COVID-19 Response Package Negotiations Continue as Fiscal Year 2021 Spending Decisions Loom
Congressional negotiators continued to seek a path toward a final agreement on a fourth COVID-19 assistance package. Several issues ranging from providing additional small business assistance, tax credits for public agencies, and low income ratepayer assistance for water and wastewater services, creating hurdles to an agreement that could survive any objections to consideration to a bill in the House and Senate. Prospects for a final agreement remain positive, with the hope that a compromise can be reached in the coming week. With all eyes focused on the priority to supplement programs of assistance authorized under the CARES Act, the more mundane aspects of governmental duties continue.
This week, the House Committee on Appropriations began the process of developing spending decisions for fiscal year (FY) 2021 that begins October 1, 2020. Under usual rules of order, the committee conducts hearings into agency spending requests and receives input from stakeholders. Due to Covid-19 and the shuttering on normal operations, the process is proceeding with limited hearings and the expected timing for formal House approval of spending bills is likely to be delayed until early summer when Congress might return to work. Given the need to set in place the building blocks to design agency budgets, committee chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) issued spending FY2021 allocations (based upon the budget agreement governing overall spending reached last year) to her subcommittees to allow for the development of specific department and agency spending levels that would be incorporated into individual spending bills.
The unprecedented increased level of federal spending provided in the three COVID-19 relief packages, and the anticipated ongoing commitment of supplemental spending, may restrict the development of FY2012 spending bills. The additional prospect that an infrastructure bill may be developed in the coming months could also impact the spending levels for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies. Agency budgets could be scaled back to account for any broader infrastructure initiative(s), leaving FY2021 budgets to address just core agency operations. However, given the fact that Washington will return to a dramatically different political and economic climate, as well as the fast approaching November elections, the potential for a simple continuing resolution to maintain governmental operations through November cannot be discounted as a likely outcome later this summer.
White House Releases Guide To Reopen Government and Calls Upon Bipartisan Group To Develop Plan to Reopen Government
This week the White House called upon a bipartisan group of congressional members to determine when and how the country should start reopening process within the context of COVID-19. The creation of the task force comes as the federal and state governments start considering what conditions and requirements are necessary to ensure a safe reopening of the country. The White House has released its guide for how to reopen the country. Entitled the Opening Up America Again Plan, it is a three-phase plan that outlines steps and actions that States, businesses, and individuals should take to ensure a safe reopening of the country.
The congressional task force will consist of both Senate and House members and the group held their first conference call this week to start brainstorming potential reopening actions. A list of the task force members can be found here.
SBA Loan Program Set To Exhaust Funds This Week
On Thursday, the Small Business Administration (SBA) exhausted its funding capacity for its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The PPP was created to help businesses of fewer than 500 employees avert employee layoffs by providing these businesses forgivable loans to use for payroll purposes during the COVID-19 crisis. Congress allocated $350 billion in funding for the program in the recent COVID-19 relief packages, but, after launching on April 3, the program has reached its funding capacity and will no longer be able to provide future loans until Congress approves additional funding.
Earlier this week, the Administration urged Congress to approve an additional $250 billion to keep the program running, but the request hit a roadblock when Congressional leadership disagreed over how to legislatively pass the funding. Republicans called for passing a standalone bill that would only provide $250 billion to the PPP. Democrats disagreed with this approach and argued that the funding bill should also include provisions to support and protect hospitals and local governments. Congressional leaders were unable to reach an agreement over the impasse before the House and Senate adjourned for the week. This means that the PPP will have wait at least a week before the program can receive additional funding.
Support Grows for Local Government Relief
Introduced by Representative Joe Neguse (D-CO), the Coronavirus Community Relief Act (H.R. 6467) would provide dedicated funding to local governments to support their ongoing efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. H.R. 6467 currently has 111 cosponsors and is strongly supported by the National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors and National Association of Counties.
In the Senate, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) will introduce companion legislation to HR 6467, with co-sponsorship by California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris (Joint Press Release). Key provisions in the Coronavirus Community Relief Act includes:
- $250 billion in stabilization funds for units of local government with populations fewer than 500,000.
