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Political Notebook: Local lawmakers say new coronavirus relief package includes ‘misplaced priorities’

SALISBURY — While local legislators acknowledge another federal coronavirus stimulus relief package was needed, they agree with President Donald Trump that the package and its government spending bill counterpart included too much funding for priorities unrelated to the pandemic.

Sunday evening, Trump signed the nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package and full-year government spending bill into law after withholding his signature for days and saying Congress should increase the standard stimulus payment to Americans to $2,000 from $600.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have embraced Trump’s call for increasing stimulus checks to $2,000, with the House on Monday approving a separate bill to boost those checks. It now goes to the Senate.

While the government spending bill amounts to approximately $1.4 trillion, the $900 billion pandemic aid portion of the package includes $600 direct checks to Americans using the same criteria as the first round of stimulus checks, a $300 per week federal unemployment insurance supplement into mid-March, more than $300 billion for small business support and the creation of a $25 billion rental assistance fund. It also extends programs that allow freelance, gig and self-employed workers to receive benefits and increase the number of weeks people can receive insurance.

The package also includes more than $8 billion for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, $20 billion to make the shots free to Americans, $82 billion in educational resources for schools, $7 billion for expanding access to high-speed internet connections and $45 billion into transportation, which includes airline payroll support. The package allocates $300 million for internet infrastructure in underserved rural areas that have historically suffered from slow internet speeds, as well as $1 billion in grants for tribal broadband programs. About $13 billion is earmarked for increased nutrition assistance, including an increase in SNAP benefits by 15% for the next six months as well as support for food banks and food pantries and programs like Meals on Wheels.

But other measures in the nearly 5,600-page package include new legislation to regulate hydrofluorocarbons, the greenhouse gases common in air-conditioners and refrigerators, along with $35 billion to fund wind, solar and other clean energy projects. Also included is the creation of a $15 billion grant program for live venues, theaters and museum operators that have lost at least 25% of their revenues, $1.4 billion in new funding for Trump’s border wall with Mexico, funding for the establishment of the American Women’s History Museum and National Museum of the American Latino, $2 billion for the new U.S. Space Force and a tax break for corporate meal expenses.

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, a Republican representing North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, voted against the package.

“I wish I could have voted for a targeted COVID relief bill several months ago,” Budd said in a statement. “We need to end economic lockdowns and support small businesses and their workers. But this package is a classic Washington shakedown game, and I’m not playing it.”

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, the Republican representing North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District, voted in support of the package, along with U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr.

Many of those things should have been filed into bills of their own, said state Rep. Harry Warren, R-76. But with both parties’ leadership in a hurry to negotiate and pass a package with the looming of a government shutdown without it, that’s when lawmakers can “dangle their vote” on the condition that they get something they want included in the package, Warren added.

Warren said Trump was justified in his position of “looking out for the American people” for a stimulus package that “turned into a Christmas tree.”

He said that while there’s no question a second stimulus package was needed, particularly for expiring unemployment benefits, education needs, hospitals, nutrition benefits and small business loans, it was crafted with “misplaced priorities” by providing billions of dollars in foreign aid and pet projects rather than just appropriating money for the American people.

As for the GOP’s efforts to block Trump’s request to increase the stimulus checks to $2,000, Warren said anyone who has voted to support this package cannot claim to be a fiscal conservative. He added that he’d like to see real measures taken to reduce the federal debt.

“But if states would open up their economies again and truly emphasize social distancing and mask wearing, there won’t be a need for another package,” Warren said. “People are capable of taking measures to help reduce the spread without going to extremes like some politicians do.”

Like Warren, Rep. Julia Howard, R-77, doesn’t support “all the goodies” tucked into the bill that aren’t related to COVID-19.

“But this is the way the game is played in Washington,” she said. “It’s ‘I’ll vote for it if I get this.'”

Howard said the package is generous, and while there’s many people who need help at this time, she’s not sure $2,000 checks is something she agrees with.

Since the package doesn’t include funding specifically for state and local governments, Warren and Howard are unsure if North Carolina lawmakers will need to take any action to funnel any of the funds from the federal government. The North Carolina General Assembly will reconvene on Jan. 13.

 

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd files bill to withhold funds from areas with restaurant shutdown orders

WASHINGTON  — Last week, Budd also introduced the Save Our Servers Act.

The bill proposes withholding certain federal funds from states and municipalities that shutdown indoor or outdoor dining at restaurants. The funds can only be restored once the jurisdictions rescind such limits on restaurants.

In a statement, Budd called the restaurant restrictions across the nation are “completely arbitrary” and devastating to thousands of servers and food service workers.

“It’s time that we tell these oppressive governors and mayors to reverse course, allow these restaurants to safely operate and help servers make a living again,” he said in the statement.

Budd also cited contact tracing data from September to November compiled by New York state health officials. That data showed fewer than 2% of COVID-19 cases stemmed from restaurants.

The latest data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services shows that as of Dec. 21, there have been 34 clusters, 223 cases associated with clusters and three deaths linked to restaurants. There have also been three clusters, 17 cases associated with clusters and no deaths from bars/breweries.

More specifically, the bill would amend the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 to prohibit the Secretary of Commerce from issuing certain grants to states that restrict or prohibit indoor or outdoor dining.

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