Massive national COVID relief bill a ‘lifeline’ for Baltimore, mayor says
Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun
A $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that Congress passed Wednesday contains an “unprecedented” level of funding for Baltimore and other Maryland cities and counties that have been clamoring for help after seeing revenues plunge because of the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers said.
“This is my 15th year and I don’t know of a more important bill that we passed,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Baltimore. “The aid to Baltimore City is unprecedented. We have not had a bill that provides such a significant amount of help to our urban centers.”
The American Rescue Plan, which the House approved 220-211 Wednesday, was Democratic President Joe Biden’s first major initiative since taking office Jan. 20. Biden had vowed to “set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.” He planned to sign the bill Friday.
Every House Republican — including Andy Harris of Baltimore County — voted against it. All Democrats supported it except Maine’s Jared Golden, who objected to its size and scope. Harris did not return messages seeking comment.
The Senate had passed the bill 50-49 Saturday, also without Republican support.
“This was one of those moments when you say, ‘This is what we’re fighting for, this is why we’re here,’” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, also a Democrat. “For cities like Baltimore, this is an unprecedented amount of support in a single piece of legislation.”
House and Senate Republicans argued the rescue plan was too costly and contained spending unrelated to the pandemic.
The bill expands child tax and Earned Income Tax Credits, sends many Americans direct payments, extends a $300 weekly unemployment supplemental benefit and provides new support for restaurants and other small business.
Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the measure “will help put money in people’s pockets, keep roofs over heads, place food on kitchen tables, bring millions of children out of poverty, extend unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, support small businesses, increase access to affordable health insurance, expand child care and allow our schools to safely reopen.”
Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott of Baltimore said the package “offers a real lifeline for Baltimore families and small businesses struggling to navigate the challenges of COVID.”
Baltimore and other cities and counties secured provisions offering direct financial support, as well as flexibility in how the funds are used.
State, city and county governments have suffered damaging budgetary effects from the pandemic. They have not only sustained deep revenue losses due to declining spending by residents and tourists, but have had to spend money for purposes — such as additional staff hours and medical supplies — related to the pandemic.
Baltimore will get about $670 million in direct support, while the state will independently receive about $4 billion, according to Cardin and Van Hollen. Separately, Maryland counties will share $1.1 billion in aid, and state municipalities will split a similar sum.
The infusion of aid “is a major shot in the arm for Baltimore County and local governments across the country,” Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said.
Olszewski said it would support efforts to vaccinate residents and ”help jump-start our economic recovery.”
The package will allow families a larger child tax credit, a change expected to lift 52,000 Maryland children out of poverty, according to estimates by the Maryland senators and their staffs.
The legislation “is a game-changer,” said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat. “It attacks inequality and poverty in ways we haven’t seen in a generation.”
A $2.2 trillion economic relief package called the CARES Act — approved at the outset of the pandemic a year ago — contained about $2.3 billion in direct aid for Maryland. This new round of assistance allows greater latitude in how the funds are used.
“After we passed the CARES Act, Baltimore City and counties were grateful, but pointed out they’d be much more useful with greater flexibility,” Van Hollen said.
The just-passed bill permits reimbursement for anticipated revenues lost due to COVID that have resulted in budget shortfalls. The CARES Act, which was tailored more specifically to helping governments with COVID expenses, did not allow such reimbursements.
Baltimore finance officials warned last month that the city should expect to feel “a lot of pain” for years to come due to the pandemic. While Baltimore’s spending plan for fiscal year 2021 was based upon projections of a dramatic $100 million decrease in revenue as a result of the pandemic, even those predictions missed the mark.
Budget Director Bob Cenname told a Baltimore City Council committee in February that the city was $30 million short of its already truncated revenue projection for the fiscal year that ends June 30. It’s very likely the city will need to tap a rainy day fund to cover the deficit at the end of the fiscal year, he said.
Cardin called the new federal plan “the right type of response so we don’t go back into a downturn in our economy that would be more costly to our budget, put more demand on governmental services and increase the debt even larger.”