Lawmakers advance plan to spend $2.6 billion of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus stimulus

state Rep. Stan Saylor (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

This breaking story will be updated

The General Assembly has advanced a plan to spend two-thirds of its federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars.

The plan, passed unanimously Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee, includes $632 million for nursing homes; $625 million for county block grants; $259 million to boost funding for intellectual disability care, and $225 million for small business grants.

In total, the proposal spends $2.6 billion of the $3.9 billion in federal aid Pennsylvania received from a multi-trillion package Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, in late March.

The federal money  cannot be used to backfill holes in the state budget, and can only be spent on coronavirus-related expenditures.

There will be a reserve of $1.3 billion in federal assistance after these funds are appropriated, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the Legislature will decide what to do with those funds at a later time

“We will continue — as this pandemic continues to be an infliction all across our country — to see where those dollars are needed as we move forward,” Saylor said.

Saylor said some of the $2.6 billion will also be invested in research and development of a coronavirus vaccine, relief for farmers, higher education, and housing security.

The highlights include:

  • $175 million in mortgage and rental assistance
  • $150 million for School Safety and Security Fund, established after the Parkland school shooting in 2018
  • $116 million for child care
  • $50 million to fight food insecurity, including $20 million to purchase surplus dairy
  • $50 million for hazard pay
  • $37.2 million in various high education cost assistance 
  • $20 million in grants to museums and other cultural organizations 
  • $10 million for vaccine and treatment development

The $625 million for counties will go to 60 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. The seven most populous, including Philadelphia and Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, received direct appropriations from the federal government.

John O’Brien, a spokesperson for Saylor, said that the county dollars will be doled out via a population-based formula.

An analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that CARES funding, while restricted, could still be used on everything from temporary homeless housing to hazard pay for public safety or health care workers, among other uses.

This week, the General Assembly has also moved to pass a temporary, five-month budget to fund the state government through November. In the meantime, negotiations over a full spending plan will continue behind closed doors.

A vote on the final spending package will then take place in a lame duck session of the General Assembly, when lawmakers who are either retiring or lost reelection could play a role.

The state currently faces a multi-billion budget hole, according to the Independent Fiscal Office, a non-partisan policy analysis office. But Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders have cautioned that tax deadline delays could improve the fiscal picture in coming months.

Also uncertain is if Congress will pass another stimulus package with direct aid to states. The bipartisan National Governors Association, which includes both Republican and Democratic chief executives, has advocated for such a measure. 

Ranking Appropriations Committee Democrat Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, said before the vote that he wanted to recognize the “tremendous push” made by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to work with Trump on state’s fiscal holes.

“With our budget challenges coming in November, we recognize that only with additional federal assistance will we be able to manage these challenges,” Bradford said. “So we send a prayer to Speaker Pelosi and her efforts with President Trump to make sure we receive those federal dollars we so desperately need.”