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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As Congress approves new pandemic relief package, Eastern Washington applauds – but many hope for more

Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., left, tells Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., right in red, how much they will miss her next Congress as their caucus speaks to the media about the expected passage of the emergency COVID-19 relief bill, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Congressional leaders have hashed out a massive, year-end catchall bill that combines $900 billion in COVID-19 aid with a $1.4 trillion spending bill and reams of other unfinished legislation on taxes, energy, education and health care.   (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Pres)

Local and state leaders welcomed a $900 billion federal COVID-19 relief package, but warned on Monday that more help will be necessary to recover from the pandemic in 2021.

The aid agreement, approved by both houses of Congress on Monday evening and expected to be signed by President Donald Trump in the coming days, was struck after months of negotiation between Democratic and Republican lawmakers. It includes funding for increased unemployment benefits, direct $600 payments to qualifying Americans and support for small businesses.

The agreement also provides $30 billion for the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Associated Press.

The Paycheck Protection Program , used by more than 100 Spokane businesses after its launch earlier this year, is set to return with $284 billion in funding targeted at businesses most acutely hurt by the virus.

“(We have) been advocating continually that more relief is needed for our small businesses and our nonprofits and their workers,” said Alisha Benson, CEO of Greater Spokane Inc. “We’re seeing that all in this new project, and that’s positive. Those are real dollars to help businesses and their workers at a time they need it most.”

In negotiating the package, Spokane Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the GOP pushed back on “frivolous spending.”

“To help those hurt by the pandemic, the COVID-19 relief effort will send checks directly to families in Eastern Washington, increase unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs, support farmers and ranchers, and extend the PPP program for small businesses owners all throughout America,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents Central Washington, accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats of stalling negotiations in a statement released after the House of Representatives approved the package on Monday.

“This long overdue package does not address all of our concerns, but it makes significant progress to help our communities recover from this pandemic, reopen our society, and rebuild our way of life,” Newhouse said.

On the west side of the state, Democratic U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, whose district covers parts of Seattle and King County, celebrated the inclusion of direct relief payments to individuals and expanded unemployment benefits – both of which were demands of the Congressional Progressive Caucus she chairs.

“Our advocacy on behalf of the millions who are screaming out for help secured these critical provisions,” Jayapal said. “This relief package also includes rental and nutrition assistance, aid for small businesses and support for schools, health care, child care and broadband.”

As part of the compromise, Republican leaders dropped demands that businesses be protected from lawsuits related to the coronavirus, while Democrats accepted a package that does not provide relief to state and local governments.

State and local aid from the original suite of relief passed by Congress in March amounted to more than $100 million in combined aid to Spokane County, the city of Spokane, and Spokane Valley.

The county and cities used the funding to support local nonprofits, provide small business grants and establish rental assistance programs, among other efforts.

“Make no mistake – this package can only be considered a down-payment on the relief needed to fully recover from this pandemic,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement on Sunday. “I am disappointed that further aid for state, local and tribal governments was not included in this package despite the clear need articulated by nearly every state and governor.”

State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat who represents Spokane, called the package “a bit of an attempt at a bridge,” and said he wishes it had gone further.

Leaders in the state Legislature had hoped for assistance to state and local governments, but were aware of the political reality and planned accordingly, Riccelli said.

“We’ve been asking and pleading with our federal partners to do the right thing to help city and state governments do what we need to do to make sure that we’re taking care of people,” Riccelli said.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said in a statement the spending package will bring “much-needed relief to families and businesses in our community.”

“We are pleased that after advocating as a city and region that additional financial resources are on their way to Spokane,” Woodward said. “It will put money in the hands of those who need it most and are in the best position to help push our local economy forward.”

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the package ideally would have been even more focused on those most in need during the pandemic, particularly hospitality businesses and their workers.

“It does not go far enough and it’s very late, but it will be a positive impact in Spokane because it’s something,” Beggs said. “I’m super happy.”

The exclusion of local government assistance disappointed Beggs, who argued everyone suffers when roads are not maintained and parks are not kept up.

“I’m hoping in 2021 there will be some more relief for state and local governments,” Beggs said.

Under the new relief package, individuals earning a salary up to $75,000 will receive a $600 direct payment, or $1,200 for a couple earning up to $150,000 annually, with smaller payments for higher earners.

Unemployment benefits will temporarily be increased by $300 per week through mid-March. Though it amounts to $120 billion, the payments are half of the $600 weekly benefit supplement that expired in July.

The spending is targeted in some sectors particularly burdened by the coronavirus, with $82 billion for local schools and colleges, $25 billion in rental assistance and $15 billion for live events venues.

Terri Anderson, co-executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, expressed skepticism that $25 billion in rental assistance would be enough. The need in Spokane alone, she estimated, is between $20 and $30 million and increasing. Meanwhile, some landlords are circumventing Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium by refusing to extend leases.

“It’s still a displacement, it’s still a forced move,” Anderson said.

Renters, she said, are more likely to contract the virus and work at the types of businesses hardest hit by the economic downturn.

“They’re sick, they’re financially impacted because the recovery is going to get them last, and now we have an economic package that really isn’t going to help the economy to put them back to work. I’m a little disappointed, (but) I guess it’s better than nothing,” Anderson said.

According to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office, Washington will receive $508 million set aside for rental assistance.

Cantwell, a Democrat, also spearheaded the inclusion of a provision that will expand tax credits for affordable housing projects. In a statement, she said the change will “help close the funding gap for affordable housing projects and provide more predictability and flexibility in Housing Credit financing, which in turn will allow developers to target more affordable rental apartments to those who need it most – including extremely-low income households.”

Benson, of GSI, lauded the package’s investment in education and childcare, which is a key support to local workers. She also praised the package’s $7 billion investment in broadband internet infrastructure, which she described as essential to the region’s economic competitiveness.

The COVID relief was approved in addition to a $1.4 trillion government funding plan to avoid a shutdown and keep the government funded through September 2021.