The new federal COVID-19 stimulus package doesn’t have funds to ease state and local budget shortfalls amid the pandemic, but it would give Washington more than $1.7 billion to, among other things, help students and schools to deal with learning loss and provide rent relief.
It would do those things, that is, if it is actually enacted. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the deal approved this week by Congress, which spent much of the year deadlocked on a new stimulus package. Trump said Wednesday he wants lawmakers to increase the amount paid to taxpayers from $600 to $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples. The bill’s fate remains uncertain.
Officials are still sorting through what types and how much funding would come to Washington, according to Mike Faulk, spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee.
But initial estimates include roughly $824 million for K-12 public education, Faulk wrote in an email. Those dollars are structured similar to school funding included in the coronavirus relief package approved this spring, known as the CARES Act.
The new package includes another roughly $71 million for education relief, “which includes a new set-aside to provide public health and related services to private K-12 schools,” Faulk wrote in an email. “We are still learning how that set-aside will work.”
For higher-education institutions, the new package includes about $372 million that would be distributed directly to those colleges or universities, according to Faulk.
The legislation also establishes a new Emergency Rental Assistance administered by the U.S. Treasury Department, wrote Faulk, to “help families with past due rent, future rent payments, and utility and energy expenses.”
Officials are still figuring out how the new $25 billion program will work. Though funds may not be distributed by state governments, according to Faulk, Washington is expected to get about $507 million.
The federal package also includes $45 billion for transit and transportation agencies, $13 billion for nutrition assistance, according to news reports, and $7 billion for broadband internet access. It was unclear Thursday what Washington would receive in nutrition assistance.
However, funding for public transit would be distributed not by transit agency, but by geographical region. The Puget Sound Regional Council will approve how funds are distributed among transit agencies between Everett and Tacoma.
An analysis by the national nonprofit TransitCenter estimated that the Seattle area’s transit agencies would receive about $564 million from the new bill, which prioritizes funding to the nation’s most transit-dependent regions. The region received about $520 million from the CARES Act, which passed last spring.
Much of the funding would likely go to the region’s biggest transit agencies, King County Metro and Sound Transit.
Alex Fryer, a King County spokesperson, said the county didn’t yet know how much funding Metro Transit would receive. Metro’s share of the CARES Act money was about $243 million. He said the agency would use the additional funding to help fill the deficit the agency is facing and to, hopefully, reduce planned bus service cuts.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff called Trump’s last-minute wrench in the process “maddening.”
“This is otherworldly stuff, in terms of a president abandoning a bipartisan product that his negotiators helped negotiate,” Rogoff said.
Nonetheless, if Trump does end up signing the bill, Rogoff said, it would be a “good shot in the arm” for transit in the region, although more help would be needed.
“It’s certainly not going to meet everyone’s needs,” he said, noting that a bill previously passed by House Democrats but shunned by Senate Republicans included more than twice as much funding for transit. “I think we are all simultaneously grateful and a little bit disappointed.”
The new package sitting on Trump’s desk doesn’t include aid to state and local governments — a provision that had been sought by Democrats — to ease budget shortfalls by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It would provide little direct funding for cities like Seattle compared to the CARES Act from earlier this year, which included $150 billion for local, state and tribal governments, city budget director Ben Noble said.
While Seattle could receive some rental-assistance funds through the new package, Noble said in an interview this week, it wouldn’t offer the same level of help as the CARES Act, which allocated the city $177 million.
The CARES Act funding has been crucial for Seattle this year because the pandemic wrecked the city’s 2020 budget. COVID-19 required unexpected spending on public health measures, while economic shutdowns choked the city’s revenue streams.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council have used the CARES Act funds, in combination with Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, for COVID-19 test sites, firefighter and police officer overtime, child care staffing, homeless shelter operations, food assistance and other needs, Noble said.
Seattle should be able to maintain certain programs and services next year, even without direct funding from the new federal package, because the 2021 budget adopted by Durkan and the council last month was written assuming that no additional federal help would emerge, Noble said.
The 2021 budget, buoyed by a new tax on big businesses that the council adopted in July, will direct city dollars to certain COVID-19 response programs, such as the test sites.
Without direct funding in the new federal package, however, Seattle will be unable to expand or extend other programs, Noble said. Though the city’s 2021 budget includes some grocery vouchers and small-business grants, “the assistance we have planned is all we would be able to offer,” he said. For example, Seattle’s COVID-19 child care subsidies are due to end in April.
“If we had more resources, we could do more to serve our hardest-hit communities,” Noble said, mentioning immigrants and refugees.
The situation in Seattle could grow worse if surging cases cause more economic distress next year than anticipated, he added. The city’s 2021 budget is built on a forecast from October, and lower-than-expected revenues would present challenges, he said.
The new federal package would use a formula like that used with the CARES Act to distribute rental-assistance funds to jurisdictions across the country, Noble said. It’s not clear exactly how much money Seattle would receive, he said. The city has partnered with King County and the United Way this year to provide rental assistance to low-income households impacted by the pandemic and their landlords.
Democratic state lawmakers and Inslee have for months expressed hope that a new package would likewise include aid to help Washington’s projected state budget shortfall.
Those concerns have eased somewhat, as this spring’s dire projection of an $8.8 billion state shortfall through 2023 has shrunk drastically as the economy improved. Even with the brighter economic picture, officials have said revenue projections are still $2.4 billion below what they were before the pandemic hit.
State House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he still believes the 2021-23 state operating budget lawmakers will start drafting next month — is likely to require a mix of new revenue and some spending reductions.
“Obviously it would have made it much simpler if we had flexible money that we could use to replace lost revenue,” said Sullivan.
Still, the funding for Washington in the new package would be “very helpful,” said Sullivan.
“It does go toward things we would spend state dollars on anyway,” said Sullivan. “K-12 education, higher ed, child care, rental assistance, a lot of the things we’ve been doing.”