With unemployment benefits set to expire July 31, lawmakers in Washington are now scrambling to pass a new coronavirus relief package. If there is no consensus, 25 million unemployed individuals will no longer receive unemployment benefits and the moratorium on evictions will expire, leaving 12.3 million tenants at risk of eviction.
Back in Ithaca, as the pandemic economically devastated the area, unemployment skyrocketed and local lawmakers pushed for a rent freeze as well as more federal and state aid. Now as the November general election approaches, The Sun spoke with Democratic congressional candidate Tracy Mitrano J.D. ’95 about the debate surrounding coronavirus relief.
Mitrano, who is running to represent New York’s 23rd congressional district, said that providing fiscal aid to health providers and hospitals to perform testing and contact tracing was one of the most important areas that required immediate attention in the new stimulus package.
But, President Donald Trump is proposing to zero out funds for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing and contact tracing efforts, believing that more testing results in more positive cases.
“Instead, we need policies that help guarantee public and community health, and also provide more funding for hospitals to develop treatments and vaccines to combat COVID-19,” Mitrano said.
Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) is also prioritizing public health — he is co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which created a Reopening and Recovery “Back to Work” checklist in April that calls for “a robust, rapid testing system … for those who have developed antibodies and sound diagnostic testing to monitor the virus in our communities.”
Another central part of the stimulus package is education funding for schools to reopen in the fall. Republicans want to make education funds contingent on schools reopening, while Democrats want to ensure funds for schools to reopen safely.
“The notion that funding for schools and colleges be contingent on reopening is grossly irresponsible and reprehensible. Any of these policy pushes should be rejected outright and do not merit any consideration,” Mitrano said. She added that schools should reopen safely “relative to their region, country and state level,” whether that be through an online, in-person or hybrid modality.
“The federal government can encourage [schools to reopen] as it spends a lot of money on education, specifically on K-12 at the federal level. The government can use that power of the purse to influence those decisions, which is not a bad thing,” said Reed in an interview with Finger Lakes Daily News.
Reed also said in a statement to TAP that he is a firm supporter of reopening Ithaca’s schools this fall, but that he believed it was ultimately up to the school districts to make the final decision to reopen or not.
“We need to do this as quickly as possible because details matter … making sure that we have thought through and are opening schools in the safest way possible,” he said.
Additionally, Mitrano and Reed agreed that the reopening should be carried out with the proper preventative measures, social distancing guidelines, sufficient personal protective equipment and the corresponding testing levels and contact tracing.
Currently, state and local governments are grappling with how to utilize the $150 billion Congress allocated in the CARES Act. Four months after the passage of the CARES Act, many state governments have struggled to get the money to local governments facing budget shortfalls. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has advocated for at least $1 trillion in fiscal aid to state and local governments to be included in the next stimulus package.
“The federal funds should be allocated from the bottom-up, specifically assessing municipalities from the county to the state level,” Mitrano said.
Reed stressed in an online webinar to the Chautauqua Chamber of Commerce that there is a need for direct local aid to go towards small communities to help with the loss of tax revenue and the budget shortfalls.
“That means direct local government aid to stabilize these communities, so they can continue to employ our firefighters, law enforcement officers and other first responders to make sure that their mission of responding to their communities is fulfilled,” Reed said in a media call with reporters,
The Problem Solvers Caucus’ checklist created by Reed and other representatives proposes that additional resources should go to states and directly to all counties, municipalities, and tribal governments that were previously excluded because of pre-existing funding formulas and qualifying population counts.
Another sticking point in the stimulus package is the extension of unemployment benefits. Once the additional unemployment insurance ends, out-of-work Americans could see their benefits drop by anywhere from 50 to 85 percent.
Mitrano expressed support for the extension of unemployment benefits, while Reed said that “we cannot have a system where there is a financial disincentive to not return back to work.”
Reed echoed a sentiment previously expressed by other Republicans, who argued that extending the unemployment benefits disincentivizes individuals to return to work because some end up earning more through the benefits. Instead, Republicans want to implement a retention credit — a bonus to return to work — combined with a reduced enhanced jobless benefit of $200 per week.
Some lawmakers are open to a bipartisan compromise that would reduce unemployment benefits to 70 percent of the worker’s income in exchange for another round of direct stimulus payments — checks of $1,200.
Lawmakers from both political parties are also pushing for an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, loan forgiveness for loans of $150,000 and less, and for the remaining $130 billion in the PPP fund to be redirected toward small businesses.
Mitrano advocated for validation and transparency in the loan process, saying that the offices of the State Attorney General to employ more lawyers to crack down on fraudulent PPP claims.
“They should put safeguards in place for fraud prevention and ensure that employer claims are true, accurate and transparent,” she said.
The checklist created by Reed’s Problem Solvers Caucus also advocates for financing for businesses in the form of “expanded low interest loans and tax incentives to restart ailing businesses, and working capital to purchase necessary supplies, materials, and to hire necessary workforce.”
The checklist also stresses that “lenders must have access to the necessary liquidity to achieve this effort and have appropriate risk mitigating assurances regarding repayment to ensure such capital flow is achieved.”
A proposal released by Senate Republicans on Monday called for an expansion of liability protections for claims related to the coronavirus aimed at covering businesses, schools, hospitals, frontline medical workers, churches and charities.
Mitrano said that for liability protections, it is important to have clear language distinguishing the difference between willful negligence and events out of one’s control.
“A restaurant abiding the reduced seating regulations should not be held liable for when one of the customers, unbeknownst to them, is a carrier … but the liability protections should not protect willfully negligent businesses like bars who reopen and serve customers, while not requiring masks or enforcing reduced seating,” Mitrano said.
Pelosi indicated a bipartisan compromise might be possible, where Democrats would agree to include liability protections in exchange for a strong national Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard, ensuring workers’ safety by giving employees the right to receive information and training as well as request testing on hazards in their workplaces.
Overall, Mitrano pointed out the need for more research and less politics to figure out the amount of direct payments that people at different incomes and employment levels need to stay afloat. If aid is distributed starting from the most needy and moves up the socio-economic ladder, then money can continue to flow through the economy.
The pressing need to come together and provide financial aid to Americans struggling from the pandemic is a sentiment shared by many politicians from both parties. Reed said in a statement on the new stimulus package to Observer Today, “We have to do it right and do it together.”
“This is a time where everyone should put partisanship aside to enact, at the very least, common-sense measures to protect our citizens,” Mitrano said.