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Tim Steller's opinion: Arizona has money, lacks ambition, to solve its pandemic problems
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Tim Steller's opinion: Arizona has money, lacks ambition, to solve its pandemic problems

“The Legislature is doing just about nothing” to help those in financial distress, says Sen. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson.

If you’re in the right job or the right slice of society, this pandemic hasn’t turned out so bad, financially speaking.

You’ve kept a steady income, and you’ve had the bonus of a couple of nice stimulus payments. Except for the threat of a deadly virus, not bad at all.

But in Arizona, big swaths of society and the economy have been devastated. People working in hospitality businesses like restaurants, bars and hotels have fared poorly, or their business has shut down altogether.

The poor have fared especially poorly.

About 180,000 Arizona households are behind on their housing payments, be it rent or a mortgage, and 96,000 think it’s likely they’ll be evicted soon, the Arizona Center for Economic Progress reports, citing new Census data. Only a moratorium on evictions is keeping many of our neighbors housed.

The good thing about this split effect — many people doing well while many others are devastated — is that there is money around to deal with the problems. The anticipated devastation to the state budget has not materialized — quite the contrary.

In Arizona we are swimming in money. My guess: We could probably pay all the back rent owed in Arizona in a one-shot deal.

To be precise, we have $400 million in remaining CARES Act money, $1 billion in a rainy-day fund, and projected budget surplus approaching $2 billion.

We have more money than we need available to substantially address, if not solve, the top problems caused by the pandemic.

But we’re not really trying. The governor and the legislative majority have preferred instead to bank our money and rely on the federal government’s largesse to solve pandemic problems.

Sen. Kirsten Engel, a Tucson Democrat in her first months in the upper chamber, has grown frustrated.

“We’re spending all of our time litigating the 2020 election, as well as going over bills that got stuck in the queue last year because of COVID,” she said Friday. “We have people in our community who are really hurting, and the Legislature is doing just about nothing to ensure we’re helping folks.”

In an act to remember the lives lost to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the Cathedral of Saint Augustine's bell rang for 30 minutes just after noon, on Dec. 30, 2020. In a media advisory released on Tuesday (Dec. 29), The Archdiocese of New York announced their churches would be ringing bells the following day to remember the 335,000 lives lost to COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Many other diocese and religious institutions followed suit in taking part including the Diocese of Tucson. The bell that rang in Tucson's Cathedral of Saint Augustine is the only remaining physical bell in the church and is used for funerals. It rang for 30 minutes just after noon. (Josh Galemore / Arizona Daily Star)

They are, however, entertaining tax cuts.

Gov. Doug Ducey announced a plan to cut $200 million in income taxes this year, cuts that would increase to $600 million in the third year of their implementation.

We can afford that, in part, because Ducey put about $400 million in federal money earmarked for pandemic relief toward state agencies instead. In essence, money that was intended for coronavirus relief instead offset state general fund money, thereby paying for the tax cuts Ducey wants.

Arizona’s five congressional Democrats wrote a letter to Ducey Feb. 3 demanding that he justify using the CARES Act money to replace state spending. They noted, for example, that the Governor’s Office told schools there was not enough money left to cover schools’ enrollment-based funding up to 98%, as promised.

The Governor’s Office defends his use of the money, about 20% of the nearly $1.9 billion he had control of.

“It followed all U.S. Treasury guidance,” spokesman C.J. Karamargin said. “Their guidance was rather broad. Many states used it the same way.”

The governor’s utmost priority now, Karamargin said, is the vaccine. He has also established a series of programs to, among other things, aid restaurants or provide housing assistance. But they have relied on federal money and in some cases been been small compared to the scale of the problem.

The decision to put CARES Act money in the general fund looks especially bad now, though, because it was financially unnecessary. In late January, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee issued its latest projections — that the state will have a $1.8 billion balance left when the fiscal year ends June 30.

That doesn’t include the $400 million of CARES Act money the governor has yet to spend. Or the $1 billion rainy day fund, which has barely been touched since the pandemic crisis began.

There’s a word for this: Hoarding.

