EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s four members of Congress pledged Tuesday to push to secure more federal aid for states and municipalities to balance their budgets, as revenues tank due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the middle of a pandemic you can’t have layoffs in police and fire departments and first responders,” Congressman David Cicilline said during an hour-long COVID-19 Congressional Town Hall on WPRI 12 Tuesday night.
Cicilline, along with Congressman Jim Langevin and U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, all participated remotely by video conference in the town hall, hosted by Target 12 investigators Tim White and Ted Nesi.
The four Democrats weighed in as Rhode Island’s State House leaders are facing deep revenue shortfalls, municipal leaders are laying off employees and the state’s largest public school district – already struggling pre-pandemic – is now planning for potential layoffs and furloughs as well.
“None of them can borrow or print money the way the federal government can,” Whitehouse said. “Many of them have constitutional or legal balanced-budget requirements. So it’s the federal government that really has the flexibility here to put money into these local municipalities, counties and states and help them through this problem.”
Nearly $1 trillion in such state and local aid was included in the HEROES Act, passed by the Democratically-controlled House last week, but it appears to have little chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants to assess the impacts of the previously passed federal coronavirus relief bills before passing another massive package.
“If they don’t like things that are in the House bill, fine,” Langevin said of McConnell and other GOP senators. “But he can make the adjustments, hopefully in a bipartisan way, and get it back to the House.”
The House-passed legislation also includes hazard pay for frontline workers, student debt forgiveness and more, but has been criticized by Republicans as containing a “liberal wish list” of items not strictly related to the pandemic.
“Failure is not an option here when so many people are under pressure, families are under pressure, lives are on the line,” Langevin said.
Reed also urged the U.S. Treasury Department should be more flexible with the requirements for how Rhode Island can use the $1.25 billion he helped secure for the state in the CARES Act, which President Trump signed in late March.
Still, the state’s senior senator suggested Gov. Gina Raimondo and other state leaders may not be able to count on additional federal relief arriving between now and the close of the state’s fiscal year, which ends June 30, to help fill a $235 million projected deficit.
“They might have to go ahead and put together some type of contingent budget for the following year with opportunities or mechanisms to incorporate federal funding that becomes available,” Reed said. “But time is of the essence. Rhode Island is not alone. There are states across the country facing the same dilemma that Rhode Island has.”
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Nesi and White also posed questions from WPRI 12 viewers to the lawmakers, including one from Carolyn, who asked what to do if she hasn’t received her stimulus check yet from the CARES Act.
Cicilline said he would first encourage people to go to IRS.gov to check on their payment. He said people who have not recently filed tax returns may need to provide the federal government with more information for where to deposit or mail their check.
“There are some folks who still haven’t received their checks because of lack of information from the IRS, so if people are not comfortable going to the website and providing that information they should reach out to one of our offices and we can help them navigate that,” Cicilline said.
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The four lawmakers all said that the Paycheck Protection Program — which provides loans to small businesses to pay their employees — should be extended past its current eight-week period. The program requires the businesses to keep their employees on the payroll, or bring them back from being laid off, and use 75% of the loan on payroll for eight weeks in order to have it forgiven.
“What we found out is that despite the best efforts of many businessmen and businesswomen, they cannot reassemble their entire workforce in that short a period of time,” Reed said. “It should go late into the fall and allow people the opportunity to reestablish their workforce as they reopen for business. At the end of that period of time … that’s a fairer way to reevaluate and determine the forgiveness on the loan.”
Whitehouse added that any changes to PPP should also allow small businesses to spend more of the loan on rent. Right now, only 25% of the loan can be used on business expenses other than payroll.
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Another viewer, Dottie, submitted a question about a common refrain from business owners who’ve suggested they are struggling to get their employees to come back on the payroll, since the CARES Act gives workers on unemployment an additional $600 per week.
“We needed to get money into people’s hands as quickly as possible so they could put a roof over their heads and put food on the table,” Langevin said. “When we can bring our employees back, they can no longer receive unemployment compensation.”
Reed also said employees who are being offered their jobs back are no longer eligible for the unemployment benefits.
“That’s something that’s very clear and something that can be enforced,” Reed said. “If you are offered your job and you turn it down, then you are no longer entitled to these benefits.”
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