Pa. college students and their families need Toomey to step up on COVID-19 relief funding | Opinion

Sen. Pat Toomey. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

By Jamie Martin

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hammer our nation, President Donald Trump and members of the U.S. Senate are debating whether additional federal support should be provided to Americans who have lost their jobs, to business owners who are trying desperately to reopen and keep workers on the payroll, and to virtually all state and local governments in the country that have been impacted.

This should not be a tough call, so it is disappointing that some lawmakers — including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. — have signaled opposition to additional federal relief in the near future. We need action – now.

We are grappling with a massive public health threat. While Pennsylvania continues to earn high marks for the state’s efforts to stem the pandemic, the disease shows no signs of abating anytime soon. The disease has killed more than 7,000 and infected over 100,000 of our fellow Pennsylvanians.

We are also confronting an economic crisis that is wreaking havoc across our state. The state’s unemployment rate stands at 12.9 percent, and approximately 51,000 Pennsylvanians are filing unemployment claims each week. That is roughly the entire population of Harrisburg.

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Thousands of Pennsylvania taxpayers who continue to work in the midst of this pandemic need additional support, including access to personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers in nursing homes, food-processing facilities, retail outlets (including grocery stores and pharmacies) and the public sector have continued to punch the clock to take care of our residents’ needs.

Looking ahead, the math makes it clear that the families of these workers are not the only ones at risk. Every taxpayer has a vested interest in this legislation. Our state closed the 2019–20 budget year on July 1 with a $3.2 billion shortfall, and the state’s Independent Fiscal Office is projecting a $4.8 billion loss in state revenue in the next year.

On top of that potential financial hit, school districts could face local revenue shortfalls of $1 billion in the next fiscal year, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. This will hit our school districts that predominately educate students of color harder than others; if extra federal funding is not provided, the racial disparities in our public education system will grow even more pronounced.

There is some encouraging news: Gov. Tom Wolf and our state lawmakers worked across the aisle to enact a temporary budget that essentially flat-funds most state programs for five months and public education for a year. We need to see this type of bipartisan cooperation in Washington, as well.

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The U.S. Senate needs to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (the HEROES Act) and send it to Trump for his signature.

This legislation, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May, would provide another round of $1,200 checks to American adults and children and extend the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this month. This program provides Americans forced out of work by the pandemic an additional $600 a week in assistance.

The collective future of our Pennsylvania residents and our public higher-education system is dependent on additional emergency funding.

Without the HEROES act, Pennsylvania’s public universities will face an even tougher budget scenario than we now face, and that will directly affect our students and their families. We must use this opportunity to assist these universities with emergency funding.

The proposed legislation includes $26.7 billion in funding for higher education. These much-needed dollars will go to institutions of higher education to offset revenue declines caused by COVID-19.

A portion of this funding would also be allocated to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which would benefit Cheyney University (part of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education) as well as Lincoln University. In addition, the HEROES Act also contains much needed student-loan provisions for private borrowers and those holding federal loans.

Now is the time for the federal government to provide support to taxpayers, states, school districts and universities, and local governments. We need our national leaders to lead. We have witnessed what happened on the national level as the federal government did not develop and implement a coordinated, national response to the pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., supports this legislation. President Trump has already stated that he supports additional stimulus legislation. Toomey is “skeptical” that additional payments to Americans are necessary or effective.

It is time for Toomey to step up and support this legislation. His party has a majority in the Senate and is led by the president of the United States. Pennsylvanians desperately need this support. Pennsylvanians deserve leadership, and it is up to Toomey to deliver it.

Dr. Jamie Martin is president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, representing about 5,000 faculty and coaches at Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities and a member of the CLEAR Coalition. For more information, please visit APSCUF.org.