In a 96-0 vote on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate approved the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a massive, $2 trillion bill that provides direct payment to families and small businesses as well as workers impacted by the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
That bill advances to the House of Representatives and, given the wide bipartisan support in the Senate, is expected to pass.
According to a press release from U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, key to that bill is a provision that will give $1,200 individually or $2,400 to couples filing jointly, as well as $500 for each child. The payments phase out for higher income individuals and families — $75,000 for individuals, $112,500 for the head of a household and $150,000 for a joint return.
“We hope we’re going to get out of this pandemic and crisis soon. These funds will be used to jump-start the economy in our state and nationally,” Sullivan said in a telephonic press conference on Thursday morning held with Murkowski and the Alaska press. “We figured going big and bipartisan is the best way to get through this.”
Murkowski said that the government will identify recipients of the $1,200 payments through Social Security numbers as well as 2018 and 2019 tax returns. The phase-out cap will be based on the most current tax return. Those who filed electronically also will get payments faster.
“What we’re trying to do here is get cash in people’s pockets as quickly as we can,” she said.
How people with low income who haven’t filed returns get payments remains to be worked out, Murkowski said.
“We think this is one of the most important elements of this legislation,” Sullivan said, adding that 90% of Americans will receive some benefit, possibly within three weeks.
The CARES Act also provides relief for small businesses and employees. Fee-free loans of up to $10 million will be available to help pay salaries, rent, mortgages and other expenses. Small businesses with fewer than 500 employees that have federally guaranteed loans and who keep up their payroll also can get up to eight weeks of payments.
The act also sends minimum allocations of $1.5 billion to each state, something Murkowski said she and Sullivan fought to include.
“There was every effort made to insure small population states were not disenfranchised,” she said.
Initially the bill proposed minimum payments of $25 million to each state.
“Well, that didn’t work for us,” Murkowski said. “The effort then was if we’re going to direct assistance to states, there needs to be a recognition that just because your population is small doesn’t mean it hasn’t been impacted by the virus.”
Farmers, including farmers markets, and suppliers to restaurants and schools will get $9.5 billion in support. Subsistence, commercial and charter fishermen will get $300 million in relief.
“We were recognizing that farmers were going to get assistance,” Sullivan said. “We made a strong argument that farmers of the sea need to have some relief.”
Relative to the public health fight against COVID-19, the CARES Act includes large support for research and treatment. That includes:
• $150 billion for health care providers and hospitals for COVID-19 expenses and lost revenue
• $1.32 billion for community health centers
• $11 billion for vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and other medical needs
• $4.3 billion for public health preparedness and response
• $1.5 billion for grants from the Centers for Disease Control to state and local preparedness, including $125 million for tribes, tribal organizations, urban Indian Health organizations or health services provided to tribes.
For people laid off or who have lost jobs because of closed businesses or companies that have lost income, the CARES Act boosts unemployment benefits, with an additional 13 weeks above what state laws provide. It also adds $660 to the weekly compensation states provide for up to four months. Murkowski noted the act doesn’t just apply to salaried employees, but also to the self-employed, independent contractors and people who are sick, caring for a sick family member, under a community quarantine or self-quarantined.
That can benefit performing artists, musicians and people working in arts and culture. Murkowski said the CARES Act provides increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In response to a question about how the act will be paid for, Murkowski acknowledged that it’s a big hit to the U.S. Treasury.
“The bigger question is not exactly how much it adds to in terms of government spending,” she said. “What would be the impact be were we not to act? … Why are we responding in this extraordinary way? Our economy effectively has been shut down, not through any fault of these small business men and women, these industries out there, but in an effort to control a pandemic.”
“… There is no alternative to not acting in a way that demonstrates the urgency of where we are now,” Murkowski added.
Sullivan said that “not acting now, you might have a bill you have to pay later that would be way more expensive, and the social disruption that could come from that is also important to think through.”
That the most liberal and most conservative senators voted for the act shows the urgency of the pandemic situation, he said.
Responding to criticism that Republicans had been less supportive of economic stimulus bills passed during President Barrack Obama’s administration during the 2008-09 recession, Sullivan said the crisis then couldn’t be compared to the current crisis.
“This isn’t like that. There’s nobody who did anything wrong,” he said. “The airlines didn’t do anything wrong. This is like a natural disaster. This is like a war, where something came from overseas.”
In response to a question about President Donald Trump’s statement that he hopes to get things back to normal by Easter, April 12, Murkowski said, “We know that we can slow or contain this by limiting our contact. Unfortunately, that means businesses are not open and commerce has been directly and immediately impacted. … I’m not going to make the case that the President isn’t right. We want to be back up and running. We all want to be back up and running … We have to make sure we do all we can to stop the spread of this virus.”
Calling Trump’s statement “aspirational,” Sullivan said, “It’s important to hear from the medical experts first. These crises are completely intertwined. The real solution to this economic crisis is stop the virus.”
Appealing to the strength of Alaskans, Sullivan said, “We’re the most resilient, tough people in the world. We’re going to get through this stronger, more resilient, but everybody has a role to play.”