Kentucky Politics

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled his latest take on how the federal government should provide relief to people, businesses and communities during the coronavirus pandemic earlier this week, but critics in Kentucky say it falls short of what is needed.

The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act — or the HEALS Act — is the new coronavirus relief package unveiled by McConnell and Republican leaders of the Senate on Monday.

It includes another round of $1,200 stimulus checks for people who make up to $75,000 and an additional $500 for each dependent.

It also provides money for schools — mostly to reopen for in-person instruction — coronavirus testing, another round of forgivable loans for businesses and legal protections for businesses during the pandemic.

McConnell also declined to extend the $600 per week supplement to unemployment benefits that expires this week, opting for a $200 per week supplement.

Dan Wu, owner of Atomic Ramen restaurant in Lexington, says that Congress needs to do more to help businesses and workers get through the pandemic.

“What we need right now is we need a way for small businesses to be closed, to be safe, to be able to pay their bills,” Wu said. “And we need laid off workers to be able to pay their bills and pay their rent. That $600 has been vital to keep people’s lights on, to keep our economy going at any sort of rate.”

Wu said that the reduction of unemployment benefits will end up hurting businesses because people have less money to spend, and he disagreed with the argument that the benefits encourage would-be workers to stay home.

“The work isn’t out there,” Wu said.

The central piece of McConnell’s bill is liability protections for businesses reopening during the pandemic, saying that they are currently at risk of being sued for spreading the virus.

“We’ll preserve accountability in the event of gross negligence or intentional misconduct, but we are not going to let trial lawyers throw a party on the backs of the front-line workers and institutions who fought this new enemy on the front lines,” McConnell said during a speech unveiling the bill on Monday.

The bill includes more than $100 billion for education, though most of the funding will be dedicated to helping schools reopen for in-person classes during the pandemic.

Kentucky’s two largest school districts in Louisville and Lexington will start the school year with remote instruction, though decisions about reopening are left up to local school boards and many will have some form of in-person instruction.

Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said that funding shouldn’t be tied to in-person schooling.

“We need Congress to pass a common sense bill that fills the revenue gaps in our district budgets and allows our schools to safely and effectively resume,” Campbell said.

Cyndi Kirkhart is executive director of Facing Hunger Food Bank, which operates in 17 counties in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. She criticized the bill for not increasing SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — while grocery prices have shot up during the pandemic.

“The SNAP benefits didn’t rise to accommodate those additional costs for purchasing foods needed by these families,” Kirkhart said.

And Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, says the bill needs to renew the moratorium on some types of evictions.

“We cannot contain a virus that requires us to social distance if we do not have homes of our own,” Bush said.

According to recent federal data, about 20% of Kentuckians have either no or slight confidence that they’ll be able to pay rent next month.

Unlike the relief bill that passed out of the House in May, McConnell’s bill does not provide budget help for state and local governments worried about a drop in tax revenue during the pandemic or hazard pay for first responders.

Gov. Andy Beshear has warned that without federal assistance, Kentucky could have a $1.1 billion budget shortfall, about 10% of the entire state budget.

Steve Kay, the Vice Mayor of Lexington, said that during the pandemic his city has cut expenses by 15% and only has $15 million left in its Rainy Day Fund.

“It’s like a flood, it’s like a dam is getting ready to burst and you’re asking can we contain the flood? The answer is no. Without significant federal assistance, we don’t have the resources to do that,” Kay said.

“It’s just so short-sighted not to intervene when we can.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.