NC lawmakers clash over merits of $1.9T COVID-19 relief plan

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
NC lawmakers clash over merits of $1.9T COVID-19 relief plan
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NC Democrats hailed the mammoth American Rescue Plan but Republicans blasted the legislation as a bloated liberal "wish list."

WASHINGTON (WTVD) -- Elections have consequences, and on Wednesday, Democrats in Washington capitalized on their 2020 wins by voting for a historic capital investment in the United States' recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The House's passage of the American Rescue Plan officially sends the $1.9 trillion bill to President Joe Biden's desk -- the first major legislative victory for the 46th President.

"The most important thing has been crushing the virus and getting people back to work and back to school safely," Rep. Deborah Ross, D-NC, a freshman congresswoman representing Wake County, told ABC11. "There is so much in this package that really gets to the heart of our health crisis and economic crisis."

But Republicans blasted the $1.9 trillion package as bloated and chock full of wasteful spending, which they warn will grow the national debt.

"The problem with (the American Rescue Plan) is only 1 percent goes to the most important part and that's the vaccine," Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC, told ABC11. "So, one percent of $1.9 trillion deals directly with vaccines, and I think that's irresponsible. I think it's a liberal checklist and wish list. It's not responsible with taxpayer dollars."

North Carolina Democratic representatives GK Butterfield, Kathy Manning, David Price and Alma Adams joined Ross in voting for the ARP; NC's congressional Republicans, Madison Cawthorn, Greg Murphy, Patrick McHenry, Virginia Foxx, David Rouzer, Richard Hudson and Dan Bishop, voted against.

"President Biden and Congressional Democrats have fulfilled a promise to the American people to deliver a bold COVID-19 relief package that will protect American lives and get our economy back on track," Butterfield said. "This vital legislation will put vaccines in arms through a national vaccination program that includes setting up community vaccination sites nationwide and addressing disparities facing communities of color."

Murphy countered by saying, "Republicans were willing to negotiate in good faith and support a more targeted version of COVID-19 relief, but Democrats made no such effort and chose to sneak their radical progressive agenda under the pretense of COVID-19 funding.

"We continue to pay people to stay at home and not seek work in a time when the nation is opening back up and seeking workers," Murphy said. "It is absurd economic policy meant only to appease the emotional outbursts of the far left. We need to stop borrowing on our future and get this country back to work. The American people will not be tricked by this cynical ploy."

A look at some details of the legislation:

Unemployment benefits

Expanded unemployment benefits from the federal government would be extended through Sept. 6 at $300 a week. That's on top of what beneficiaries are getting through their state unemployment insurance program. The first $10,200 of jobless benefits accrued in 2020 would be non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000.

Additionally, the measure provides a 100% subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums to ensure that laid-off workers can remain on their employer health plans at no cost through the end of September.

More stimulus checks

The legislation provides a direct payment of $1,400 for a single taxpayer, or $2,800 for a married couple that files jointly, plus $1,400 per dependent. Individuals earning up to $75,000 would get the full amount, as would married couples with incomes up to $150,000.

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The size of the check would shrink for those making slightly more, with a hard cut-off at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for married couples.

Most Americans will be getting the full amount. The median household income was $68,703 in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Biden said payments would start going out this month.

Money for state and local governments

The legislation would send $350 billion to state and local governments and tribal governments for costs incurred up until the end of 2024. The bill also requires that small states get at least the amount they received under virus legislation that Congress passed last March.

Many communities have taken hits to their tax base during the pandemic, but the impact varies from state to state and from town to town. Critics say the funding is not appropriately targeted and is far more than necessary with billions of dollars allocated last spring to states and communities still unspent.

Aid to schools

The bill calls for about $130 billion in additional help to schools for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The money would be used to reduce class sizes and modify classrooms to enhance social distancing, install ventilation systems and purchase personal protective equipment. The money could also be used to hire more nurses, counselors and janitors, and to provide summer school.

Spending for colleges and universities would be boosted by about $40 billion, with the money used to defray an institution's pandemic-related expenses and to provide emergency aid to students to cover expenses such as food and housing and computer equipment.

Aid to businesses

A new program for restaurants and bars hurt by the pandemic would receive $28.6 billion. The grants provide up to $10 million per company with a limit of $5 million per physical location. The grants can be used to cover payroll, rent, utilities and other operational expenses.

The bill also provides $7.25 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, a tiny fraction of what was allocated in previous legislation. The bill also allows more nonprofits to apply for loans that are designed to help borrowers meet their payroll and operating costs and can potentially be forgiven.

COVID-19 testing and vaccines

The bill provides about $50 billion to expand testing for COVID-19 and to enhance contract tracing capabilities with new investments to expand laboratory capacity and set up mobile testing units. It also contains more than $15 billion to speed up the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines across the country. Another $1 billion would go to boost vaccine confidence. And $10 billion would be used to boost the supply of medical devices and equipment to combat the virus under the Defense Production Act.

Health care

Parts of the legislation advance longstanding Democratic priorities such as increasing coverage under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act. Financial assistance for ACA premiums would become considerably more generous and a greater number of solid middle-class households would qualify. Though the sweetened subsidies last only through the end of 2022, they will lower the cost of coverage and are expected to boost the number of people enrolled.

The measure also dangles more money in front of a dozen states, mainly in the South, that have not yet taken up the Medicaid expansion that is available under the ACA to cover more low-income adults. Whether such a sweetener would be enough to start wearing down longstanding Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion is uncertain.

The bill would also provide about $3 billion for states to help address mental health and substance use disorders, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. More than $14 billion is directed toward increased support for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Bigger tax breaks for households with and without kids

Under current law, most taxpayers can reduce their federal income tax bill by up to $2,000 per child. In a significant change, the bill would increase the tax break to $3,000 for every child ages 6 to 17 and $3,600 for every child younger than 6.

The legislation also calls for the payments to be delivered monthly instead of in a lump sum. If the secretary of the treasury determines that isn't feasible, then the payments are to be made as frequently as possible.

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Families would get the full credit regardless of how little they make in a year, leading to criticism that the changes would serve as a disincentive to work. Add in the $1,400 checks and other items in the proposal, and the legislation would reduce the number of children living in poverty by more than half, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.

The bill also significantly expands the Earned Income Tax Credit for 2021 by making it available to people without children. The credit for low and moderate-income adults would be worth $543 to $1,502, depending on income and filing status.

Rental and homeowner insurance

The bill provides more than $30 billion to help low-income households pay their rent and to assist the homeless. States and tribes would receive an additional $10 billion for homeowners who are struggling with mortgage payments and other housing costs because of the pandemic.

No bipartisan support in Washington, but there is in polls

Despite the party-line vote in the House and Senate, the American Rescue Plan -- and Biden's first 50 days in office -- earned bipartisan support among voters, including an ABC News/Ipsos poll showing 67% of Americans approve of Biden's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That includes Cassandra Brooks, owner and operator of The Little Believers Academy, an early childhood care program with locations in Clayton and Garner.

"The other money was band-aids," Brooks said of previous relief packages. "We were trying to get through. We didn't know what was going on. We need to build a stronger structure, build it back better."