How arguments in Washington are holding up coronavirus relief in Pennsylvania

Key players in the Capitol say they won’t make any decisions about how to spend $1 billion in remaining stimulus cash until Washington finishes negotiating a second stimulus.

(Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

(Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

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There’s roughly $1 billion in unspent federal aid for coronavirus relief sitting in Pennsylvania’s coffers. Yet key players in the Capitol say they won’t make any decisions about how to spend the cash until Washington makes up its mind on a second stimulus package.

As congressional lawmakers and the White House negotiate, the list of industries calling for immediate help is growing. Last week, state House Republicans heard from restaurant and bar owners pleading for a bailout.

“As much as we hate to ask, because we are proud business owners that go out there and do it on our own … we need financial assistance,” Rui Lucas, general manager at Na’Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse in Horsham, told lawmakers. “If we do not get grants or loans to pay out mortgages, employees, and local taxes, we will not survive.”

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Both Democrats and Republicans in the state Capitol have put forth their own relief packages for small restaurants. One bill from Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) would create a program to award grants of up to $50,000 to cover operating expenses including payroll and rent.

Restaurants aren’t the only ones struggling. Consumer advocates say thousands of utility customers are also underwater and in need of financial help.

At the moment, customers statewide are protected from utility shutoffs because of a moratorium tied to Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration. But as the pandemic continues — and unpaid bills pile up — the state Public Utility Commission is considering how and when to end that protection.

PennPIRG, a nonpartisan consumer advocate, is calling on state lawmakers to appropriate $150 million in remaining stimulus money to alleviate the financial strain. The commissioners have endorsed the idea of the legislature using these dollars to assist customers unable to pay their bills.

Despite the growing need, leaders in Harrisburg say they won’t do anything until Washington makes a move.

”We need to see what, if any, additional relief Congress allocates so that we can make wise decisions that protect taxpayers and help those Pennsylvanians most impacted by the pandemic,” said Neal Lesher, a spokesperson for House Appropriations Chair Stan Saylor (R., York).

Bill Patton, a spokesperson for House Democrats, likewise said “there likely won’t be any movement” until the federal government makes a decision.

One major pain point in Congress’ current negotiations is whether the feds will provide any additional money to states. Democrats in Washington want around $1 trillion in state and local aid, while the White House has offered $150 billion, the Washington Post reported.

An earlier proposal from the Senate GOP contained no additional money at all. In an interview with CNBC, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) pointed to the $1 billion Pennsylvania still has in reserves, with a U.S. Treasury report finding that many states have spent less than a quarter of the direct aid provided in the first stimulus.

But a group of organizations led by the National Governors Association argued the report failed to paint a complete picture, as it did not note that funds arrived in late April or account for money allocated but not yet spent.

“With this timeframe in mind, we strongly hold that state and local governments have moved expeditiously and responsibly in the use of funds and their timely deployment,” the groups said in a statement.

Beyond more funding, states are also waiting to see if the feds will change course and allow them to use the first round of stimulus money to replace lost revenues. Pennsylvania’s got plenty of that — up to $5 billion in losses through next June.

As of Wednesday, there seemed to be some agreement in Washington that states need greater flexibility to spend remaining funds, the Associated Press reported. But as of Friday, the parties involved were still far from a deal.

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While what happens next is murky, one thing is clear: All CARES Act funds must be spent by the end of the year.

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