- Funds will be available to cover costs that are necessary and related to the public health emergency caused by COVID-19, and covers costs incurred (including lost revenues) during the period of March 1-December 30, 2020.
- Payments from the U.S. Department of the Treasury will be made within 30 days after submission of a certification (that costs were incurred in response to COVID-19) by a locality.
- Local government population, based on the most recent year of Census data, will determine payments amounts.
Senate Democrats Unveil Proposal For Reopening The Government and Economy
This week, Senate Democrats released a white paper outlining their proposal for how to reopen the government following the COVID-19 crisis. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), along with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), announced the development of the white paper, entitled “A Roadmap to Reopening by Ensuring a Speedy and Ubiquitous Lab Testing System (RESULTS).” Murray explained that central to reopening the government would be a dramatic increase in testing capacity across the U.S. In addition to testing, the RESULTS paper states that there also needs to be a system for identifying “who has COVID-19, who needs to be isolated or quarantined, and who may be immune due to previous infection” to allow the government and economy to reopen prior to the availability of an effective vaccine. The white paper is intended to be a guide for Congress and the Executive Branch as to how to increase testing and improve public health to be able to reopen the government.
The RESULTS paper identifies six major actions that need to be taken, and includes:
- Requiring a strategic plan to leverage a “whole of society” response;
- Emergency funding of $30 billion to enable rapid scaling of testing and the full range of activities that support testing and maximize its impact;
- Pipeline to develop, validate, and allocate accurate, reliable tests to ensure adequate supply;
- Structures to administer tests in every community across the country;
- Robust public health infrastructure to respond to results and better contain COVID-19; and
- Transparency and accountability across the testing system.
Environmental Organizations Sue USEPA Over Enforcement Policy During Coronavirus Emergency
Fourteen environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine on the Agency’s decision to modify enforcement policy to take into account Covid-19. NRDC was joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Public Citizen, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Center for Coalfield Justice, Clean WaterAction, Coming Clean, Flint Rising, Indigenous Environmental Network, Just Transition Alliance, Los Jardines Institute, Southeast Environmental Task Force, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Water You Fighting For, and West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.
The lawsuit stems from a policy statement issued last month by the Agency that recognized that permittees may be unable to comply with monitoring requirements due to Covid-19 related impacts. Instead, the Agency stated that permittees would be required to log noncompliance, citing how Covid-19 impacts resulted in the noncompliance with monitoring and reporting. The litigation filing notes that the lack of public comment on the change in enforcement poses health and environmental threats to downstream communities and diminishes the deterrent effect of polluting due to the mandate to monitor and report violations. In an effort to address the perceived shortfalls, the litigation seeks an emergency formal rulemaking publication and a public comment period to allow for any amendments prior to the rule becoming effective.
Federal Agency COVID-19 Related Updates For This Week
Federal Emergency Management Agency
FEMA COVID-19 Governmental Response Update – Details the governmental actions taken by FEMA and other federal agencies to address COVID-19 needs as of this week.
FEMA COVID-19 Disaster Financial Management Guide– Outlines FEMA’s suggestions for how to best track and organize expenses for entities that are managing COVID-19-related activities.
U.S. Department of Treasury
List of Eligible Units of Local Government for Coronavirus Relief Fund – List of communities in each state that reach the 500,000 population threshold for eligibility to access funding through the Coronavirus Relief Fund.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Version 3.0 of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce – Updated guidelines identifying who are considered essential critical infrastructure workforce.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
USEPA Publishes Updated MS4 NPDES Permit Rule – The Agency this week published its final rule updating the data requirements and elements within Phase II.
Congressional Activities Taken This Week Relating to COVID-19
Bicameral Letter Urging A National Moratorium On Water Services Bills – Letter from both House and Senate members to congressional leadership urging a national moratorium of at least six months post-COVID-19 crisis to allow for a grace period for people to financially recover from the crisis before paying late utility fees and bills associated with the crisis.
Stakeholder Activities Taken This Week Related to COVID-19
AWWA and AMWA Report on the Financial Impact of COVID-19 on Drinking Water Utility – Report detailing the anticipated financial impacts to drinking water utilities across the U.S. as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.