated with trying to rebuild their economies and especially to deal with the dramatic changes that have taken place with respect to how and where people work since this pandemic began,” He added, “I can’t understate how big a challenge that is going to be for everybody as we move through this pandemic and on into the future.”

Congress is in the early stages of advancing Biden’s massive relief package, which is expected to include billions of dollars for virus testing, vaccinations, stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and could send as much as $350 billion in federal aid to state and local governments.

Neal, a Springfield Democrat who is playing a key role in the development of Biden’s plan and will help shepherd it through Congress, said his committee will work from Wednesday morning through Friday to write the legislation to enact $941 billion worth of the president’s proposals.

The full package — a blueprint of which will become publicly available at 6 p.m. Monday, Neal said — will include direct payments of up to $1,400 for individuals to “make good on our promise of $2,000 checks” that began with $600 payments last year, provide between $300 and $400 in weekly unemployment insurance supplements, make $130 billion available to help schools reopen, and would establish an enhanced child tax credit that would provide eligible families with $3,600 per child younger than 6 and $3,000 per child up to age 17, split into monthly payments over a year, Neal said.

“We want to make it easier for the unemployed to afford their health insurance through premium subsidies. We’re going to expand opportunities for COBRA. We’re going to provide an enhanced premium tax credit for those receiving forms of unemployment insurance that will reduce their out-of-pocket costs. We plan to assist the most vulnerable, who typically aren’t offered health insurance, through extending opportunities for them as well. The unemployment insurance supplement also will be embraced once again,” Neal said. He added, “We intend to create a national vaccination program and speed up the distribution … We provide expanded testing and contact tracing programs across the country, and $130 billion for schools to be reopening. Everybody sees that as a clear priority.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold almost a year ago, Massachusetts and its residents have received $52.3 billion from the federal government in the form of loans, direct aid to residents, unemployment assistance and funding for other federal programs, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which has tracked federal distributions to states.

That total includes $5.24 billion in economic impact payments, $14.31 billion through the Paycheck Protection Program, $2.67 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, $1.4 billion through FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, $3.54 billion in emergency injury disaster loans, $3.344 billion in provider relief funds, and a combined $15.075 billion in unemployment compensation, assistance and funding.

Baker, who has long talked about how helpful more federal money would be, last month filed a state budget that would pull $1.6 billion from the state’s cash reserves, but the governor has said he could limit that rainy day fund withdrawal if additional federal dollars come in.

“There are still substantial financial challenges that we face as a commonwealth and that other states across the country are facing as well. And it would be critical from our point of view for Congress to pass significant relief swiftly to help us beat down the pandemic and, just as importantly, help get our economy back on track,” the governor said Monday.

The Ways and Means Committee chairman said the president’s package “is certainly going to pass,” and while he said Democrats remain open to suggestions and new ideas as they roll out their plans, Neal said Biden “is not coming off of $1.9 trillion and I agree with him.”

If Biden and the Democrats plan to stand pat at $1.9 trillion, it could mean passing the package through Congress without support from Republicans, some of whom have taken issue with the package’s price tag or provisions.

“I think it would be very helpful for them to fully participate,” Neal said. “I think when you look at the polling data on our proposal — it’s pretty wild where it comes down — three-quarters of the American people support what we’re about to try to do, what, in fact, we’re going to do.”

The goal, Neal said, is to pass Biden’s package by the second or third week of March to have it in place by the time unemployment benefits would expire for millions of Americans in mid-March.

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