Some people are taking cautious nips at that money to solve problems, though.

Arizona has among the smallest unemployment benefits in the country — $240 per week. Rep. David Cook, a Globe Republican, is trying to raise the benefit to $300 per week.

His bill, HB 2805, would also raise the amount of money that a person can make per week without it cutting into their unemployment benefit. The current limit is $30; Cook’s bill would raise it to $160.

“People who are on unemployment are workers,” he said Friday. “They’re on unemployment because they’ve lost their job. Why are we penalizing these workers when they’re down?”

By raising the limit on how much people can earn while receiving unemployment, Cook hopes small businesses can take on an unemployed worker for a shift or two a week, solving a problem for the business and the worker.

This would be an overdue change, and probably not very costly to the state. Cook has requested an analysis from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to get a good estimate.

Other problems would require one-time spending instead of annual increases.

Using the “pulse surveys” carried out by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Arizona Center for Economic Progress has identified some of the groups suffering most, and their biggest problems. Poor people, people of color, families with children — those are the groups suffering the most.

Of those surveyed, 9% of families without children reported not having enough to eat in the previous week. Eighteen percent of families with children reported the same. About half those surveyed reported they were not “very confident” in their ability to afford enough food over the next four weeks.

These are among the big problems that we have the money to address, especially as vaccinations bring hope that the pandemic is winding down and the economy may recover.

Out of Work in America: Following Americans who found themselves out of work

Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this. To capture the depths of the suffering, The New York Times teamed up with 12 news organizations from across the country — including the Arizona Daily Star — to document the lives of a dozen Americans who found themselves out of work.

For months, we followed them as they dialed unemployment hotlines, applied for hundreds of jobs and counted every dollar in their bank accounts for rent and food. All of it while trying to survive a pandemic.

A conference call in which everyone on the line was told they were laid off.

An email declaring that a restaurant had served its last meal.

A phone call from the boss before work one morning saying to come in — and pack up all your things.

In March and April, as the coronavirus began tearing through the country, Americans lost as many jobs as they did during the Great Depression and the Great Recession combined – 22 million jobs that were there one minute and gone the next.

A job is a paycheck, an identity, a civic stabilizer, a future builder. During a pandemic, a job loss erases all that, when it is needed the most.

In Kentucky, Kalyn Fiorella Burns, 35, told The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer about spending nine hours a day on hold, just to get her first unemployment check.

The Arizona Daily Star spoke with Oscar Elijo Saenz, a 26-year-old sommelier in Tucson, who by week seven of unemployment was considering working at a funeral parlor out of desperation.

For months, journalists at The Times and 11 other news outlets, including the Arizona Daily Star, catalogued how the dual blows of joblessness and the pandemic were changing the lives of a dozen Americans.

We give economic downturns names and dates to tame and box in their upheaval. And so the namelessness of this crisis both heightens its chaos and masks the scale of its devastation.

The effects of the Great Depression were plain to see as it unfolded 90 years ago: soup lines formed beneath storefront signs advertising free meals for the unemployed. The impact of millions of lost jobs today is less visible when so many are staying home. Social distancing has helped financial suffering hide.

Stephanie Fitzgerald, 36, was laid off in June. She was a software engineer with two master’s degrees making roughly $100,000 a year and raising three children in rural Frenchtown, Mont.

By early October, she was still without a full-time job, and the waiting was taking a deep toll.

She was scraping by on unemployment benefits and the $220 a week she made delivering groceries. The bundles she delivered to strangers were more substantial than the bundles she brought home to her children.

“I’m probably the most educated grocery-delivery person, and I always thought, ‘What would they say if they knew an engineer is delivering their groceries?’ ” Fitzgerald said.

In recent days, Fitzgerald and her family were on the verge of homelessness. It had been four months since she was laid off. She broke down in tears at one point.

And then the next day, she got the call.

She ran up the stairs to shout the news.

  • Updated

With a few sources of income, Barbara Eckes, 61, thought she was doing pretty well financially when 2020 started. But once the pandemic started, she was down to her $327 monthly pension from service in the U.S. Army.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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