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Tim Steller's opinion: Time is now for Congress, Arizona to give pandemic relief

Tim Steller's opinion: Time is now for Congress, Arizona to give pandemic relief

You may not have eaten at Café Poca Cosa, but all of Tucson should see its demise as a warning.

The downtown restaurant was a local institution, around for decades although pricey by local standards, and now it’s gone.

It’s almost tourist season in Tucson — our annual economic jolt — but the tourists won’t be coming this winter in any great number. El Tour de Tucson and the 4th Avenue Street Fair have canceled, and the region’s other winter events will undoubtedly follow.

We need to do something fast.

And by “we,” I mean our representatives in Congress and the state government.

The initial pandemic relief bill, the CARES Act, did a lot of good, sustaining the newly unemployed and businesses hit by the economic shock of shutdowns.

But then the Payroll Protection Program wound down, and the extra coronavirus unemployment benefit — $600 per month — ran out. The federal government briefly boosted Arizona’s measly $240-per-week benefit through a presidential executive order, but that’s over, too.

Matt Cable, co-owner of Dante’s Fire and owner of the Fresco pizzerias, along with a catering company, said the aid was invaluable.

“If it wasn’t for the PPP loan, Dante’s would be out of business, and I would have already closed my catering company, for sure,” Cable said. “That saved us.”

But that’s over.

“A lot of restaurants are going to close,” said Cable, a board member of the Tucson Originals restaurant network. “People keep waiting for there to be this turnaround, but I don’t think there’s a quick turnaround coming.”

Tucson, a UNESCO city of gastronomy, is losing gastronomical institutions. And it’s not just restaurants — the whole hospitality industry, its employees and suppliers are at risk.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent as this drags on and we don’t get new federal assistance that there’s going to be a lot of pain here,” said UA economist George Hammond. “People are running out of their cash reserves.”

That’s actually a new development because those of us who kept our jobs have gotten along more or less fine in the crisis. But those who lost their jobs actually increased their savings as a result of the more generous unemployment benefit, according to research by University of Chicago economist Peter Ganong analyzing data from JP Morgan Chase.

The unemployed built up savings until the extra unemployment benefit ran out at the end of July, and since then those savings have dropped by 74 percent, the New York Times reported.

We should have had new relief by now, but it’s caught up in senatorial game-playing.

The House passed a bill in May called the HEROES Act. It had many of the same features as the earlier CARES Act — a $1,200-per-taxpayer stimulus check, plus more for dependents, increased unemployment of $600 per week, a paycheck protection program, aid to the states, rental assistance — at a cost of $3 trillion.

At the instruction of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate never took up that bill, even as the previous relief lapsed over the summer. So on Oct. 1, House Democrats passed a slimmed-down HEROES Act that would cost $2.2 trillion, the same cost of the original CARES Act. Among other reductions, it included payments of $500 per dependent instead of $1,200 as in the original bill.

Senate Republicans introduced their own relief bill in late July — the HEALS Act (the bills’ titles all include meaningful acronyms). This bill would cost about $1 trillion, but McConnell is resistant even to it, and he has prioritized confirming a Supreme Court nominee. He’s planning a vote this month on an even narrower $500 billion bill focused on funding the Paycheck Protection Program.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s representative, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, has been negotiating a much bigger package with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Trump called off negotiations on Oct. 7, only to signal his approval for a $1.8 trillion package two days later.

The political gamesmanship means help is coming too late for the Café Poca Cosa and other local businesses.

But the federal government isn’t the only entity with options. The state Legislature adjourned quickly after passing a slapdash budget in March and hasn’t met since. They gave Gov. Doug Ducey $50 million from the state’s $1 billion rainy-day fund to spend as he wished on the COVID crisis and left it at that.

The surge in unemployment, and unemployment benefits, brought a wave of filings that overwhelmed the state’s systems, even after they brought on more help. I’ve faced this problem myself when trying, and failing, to get coverage for two weeks of COVID-caused furloughs at the Star.

Due to a problem with my electronic filings, I need to speak with someone at DES, but when I call, the recorded voice always says “the queue is full” and they aren’t taking more calls. The money isn’t essential to me, because I’ve been working full time since May. So I haven’t called numerous times a day, as you apparently need to do to get attention.

But that gave me a window into what people in more dire situations are facing. And yet the state Legislature has not really responded. It deferred to the governor for eviction-relief measures and other responses.

Republican legislators, the majority in the state House and Senate, have said they want to return to action, but not for COVID-19 relief. They want to restrict the emergency powers the governor has used during the pandemic.

This has turned out terribly in states like Wisconsin, where the Republican-majority Legislature went to the state’s Supreme Court to take away the Democratic governor’s emergency powers. They won and have done nothing about COVID, preferring to fight any pandemic restrictions. Now Wisconsin has the country’s worst outbreak.

In Arizona, Democratic legislators are pushing for economic relief. Specifically, assistant minority leader Rep. Randy Friese said, they want to increase the state’s minimal $240-per-week unemployment benefit to $400 or more. They also want a package that would help businesses by increasing broadband access and otherwise improving infrastructure.

Unlike the federal government, the state can’t just borrow massively to address the crisis, but some state money is available now.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee is projecting a positive balance of around $400 million at the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The governor is also sitting on about $400 million of CARES Act funding. And there is the approximately $1 billion rainy-day fund that is sitting largely untouched during these very — metaphorically — rainy days.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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