Pa. Senate Dems offer $4 billion pandemic relief plan

Harrisburg

The Pennsylvania state Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing/WITF)

Experts predict the coronavirus pandemic will make Pennsylvania’s health and economic picture worse between now and when lawmakers are sworn in for the next session in January due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate Democrats proposed a plan to provide financial aid to restaurants, hospitals and other sectors that are expected to continue struggling. Money would be drawn from the Commonwealth’s rainy day fund, which totals several hundred million dollars, and from several billion dollars in emergency loans.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Montgomery County), who’s spearheading the idea, said the state must be prepared to provide assistance if the federal government fails to approve an additional round of pandemic relief funding.

“We know that we can’t depend upon the federal government, given the fact that we’ve been waiting for them to respond to this crisis for months now,” Hughes said during a virtual press conference Friday.

Congress approved nearly $2 trillion in emergency funding at the end of March, which authorized $1,200 stimulus checks for much of the nation’s population, among other things. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have so far been unable to reach consensus on whether to send more money, something state and local governments have requested.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week rejected a bipartisan plan to send out more than $900 billion in stimulus funds, though pressure from moderates in both parties has forced McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi back to the negotiating table on the issue.

Pa. Senate Democrats instead suggest using money from emergency loans to send $800 million to small businesses, $400 million to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and $350 million for child care centers, among other places.

Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia County, said taking on debt now would be worth it.

“You don’t get a return on an investment you don’t make,” Street said. “The economic turn and growth in tax dollars will far outweigh the cost of the investment we have to make in our people.”

House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman referred to the idea as a “bill of goods” that would drive up the state’s debt — noting the legislature is already funding front-line public health efforts under the new state budget.

“Instead of making empty promises to the people of Pennsylvania, legislative Democrats should join with Republicans to seek a way to restore our economy and bring more common sense to our COVID-19 response while we collectively work to sensibly protect family and friends from this terrible pandemic,” Gottesman said.

Last month, lawmakers decided to use the state’s remaining $1.3 billion in federal pandemic relief funds from the CARES Act to help balance Pennsylvania’s budget.

Sen. Maria Collett (D-Bucks County) said that means state government will need to start from scratch if it wants to help residents and businesses get through the next phase of the pandemic.

“When Pennsylvanians who’ve been sacrificing and struggling since March are still being asked to do more, and facing this winter and holiday season forced to get by with less, this legislature needs to do everything in our power to lend a hand,” she said.

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