Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah reps say coronavirus relief bill isn’t perfect but time to get strapped families, businesses cash

By Dennis Romboy, KSL | Updated - Mar. 26, 2020 at 5:25 p.m. | Posted - Mar. 26, 2020 at 1:47 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Many members of Congress say the massive coronavirus relief package now awaiting a vote in the House isn’t perfect, including Utah’s Republican and Democratic representatives.

But they say the bipartisan $2.2 trillion emergency measure that unanimously passed the Senate is urgently needed to help strapped families and businesses, and those fighting the coronavirus pandemic on the front lines.

“I’ve heard some people say this is a stimulus package. It’s not. It’s a rescue package,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said. “This rescue package is critical to helping people survive for the next few weeks, few months.”

Utah stands to receive $1.5 billion or more through a variety of economic vehicles to give the state’s economy a jolt.

Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, said it’s the compromise on the table, and what’s important now is that resources are headed to Utah families, small businesses and employees, hospitals and health care workers, and state and local governments.

“I remain focused on working with Utahns to counter the effects of this virus outbreak as it continues to hammer our communities,” McAdams said in a statement Thursday.

McAdams is among the hundreds of Utahns and thousands across the country who know firsthand the effects of COVID-19. He has been in the hospital since last Friday to receive treatment for breathing problems after contracting the virus.

“I learned this virus can suddenly turn your life from active and normal to struggling to breathe,” he said in a tweet.

McAdams is communicating with his staff and other members of Congress on details of the Senate bill from his hospital room.

The Senate passed the economic package 96-0 late Wednesday, though Utah’s two Republican senators were not there to vote. Both Sen. Mitt Romney and Sen. Mike Lee are self-isolating at home in Utah after being exposed to a senator with COVID-19.

“While I wish I were there tonight to cast my vote for this critically needed legislation, I’m pleased my colleagues got this relief package across the finish line,” Romney said on social media late Wednesday. “I implore the House to pass this bill and get it to the president’s desk without delay.”‬

Lee has yet to publicly comment about the Senate passing the rescue package.

The House is expected to vote on the legislation Friday. President Donald Trump said he will sign the measure after it passes.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, is the state’s only member of Congress in Washington. He said he will vote yes, though adding to the national debt will be in back of his mind as he does. The other members of the Utah delegation share the same concern.

House Democratic leaders intend have two hours of public debate and pass the legislation on a voice vote, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said on KSL Newsradio’s “Live Mic.” The full House would not be required to be present and the bill could be passed while most representatives remain in their districts.

But if one member objects, lawmakers would have 24 to 48 hours to return for a roll call vote.

“What that does is simply delay the implementation of this bill,” Bishop said.

Stewart said the government is already four days behind because of the partisan bickering over provisions in the package that went on during the week, which could be hurt people living paycheck to check or an employer trying to make payroll.

“But it’s not too late,” he said. “We just have to move forward more quickly now.”

The bill would provide one-time direct payments of $1,200 to adults making up to $75,000 a years and $2,400 to married couples earning up to $150,000, with $500 payments for each child. Payments are based on individuals’ or couples’ 2018 or 2019 tax filings. The Treasury Department will either use direct deposit or send a check in the mail.

The package would expand unemployment insurance and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to obtain forgivable loans and emergency grants to make payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

It also creates a Treasury Department “special inspector general for pandemic recovery” to provide oversight of loans and a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to protect taxpayer dollars, items McAdams pushed as co-chairman of the Blue Dog Task Force on Fiscal Responsibility.

Curtis said providing relief to small businesses is the piece he likes best, noting 99% of the companies in his district fall into that category.

“They’re the ones least prepared to withstand the storm. Due to no fault of their own, they find themselves in a severe storm,” he said, adding he hopes it would be days and not weeks for businesses to start accessing the funds.

Stewart pointed to a provision he worked into the bill to freeze credit scores as of March 1 as being helpful to the economy because people would be able to buy cars or houses or start businesses without worrying about their credit rating.

The fiscally conservative Utah delegation finds adding $2.2 trillion to the national debt, or a “boatload” of money as Stewart called it, the most troubling aspect of the relief package. That would be on top of the trillion-dollar deficit the country is likely to run this year.

“We’re just going to have a frightening deficit this year,” he said. “It’s $2 trillion, and that scares me to death, but we have to do it ... This is an acute problem we have to deal with.”

The enormous measure is the third coronavirus response measure to make its way through Congress. It may or may not be the last depending on how long it takes the virus to run its course.

Curtis said it would be a mistake to start crafting a fourth bill without more data.

“We don’t know how quickly the economy will turn around. We don’t know how deep it will sink,” he said.

Both Curtis and Stewart expect some tweaks to the relief package would have to be done as holes emerge or mistakes are discovered.

Curtis said 501c(6) organizations such as chambers of commerce were not included in the bill. Stewart said while homeowners received leeway on mortgage payments, there was nothing to help renters.

Romney said funding for unemployment insurance or loans could always be increased.

“I think the package that has been put together will be able to sustain us over the next several weeks. But if this drags on for a longer period of time, it’s going to take additional funding,” he said.

“I can’t tell you how low things are going to go, but when you shut down all the jobs, or almost all of them, it’s going to take a lot of money to help people out.”

Dennis Romboy

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