$1.3B in federal aid to Pa. remains unspent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Senate Democrats on Friday called for the immediate spending of $1.3 billion in federal coronavirus emergency aid the state received this year, and they want it to help struggling businesses and individuals.
“That money needs to be driven out,” Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia said during a Friday news conference. “It needs to be driven out immediately.”
The Democrats’ plea came on a day the state reported 1,566 additional cases of the virus, the 11th straight day of more than 1,000 additional cases.
How and when to spend the $1.3 billion has become more contentious in Harrisburg as the prospect of more federal financial help for Pennsylvania remains unclear. In Washington, D.C., discussions on another stimulus package have sputtered along.
Any spending in Harrisburg must be approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature. And its leaders repeatedly have said Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf hurt the state with overly broad shutdowns during the pandemic.
“Pennsylvania has lost 500,000 jobs as a result of Tom Wolf’s economic shutdowns,” Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Republicans, said Friday. “The governor has created the crisis in our economy, and he can’t look to this $1.3 billion to get him out of the hole.”
Earlier this year, lawmakers from both parties and both chambers along with Wolf agreed to put the money in a reserve fund.
If it is not spent by Nov. 30, it will be distributed to 60 Pennsylvania counties that did not get coronavirus emergency money directly from the federal government.
Gottesman said House Republican leaders want to keep the money on hand for at least a short period in case the virus which state leaders says is surging creates a need for rapid spending.
Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said the governor laid out some of his priorities for the money in late August. They include $225 million in hazard pay for front-line workers, $250 million for families with school-aged
children in need of child care because of blended or remote in-person instruction models, and hundreds of millions of dollars in forgivable loans and grants to small businesses.
Senate Democrats stressed some of the same priorities Friday. Hughes said the state was seeing “economic struggles in just about every sector.”
The largest items in the Senate Democrats’ proposal for spending the money are:
$575 million for business assistance, including bars, taverns, barbers, salons, restaurants, nonprofits, historically disadvantaged businesses and others.
$150 million for property tax relief.
$141 million for higher-education entities.
$125 million for individuals and families for utility bill assistance.
$125 million for high-Medicaid volume hospitals. $100 million for hazard pay in existing programs, and expanded programs for pharmacies.
The Morning Call this week reported how many employers, including operators of Lehigh Valley ambulance services and pharmacies, felt left out of the first hazard pay program announced over the summer. The Senate Democrats’ proposal also includes $10 million for EMS services and $15 million for fire services.
In late May with the state’s finances in disarray because of the virus the General Assembly passed an interim $25.1 billion budget that funded some programs for the full year, but others for only five months. Lawmakers expect to finish a seven-month budget for the rest of the year by Nov. 30.
Democrats made it clear they want the $1.3 billion in emergency money spent immediately.
But a spokesperson for Senate Republican leaders, Jennifer Kocher, said, “Our intention is to get a budget done, and that would include appropriating that money.”
The state faces a budget shortfall that has been estimated in the billions of dollars.
Kensinger said the administration expects budget work to begin “in earnest” soon, and it would be critical to finalize the budget in November “to avoid furloughs and any stoppage of critical payments to providers and grantees.”
The state has a hiring freeze in effect and is looking to reduce expenditures, she said.
Meanwhile, the state reported Friday that the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1% in September from 10.3% in August. It still remains above the national rate, 7.9%.
Besides the report of 1,566 more cases of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania, state data Friday showed a moving 14-day average of people hospitalized for the virus reached 699.6, the highest level since it was 706.7 on July 31.
The number of people hospitalized for the virus Friday at midday was 830, which was at or near the highest number in several months.
Those hospitalized Friday included 48 people in Lehigh County and five in Northampton County.
The seven-day moving average of newly reported cases was 1,148 on Friday. It was 1,146 a week earlier.
The case total statewide stood at 179,086. Sixty-eight of the additional cases Friday were in the Lehigh Valley, with 25 in Lehigh County and 43 in Northampton County.
Among the cases statewide, 29,676 have involved residents or employees at nursing or personal care homes.
The state reported 25 more deaths Friday to bring the total to 8,457. Lehigh County has had 361 deaths and Lehigh County has had 309.
Amongdeaths statewide, 5,603 or more than 66% have been nursing or personal care home residents.