Trump signs COVID-19 relief bill
On December 27, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill and an omnibus spending bill that funds the government. The move by the president was somewhat unexpected, as Trump had previously referred to the package as a “disgrace” and said he would refuse to sign it. But, after stalling for days, Trump eventually signed the over 5,000- page package, just less than 48 hours before the government would be forced to shut down and pandemic relief measures would expire.
The package has two components: it funds the government through the end of the fiscal year and it provides billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief, including money for vaccine distribution, schools, small businesses, hospitals and families. This is the second largest federal relief package in history, second only to the $2 trillion CARES Act approved last March.
All three members of Alaska’s delegation voted for both bills. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan along with Congressman Don Young, all Republicans, said that the relief package will provide vital relief for Alaska’s small businesses and schools. “This is a vital bill that arrives at a critical moment in our fight against COVID-19,” said Young. While Young said he was happy to have reached a compromise on government funding and COVID-19 relief, he also criticized Trump for his delay. “Our nation deserves confidence and stability; eleventh-hour negotiations and arbitrary dayslong government funding extensions are no way to govern,” Young stated.
The COVID-19 relief legislation includes $600 stimulus payments to individual adults with an adjusted gross income of $75,000 a year or less, and up to $600 for qualifying children. The IRS began distributing the funds on Dec. 29 by direct deposits and on Dec. 30 by mailing paper checks. In an unusual break from the Republican party, Trump pushed to increase the size of the checks to $2,000. He initially threatened not to sign the package unless the stimulus checks were more than tripled in size, undercutting his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who negotiated the relief bill with Congressional leaders. Trump’s demand was at odds with the wishes of most Republican lawmakers, who wanted to limit the amount of relief individuals received. Instead, Trump was aligned with the Democrats rather than his own party. The Democratic controlled House of Representatives voted in favor of separate legislation that would fund $2,000 stimulus checks. Alaska Congressman Don Young skipped the House vote. The House then pushed the Senate to approve the larger checks. However, that is not likely to happen. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said there is “no realistic path” for $2,000 stimulus payments to pass the Senate. The Senate did not take up whether or not to increase the checks.
Along with the stimulus checks, the legislation extends and expands federal unemployment benefits. Individuals receiving unemployment will receive an additional $300 in federal funds per week for 11 weeks. The bill also extends support for independent contractors and freelancers for the same amount of time, or until March 14. This will be important for Alaskans, because the state’s unemployment is high. According to Jenna Luhrs, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, about 82,000 workers filed for unemployment in Alaska between March and October. The unemployment rate for November was 8.1 percent, higher than the U.S. rate of 6.7 percent.
Although the package does extend unemployment benefits, by failing to sign the bill right away, Trump allowed two programs to lapse. This inaction will result in a delay for millions of Americans, meaning many people will only see 10 weeks of payments rather than 11.
The relief legislation includes $25 billion for rental assistance. The moratorium on evictions was extended for another month, through January 31. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food stamp benefits will increase by 15 percent for six months.
The package provides an additional $300 million to help fishermen and coastal communities prevent, prepare and respond to the pandemic.
The legislation includes $82 billion for education. This amount is divided into $54 billion for K-12 schools and $23 billion for post-secondary institutes. An additional $10 billion has been allotted for childcare providers, who have suffered due to the pandemic.
The COVID-relief package also includes funding for hospitals and vaccines. It provides $20 billion for the purchase of vaccines, so that they can be distributed for free, along with $8 billion for vaccine distribution. Another $20 billion went to states to help with testing. Also, in the legislation was an additional $3 billion to the $175 billion fund that reimburses hospitals and healthcare providers for expenses and lost revenue caused by the pandemic.
Of particular note for Alaska is that the legislation provides $7 billion to expand broadband access. About half of this goes toward helping cover monthly internet bills of low-income families, providing as much as $50 per month. $300 million is set aside for building infrastructure in rural areas and $1 billion is set aside for grants for tribal broadband programs.
Highlights of the omnibus spending legislation for Alaska
Along with COVID-19 relief, the package includes the $1.4 trillion omnibus legislation that funds the government through September 30, the end of the fiscal year. The bill includes several sections that are relevant to Alaska, such as funding for Nome’s Deep Draft port project.
Sen. Murkowski praised the spending bill, writing in a statement, “The 12-bill appropriations package invests in every sector of America. It will create economic opportunities for Alaskans, strengthen our national defense and military infrastructure, support Alaska’s fisheries, and invest in transportation.”
For Nome in particular, a noteworthy component is the incorporation of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020. This Act, passed by the Senate Public Works Committee in May, includes the authorization of $379 million for Nome’s Deep Draft port project. This will be matched with $126 million in non-federal funds.
The omnibus legislation “makes significant steps toward addressing the immense housing and urban development needs in rural Alaska,” according to Murkowski.
It allocates $747 million for Native American Housing Block Grants, which help address housing needs in tribal communities. The Competitive Grant funding received $100 million, and the Indian Community Development Block Grant, which supports tribal economies and community development efforts, received $70 million. Lastly, the package includes $1.5 million for the Section 184 Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Fund, which helps American Indian and Alaska Native borrowers secure loans.
There is also additional funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Another $6.7 billion was allotted to the BIA to improve their responses to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The legislation provides increased funding for rural and Alaska Native education programs. This includes $36.453 million for the Alaska Native Education Equity Program, a $500,000 increase, and a $2 million increase in funding for the Area Health Education Centers, which support recruiting and training healthcare personnel in rural and underserved areas.
Also relevant for Alaska is a section on Arctic energy development. The legislation directs the Department of Energy to renew its focus on the Arctic, including reestablishing the Arctic Energy Office. The office will help support the integration of research, development and innovative activities, such as microgrids and integrated energy systems.
The Rural Water and Waste Disposal Program received $68 million, with a higher percentage of funding awarded to Alaska than has been in the recent years.
Also of note, a separate bill regarding defense policy was a further point of contention between Trump and Congress last week. On New Year’s Day, Congress overrode Trump’s veto of the defense policy bill, ensuring that the bill will become law. This is the first time in Trump’s term that lawmakers have reversed a presidential veto. Many of Trump’s closest allies voted contrary to him, as only seven GOP senators voted against the override. The House overrode the veto by 322 to 87, and the Republican controlled Senate followed with an 81-13 vote. Murkowski, Sullivan and Young voted in favor of the override.
The bill will give U.S. troops a 3 percent pay raise along with guiding defense policy, such as military goals. Trump vetoed the bill in part due to an objection to the provision that would change the names of military bases named after Confederate leaders as well as a section that protects social media companies.