New federal relief headed to Georgia, for a start
By Maggie Lee
Federal relief spending is in sight for Georgia, as part of the the $2 trillion federal CARES Act.
But it is just one stitch on a big wound.
Federal spending under the marquee act comes to to about $6,727 for every person in the U.S.
Some of it will start to appear in bank accounts and mailboxes as checks from the IRS; electronic payments might be mostly sent by about April 17. Unemployment payments have been extended to 39 weeks. Most student loan payments are suspended.
Those are important relief valves for keeping bills paid this spring and on into the summer and fall.
“We want people to know that those benefits are there for them when they need them and to please apply,” said Jennifer Owens, deputy director at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta think-tank.
“File your taxes as soon as possible,” she advised, to take advantage of both the rebate and any other tax credits like the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.
The Act extends relief to some small businesses via low-interest loans and loan payment relief. The state will hold webinars on April 6 and 7 for business owners to get more details.
But it’s a 247-page act that people, cities, counties and Georgia haven’t fully sorted out yet, except to know that it probably won’t be enough.
For one, it looks like only the most populous counties in Georgia — Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb — will be able to directly tap local government relief funds of about $600 million.
The CARES Act opens the direct funds to local governments that serve over 500,000 people, and there are only those four in Georgia.
“Yet all our communities are struggling to address critical expenditures and revenue shortfalls as a result of COVID-19,” said Kelli Bennett from the Georgia Municipal Association, a group for Georgia’s city governments.
The National Association of Counties is asking Congress and the U.S. Treasury Department for clarification, however. And apparently nothing prevents the state from passing some of its CARES funds to smaller cities and counties.
Cities and counties can’t close things like waterworks and police departments. In fact, in Atlanta, folks who have to go to work like cops and sanitation workers will get an extra $500 in hazard pay a month. But sales taxes to pay cities’ bills are no doubt falling away.
Georgia’s cities are asking that CARES be interpreted such that federal relief funds to cities and counties be distributed in line with existing federal grant formulas to make sure no community or city is left out.
About 100 members of Congress have signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging that future COVID-19 relief packages include funds open to smaller cities and counties. Signers include Georgia Democrats Hank Johnson and Lucy McBath.
MARTA joined other major transit agencies nationwide to ask for a collective $25 billion, on the grounds that they have to keep operating, and spend more money to keep clean, even as few riders pay to board and sales taxes dry up.
Something in the ballpark of $300 million is expected to arrive for metro Atlanta transit, according to The ATL, the umbrella agency for public transit operators including MARTA, Cobb County and Gwinnett County. The figure could be more or less, said spokeswoman Deidre Johnson, and they expect to know final numbers by April 10.
The CARES Act also extends some unemployment payments to freelancers or gig workers like rideshare drivers — but Georgia is among the states that was not set up to handle those kinds of workers. The Act also adds $600 to unemployment checks to all those claiming regular Georgia unemployment benefits.
A Georgia Department of Labor statement on Friday indicated that it’s done 95% of the computer programming it needs to do to handle those payments — but that it’s waiting for some specific federal guidance before distributing money.
Owens at GBPI highlighted child care one area where the funding in the CARES Act is a start, but not enough. About $140 million will be coming that Georgia could use to pay for child care for essential workers or help keep daycares open.
And stimulus payments — which are technically tax refunds — should go to everyone who pays taxes, Owens said. Right now it’s only open to folks who have Social Security numbers. People who pay federal taxes with taxpayer identification numbers, mainly undocumented immigrants and their households, are left out.
Meanwhile, the latest model cited by Gov. Brian Kemp puts the peak of hospital use for COVID-19 infection at April 23.
It’s not yet clear and about how much more spending, forgiveness and flexibility it’s going to take to sew up a wound that’s still getting bigger.
CARES Act Title V State and Local Allocations by the Congressional Research Service