Council Addresses the Public Health Emergency in Supplemental Legislation
-Information provided by DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson:
For the first time in its 45-year history, the Council held a legislative meeting that did not take place in the Council Chambers. It was held remotely, respecting the public health recommendations for social distancing. The agenda was limited; the usual business of presenting ceremonial resolutions, introducing bills, and even the debate over amendments was curtailed because of the constraints of “virtual” meetings. But we met nonetheless, primarily because of the continuing need to address the current public health emergency – to help the public, our residents, and our businesses.
Following this article is a graphic listing the details of the COVID-19 emergency bill that we adopted April 7th. This is the second emergency act adopted by the Council to deal with the public health emergency. (An “emergency act” becomes effective immediately, without waiting for Congressional review, once signed by the Mayor; however, it is effective for only 90 days.) Taken together, the emergency bills we have adopted:
Help workers who have lost their jobs by providing expanded access to unemployment insurance: there is no mandatory waiting period, no job search requirement, individuals are eligible even if they are only temporarily laid off or are 1099 contractors like Lyft drivers; and in the coming weeks everyone on UI will get the additional $600 per week provided in the federal relief law.
Help businesses by allowing them to temporarily defer certain tax payments (essentially a short-term no-interest loan), providing a $25 million small business micro-grant program, requiring lenders to defer mortgage payments for 90 days – a deferment that must be passed on to commercial tenants, and allowing restaurants to sell beer, wine, and cocktails on a carryout or delivery basis.
Help consumers by outlawing price gouging and stockpiling during a public health emergency, increasing penalties for unfair trade practices, prohibiting utility cut-offs, prohibiting typical debt collection practices (such as repossessing cars) during the emergency, requiring funeral homes to provide competitive pricing information, and giving the Attorney General enhanced enforcement authority in this area.
Protect residents by imposing a citywide rent freeze (i.e., no rent increases), requiring mortgage companies to offer 90-days deferment to homeowners unable to pay due to the pandemic.
Help voters by adjusting the law to permit broad use of voting-by-mail in the upcoming June Primary election and Ward 2 Special election.
Help incarcerated individuals (at greater risk of contracting COVID-19) by reducing the incarcerated population through expanded citation-release, good time credits, and compassionate release.
Help hospitals by providing a $25 million grant program to offset their cost of expanding surge capacity to treat COVID-19 infected individuals.
Authorize the Chief Financial Officer to borrow up to $500 million on a short-term basis to facilitate cash flow problems; while the District government is financially ok, much of the relief we are providing to residents and businesses is reducing the reserves and other cash on hand, so for the first time in 5 years the government will have to borrow for this purpose.
Authorize the Mayor to extend the public health emergency, if needed, until mid-June.
Helping Undocumented Workers:
One issue that has gotten a lot of attention but was not addressed in either emergency is how to provide financial relief to undocumented workers in the District. Immigration is a federal issue; survival is not. There are thousands of individuals who work in the district – including day laborers, construction workers, even Trump Hotel workers – and if they are out of work because of the shutdown, they need help, too. An early draft of our second emergency included two provisions to help, but they were removed because of cost ($75 million). Subsequently, advocates focused their request at $5 million, likening it to a $5 million program in Montgomery County. This was too late for inclusion in the second emergency bill, but late last week the District government, through Events DC which operates the District’s convention center and several District-owned sports venues, designated $5 million to support undocumented workers. This is actually better than Montgomery County, because the County’s program is not limited to undocumented residents.
Last week every Councilmember signed a letter to Congressional leaders demanding that Congress rectify the unprecedented underfunding that was provided to the District in the relief act it adopted late last month. The CARES Act guarantees every state at least $1.25 billion assistance, but treats the District as a territory which means only about $500 million assistance. The difference means the District will have $725 million less than the smallest state to support businesses, hospitals, residents, and workers, despite the fact that the District has more coronavirus patients than 21 states and, as a densely populated jurisdiction, faces higher risks than states with extensive rural populations. It means the District has less than half the federal financial support of any state, even though 45% of hospital patients in the District last year were residents of Maryland and Virginia, and even though 63.6% of District-based workers eligible for unemployment benefits are residents of Maryland and Virginia. It is bad public health policy to pay our smallest states at least $2,000 per capita to fight the pandemic while funding the District at around $700 per capita. Numerous voices in Congress, including the Democratic leadership of the House, now support rectifying the underfunding.
The City’s Financial Health:
One of the bullets earlier in this article mentions that the District government is financially ok. More must be said. The Chief Financial Officer is revising his revenue estimates and has preliminarily stated that the District will have to cut $607 million from what remains of this year’s fiscal year budget (we’re over halfway through the fiscal year), and cut about the same amount each year throughout the 4-year financial plan. Cutting over 7% from our annual budget is significant, but then again, the revised budget will be equivalent to what the District government spent in Fiscal Year 2018. It’s doable. For the moment, we’re stretched in what additional relief can be provided for residents and businesses, and as summarized above, the District for the first time in years will have to borrow for cash flow purposes. But unlike many cities and some states, the District government does not have to worry about bankruptcy. Or a return of the Control board. We’ll know more when the Mayor submits the budget May 6th.
Finally, for the latest information from the District government about the public health emergency, how individuals and businesses can get relief, and what everyone should do to limit spread of the coronavirus, visit www.coronavirus.dc.gov.