With relief talks at a standstill, states look to Washington for signals on COVID-19 aid | Wednesday Morning Coffee

August 12, 2020 7:15 am

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 23: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate floor following a recess in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol on January 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. Democratic House managers will continue their opening arguments on Thursday as the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump continues. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
Talks on a new coronavirus relief package may be at a standstill on Capitol Hill, but congressional Democrats are continuing their push for more aid to states in any future package. And as The Hill reports, assistance to states remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to talks resuming.

Democrats are looking for $915 billion in assistance, according to The Hill, while Republicans are drawing the line at $150 billion, which is the same amount that was included in the CARES Act, which was approved back in March.

Advocates for the states and policy-watchers continue to argue that, despite the preparations that states, such as Pennsylvania, have made for a potential recession and economic downturn, the size and scope of the COVID-19 downturn is simply no match for state finances.

“After being underprepared for the Great Recession, many states adopted policies to ensure they would save in good years so that adequate dollars would be available in bad ones,” Jeff Chapman and Josh Goodman of the Pew Charitable Trusts wrote in a Monday op-Ed for The Hill. “These efforts paid off: Research by The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, states collectively had more dollars saved in their rainy day funds — with money that could cover a bigger percentage of state spending — than at any time in at least the past 20 years.”

After years of anemic balances, Pennsylvania made a $317 million deposit in its Rainy Day Fund, the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported at the time. The pandemic has since punched a $3.2 billion hole in the state’s bottom line.

In late May, the Legislature approved, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed, a $28.5 billion, stopgap spending plan that funded most state agencies for five months, except for education, which got a full 12 months of funding.

Pennsylvania received $5 billion in CARES Act assistance and the state began parceling that money out earlier this summer. Pennsylvania has $1 billion in CARES money in reserve, and legislative leaders have said they don’t want to spend it until they see what Congress does.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks during an event at the Dauphin County Courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa., on Wednesday, 10/9/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

In a statement issued Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., signaled some of the challenges states will face among Senate Republicans as Democrats and their allies press the case for increased funding.

“Just four months ago, Congress sent about half a trillion dollars to state and local governments to cover COVID-19 related costs, boost Medicaid funding, and support local public health programs, hospitals, schools, and mass transit. One of the numerous funding allocations that went to Pennsylvania was from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which gave nearly $5 billion to the state,” Toomey said. “Of this allocation, Pennsylvania is still sitting on over $1 billion and large counties, like Allegheny, have spent a fraction of what was directly given to them by the federal government. Every dollar that was spent through the CARES Act was either borrowed or printed. Before Congress spends even more money it doesn’t actually have, states and counties should allocate their existing allotments so we can thoughtfully determine what needs remain.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto jabbed back at Toomey and Republicans, noting, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that there won’t be an economic recovery “if our cities are left to die.”

The Trump White House, meanwhile, has played favorites, suggesting that it will help Red States who have been supportive, while dismissing Blue States as poorly run and unworthy of assistance.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, speaks during a Capitol news conference on Tuesday 8/11/20 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

During a Capitol press conference on Tuesday, new House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff acknowledged the enormity of the challenge facing the state as it moves into deliberations on a second phase of the budget this fall.

Of the $1 billion balance, Benninghoff said the money had been set aside for emergencies, and the state still needed to be prepared for any emergencies.

“We still have the budget to finish and revenues are not where they should be,” Benninghoff told reporters.

Other states are in the same boat. They’ve found a champion in U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who has been pressing GOP leaders to include more aid to states in the final bill.

In an interview with the Louisiana Illuminator, a sibling site to the Capital-StarCassidy said he told mayors Monday on a call with the National League of Cities to “show ‘em your books.”

“Show them that this time a year ago this is how much you got, and this year you have far less. And because of that, you’re gonna have to lay off police officers and firefighters and teachers,” Cassidy said.

Time will tell if Cassidy is successful. In the meantime, state governments are looking at a dire fiscal picture. And Congress has yet to act.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
Here’s our continuously updated account of how Pennsylvania Democrats reacted to Kamala Harris being tapped as Joe Biden’s running mate on Tuesday. Cassie Miller and your humble newsletter author have the story

A state House panel scrutinized COVID-19 testing delays, even as Gov. Tom Wolf announced state aid for a Lehigh Valley firm, Stephen Caruso reports.

House Republicans pushed back Tuesday against the Wolf administration’s voluntary guidance that school districts cancel fall sports, unveiling a pair of bills they say will give more power to parents and local school boards to make calls on what and when to cancel. Your humble newsletter author has the story.

And as gun violence rages in Philadelphia, a special City Council hearing revealed no quick solutions, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, rebutting a recent Capital-Star op-Ed, Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, has some thoughts about the ‘real extremist’ in Pennsylvania politics. And activists from Fair Districts Pa want to know when Sen. John DiSanto’s actions on redistricting reform match his rhetoric.

(Photo via pxHere)

Educating kids is the state’s first priorityGov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday, as GOP lawmakers pressed school reopening proposals. The Inquirer has the story.
A Monroeville nursing home has 47 COVID-19 cases after reporting none at all last week, the Tribune-Review reports.
The PIAA has sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf to start discussions on restarting fall sportsPennLive reports.
Most of Allentown’s City Council supports a resolution on police reform, the Morning Call reports.
The Citizens-Voice talks to a local NAACP leader about the historical import of Kamala Harris.

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:

UPenn will move its classes online and freeze tuition during the fall semester, WHYY-FM reports.
LGBTQ housing programs are struggling to meet demandWESA-FM reports.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.and 11 other officials were sanctioned by China on Tuesday, PoliticsPA reports.
Politico goes behind the scenes on U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ journey to the presumptive vice presidential nomination. 

What Goes On.

10 a.m. House Labor and Industry Committee
Informational meeting to receive an update on the unemployment compensation system from the Department of Labor & Industry and the Treasury Department.
Room G50
Irvis Office
2 p.m. Democratic Policy Committee (H),
Democratic Policy Committee (S)
Joint public hearing on innovative responses to maternal mortality (watch at
Room G-50
Irvis Office

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
7 p.m.: 
Reception for state Rep. Liz Hanbidge and state Senate candidate Amanda Cappelletti. Admission runs $50 to $1,000.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Mike Brunelle, from the office of Gov. Tom Wolf, and to Samantha Galvez, of FOX-43 in York, both of whom celebrate today. Congrats and enjoy the day, friends.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s a dreamy bit of pop from Winnetka Bowling League, called On the 5.” It’s the finest song about listening to “Pet Sounds” while in a ’92 Subaru that has yet been written.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
and Columbus played for a truly epic six hours, through five overtimes, with the ‘Bolts finally snapping a 2-2 tie around 9:30 p.m., to win 3-2 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference seriesCarolina, who were supposed to face Boston last night, got bumped to 11 a.m. this morning.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.