Congressional Negotiations for Second COVID-19 Relief Bill Collapse. Nothing Is Forthcoming to Repair State Budgets or Help Local School Districts

The prospect of a second coronavirus relief bill devolved into chaos over the weekend as the White House/Congressional negotiations disintegrated, and President Donald Trump offered to replace Congressional action with executive orders and executive memoranda which are reported to be of questionable constitutionality. Left out entirely was federal assistance to support public school reopening and to keep state and local government services fully staffed and functioning.

Not only has chaos ensued, but the President has actively politicized the situation. On Monday morning at 9:10 AM, President Trump tweeted: “So now Schumer and Pelosi want to meet to make a deal. Amazing how it all works, isn’t it. Where have they been for the last 4 weeks when they were ‘hardliners’, and only wanted BAILOUT MONEY for Democrat run states and cities that are failing badly? They know my phone number!”

In the real world where the rest of us reside, school districts—trying to figure out how to reopen as the pandemic rages or provide additional access to online learning— face huge costs, which many school districts are clearly unable to afford.  I was stunned on Sunday night by an NBC news report that the Collier County Public Schools in Florida—a geographically large district covering Naples on the Gulf Coast, the Everglades, and agricultural communities like Immokalee—had spent $26 million ($578 per student) to make its schools safe for 45,000 public school students to return.  It is wonderful that this school district is able to support such preparations, but most school districts cannot afford adjustments amounting to $578 per student.

Over the weekend, Trump promised through executive action to provide an unemployment benefit supplement of $400 per week with 25 percent of the money coming from state governments. The President’s allegation is that states have lots of CARES Act money (from the first stimulus bill passed in March) left over.  Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine had already slashed his state’s FY 2020 state budget by $775 million before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, with $300 million of those cuts coming from promised FY 2020 state aid for local school districts. On Monday the Associated Press reported that DeWine has announced that he will happily accept the President’s $300 per week unemployment benefit supplements, but that Ohio is unable to pay the 25 percent addition of $100 per benefit.  Last evening the Washington Post reported that, due to shortages in state budgets,  the White House has decided states will not be required to pay the $100 weekly contribution to each benefit in order to have their unemployed citizens receive an extra $300 per week, as long as the funds last.

Now, recognizing the reality that the rapid spread of the virus is forcing many school districts to go online and that the federal government is not moving forward promptly with a relief bill to support cash-strapped school districts, Ohio Governor DeWine has been forced to end the requirement that local school districts match state funds to qualify for state assistance to help with remote learning costs. Ohio has been providing $50 million across its 610 local school districts, but as of this week, the state will no longer require a local match.

Democratic governors have also spoken out. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo worries that his state’s “budget hole could force cuts of up to 20 percent for schools, health care programs and local governments.”  Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer condemns Trump’s “refusal to provide full federal funding to states across the country…. Whitmer also chastised the president for not addressing issues that will help keep students and educators safe as schools across the country prepare for the possibility of going back to school this fall. ‘The president has repeatedly said that it’s time for our kids to return to school for in-person learning, but he won’t work with Congressional leaders to provide districts with the support they need to keep students, educators, and support staff safe… His executive actions yesterday do nothing to protect our kids form the spread of this virus.'”

On Saturday, the executive director of The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Robert Greenstein  condemned the breakdown in Congressional negotiations and Trump’s attempted replacement of a federal relief bill with a series of constitutionally questionable executive orders and memoranda.  Greenstein also contradicts the President’s allegation that states have unclaimed, leftover CARES Act dollars: “President Trump’s new executive actions should deeply concern all Americans. They fall dramatically short of responding effectively to the enormous need across the country due to COVID-19 and the deep recession… That we have reached this point is a national tragedy. The executive actions raise serious legal issues and may not withstand legal challenge.  Nor is it clear that the Administration actually can implement them—in particular, that it can secure the funding and use the funds as the executive actions direct.  Of note is the requirement that states pay 25 percent of the $400-a-week unemployment benefit supplement that the Presidential directive claims to provide—even as today’s executive actions provide no fiscal relief to states despite the massive pandemic-driven budget shortfalls they face. With most of the limited funding that the CARES Act provided to states through the Coronavirus relief Fund already spoken for, the 25 percent requirement will force states to choose between letting the federal supplemental unemployment benefits end entirely and slashing other parts of their budgets—likely including laying off teachers, health care workers, and others—to find the funds for the new match while balancing their budgets at the same time, as virtually all states are legally required to do… (E)ven if every state could find new money to cover 25 percent of these unemployment benefit costs, the benefits apparently would run out after about six weeks.”

Greenstein continues, specifically addressing problems for states—where state aid for public schools in some states comprises half of the annual general revenue outlay—and their local school districts: “(S)tate and local governments face enormous budget shortfalls due to CCOVID-19 and the recession… and many of them have delayed implementing draconian budget cuts as they awaited the outcome of White House-Congressional negotiations over the next economic relief package, which was widely expected to include significant new state fiscal relief. Instead of providing such relief, however, the executive actions make this problem worse by trying to pressure states to put up billions of dollars to help finance the supplemental unemployment benefits.”

And for public school districts: “The executive actions… offer no help for schools, which face substantial new costs to make their facilities safe when they can open and to facilitate effective online learning when students attend school online, in whole or in part… COVID-19 and the deep recession have caused deep and widespread hardship and, due to longstanding inequalities, Black, Latino, immigrant, and Indigenous communities have been hit especially hard. The failure to enact measures to substantially reduce hardship and bolster the economy will make racial disparities, which the pandemic and recession already are exacerbating, even starker.”

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