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May 08, 2020

Md. Dems Draft Wish Lists for Next Relief Package

Credit: Maryland Matters, Robin Bravender

Congress has already shelled out nearly $3 trillion in federal pandemic aid, but Maryland Democrats say there’s plenty more to do in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding.

Among their top priorities: big cash infusions for state and local governments, more food stamp benefits, increased mental health resources and expanded access to broadband.

As lawmakers prepare for negotiations over another pricey aid package, congressional Democrats say they’re prepared to hold out for some of their top priorities that were stripped from past bills because of GOP opposition.

The chief priority for many Democrats — as well as many Republicans — is funneling cash into state and local governments facing budget shortfalls due to the pandemic. Congress has already approved $150 billion for state and local governments, but state and federal politicians say much more is needed.

“We just don’t get to the other side of this health and economic crisis without state and local governments having the resources they need — it can’t happen,” Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.) told reporters Thursday in a conference call.

“They’ve got to have the tools, they’ve got to have the dollars, they’ve got to have the resources. And that’s what we need to ensure in the next round of federal relief.”

He warned about the possibility of layoffs in the public sector without federal assistance.

“Why would you take a public health worker, for example, who’s accumulated all this expertise to help guide us through this, and potentially put their job on the line because we’re not providing enough resources to the government that employs that public health worker?” Sarbanes said. “It’s crazy not to do that.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters during a separate news conference on Thursday that she expects Democrats to push for a figure that’s far higher than the $150 billion already approved for state and local aid. “We’ll have to do very much more than that,” she said.

Some Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have signaled reluctance to pour more cash into state budgets. McConnell drew criticism after suggesting recently that states should be allowed to go bankrupt rather than receive federal bailouts, and it’s highly unlikely that Senate Republicans will go as far as House Democrats would like in the next aid package.

Pelosi said Thursday that Democrats will insist on measures that were punted during past discussions. “Part of this is things that they never agreed to before and kept saying, ‘In the next bill, in the next bill, in the next bill.’ These are part of those negotiations,” she said.

On Wednesday, every member of Maryland’s congressional delegation — except Republican Rep. Andrew P. Harris — sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate asking them to boost benefits to food stamp recipients under the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP).

“Currently, the average SNAP benefit per person is $1.40 per meal each day — which is not enough to purchase a meal, especially in a high-cost state like Maryland,” they wrote. Maryland’s newest member of Congress, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, joined his colleagues in signing the letter.

Rep. David J. Trone (D-Md.) cited the expansion of mental health and broadband access among his top priorities.

“We had a mental health crisis in America before COVID-19 hit,” Trone told reporters on Thursday. “Then we drop on top of that the economic collapse of America and the world. These two things on top of what was already a crisis is leading to issues that we’re going to see for years and years to come. This is going to be very long-term.”

He’s one of many lawmakers pushing for increased access to broadband to help remedy disparities that have become increasingly clear as people have relied on the internet for work, education and health care during the pandemic.

“I have a big rural part of my district that has no broadband whatsoever,” Trone said. He urged the country to tackle the issue as it did with electrification. “Local rural areas could not pay for it, but we did it because it was the right thing to do.”

[Disclosure: The David and June Trone Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Maryland Matters.]