Maine’s four delegates to Congress agree on the need for another massive federal spending bill to offset economic losses from the coronavirus pandemic, but they have conflicting positions on two of the most hotly debated items: Whether to include another round of stimulus checks to individuals and whether to extend a $600 weekly unemployment benefit that expires in July.

Both are priorities for Democrats, but Republicans have been skeptical.

Congress already has authorized nearly $3 trillion in federal aid in four different bills passed since March 5, but the most recent spending package is two months old and there is growing consensus that another stimulus bill is necessary to keep the economy from collapsing further.

Discussions already are happening behind the scenes, however, it’s not likely that any new spending bills would be brought to a vote before mid-to-late July. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are spiking in Florida, Texas, Arizona and other states that pushed to reopen their economies. Some are now reversing course.

In interviews this week with the Press Herald, each member of Maine’s congressional delegation agreed that top priorities should be delivering money directly to states and municipalities, which are bracing for tremendous revenue losses, and continuing to support businesses that are most at risk.

But Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden diverged on secondary priorities and were not in line on whether to include another round of stimulus payments to individuals or whether to extend the $600/week unemployment benefit that expires next month.

Angus King

King, an independent in his second Senate term and former two-term governor, said he would support another round of payments to individuals but did not commit to a specific amount.

He also supports extending the unemployment insurance in the next funding bill, but would fine-tune the exact amount based on what he has heard from Maine workers and businesses.

King said his main priority is making sure states get direct funding, which can then be passed down to municipalities.

“The state of Maine is being hammered, as are the localities,” he said. “And the state can’t borrow like the federal government does.”

States did receive funding under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March – the biggest funding package passed so far – but King said those funds can only be spent on things directly related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As a result, many states, including Maine, which received $1.25 billion, have been slow to distribute those funds. King said he supports a measure that would “simply lift the strings from the money already out there,” but said more money is needed.

He also supports more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program that was included in the CARES Act to help struggling small businesses.

“I am someone who’s concerned about all the debt, but if we don’t take these actions in terms of keeping the economy afloat, a deep recession or depression would be worse,” he said.

King also said more funding for testing is a priority and criticized President Trump for suggesting testing should slow down and for not leading an effort to scale up testing sooner.

“Testing is the only tool we have to navigate this,” he said. “We’ve forced governors to fly blind to make these agonizing decisions whether to reopen.”

King said the level of funding might not be needed if not for the Trump administration’s failed leadership.

“I think there was an implicit contract between the American people and the administration, where we agreed: This is bad, we’re going to shut down for two or three months while you build the infrastructure to reopen safety and successfully,” He said. “The administration breached that contract. They haven’t done the things that everybody said they needed to do.”

Susan Collins

Collins, a Republican in her fourth term who faces the biggest reelection challenge of her career in November, wasn’t a hard “no” on individual stimulus checks but it’s not a top priority, and she said she’s still looking at whether they would be helpful.

In the first round, she said, “We found that a lot of money has been saved and not spent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t stimulate the economy.”

Collins said she supports extending unemployment insurance, but added that “recipients should not receive more through unemployment compensation than they were previously earning.”

For her, state and local funding is most critical. She is one of several co-sponsors of a bill, called the SMART Act, that would distribute $500 billion to individual states, cities and towns. Maine’s share would be at least $2 billion.

“I’ve met with numerous town officials and city managers all over the state who are telling me that the impact is going to be severe,” she said.

Collins, who co-authored the Paycheck Protection Program, said she’s in discussions with colleagues about another round of funding for that program. She explained that it would be targeted more toward businesses that have suffered severe revenue loss. She said a Maine innkeeper told her recently that they normally have a 96 percent occupancy rate in June. This year, it’s 6 percent.

In the first round of PPP, roughly 75 percent of Maine businesses accounting for 200,000 jobs shared about $2.2 billion in funds.

The senator said if public schools open in the fall, which she hopes they do, they will need funding for personal protective equipment and to reconfigure space or add bus routes.

“Another priority for me is the postal service,” she said, adding that she’s working with Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, on a bill requesting emergency funding. “They have been frontline workers but are often taken for granted.”

Collins called the House’s HEROES Act a “non-starter,” but said she’s hopeful there is still time for a bipartisan deal.

“There really has to be a compromise,” she said.

Chellie Pingree

Pingree, now in her sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Maine’s solidly Democratic 1st District, was the only delegation member to support individual payments unequivocally, saying that another round of $1,200 checks per individual was appropriate.

“For a lot of people, that was vitally important to make a rent payment or buy groceries,” she said. “That money goes right out. Most people are spending it on things they need.”

Pingree also supports extending unemployment insurance through January 2021 and keeping in place the $600/week extra benefit.

Both were included in the House’s HEROES Act, which Pingree supported last month. That bill, she said, provides robust funding across many sectors of the economy, including $1 trillion for state and local governments. Maine’s share would be $5 billion.

“We know there is going to be a huge shortfall in Maine,” she said. “That bill is divided so that every community gets money and states, too. If we don’t do that, it will have huge impacts in the state, which has to pay for education, for Medicaid funding, for first responders.”

Pingree criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for saying in April that state aid amounted to a “blue state bailout,” and states should go bankrupt instead. At the time, many heavily Democratic states were seeing the highest case numbers but, as Pingree pointed out, that’s no longer the case.

She said the HEROES Act also includes funds to continue dealing with the health crisis, for things like personal protective equipment, aid to hospitals and developing vaccines.

“I also think that we’d be crazy not to offer some level of support to the economy, whether it’s PPP or extending unemployment benefits to keep people on a payroll one way or another,” she said. “I don’t see the economy coming back to life (immediately). You could open everything tomorrow and we still wouldn’t be flooded with tourists, and the farmers and fisherman would still be hurting.”

Jared Golden

Golden, a first-term Democrat representing Maine’s more rural 2nd District, said he’s not opposed to individual payments but doesn’t think they should go out to everyone.

“I’ve heard a lot of Mainers say, ‘I need more,’ while others say, ‘I didn’t need the first round because I never stopped working,’” he said. “I think we can do a better job of targeting those who need it.”

On unemployment insurance, Golden said he’s concerned about extending the $600/week payment because he’s heard that some businesses are having trouble getting employees back because they’d be losing money.

“I don’t think we can pull the rug out from underneath the feet of Americans who remain unemployed,” he said. “We should extend the benefit, but probably have a conversation about the extra payment.”

Golden was one of 14 Democrats who did not support the HEROES Act last month. He explained that he didn’t agree with the tactic of House Democrats passing a symbolic bill that would never go anywhere in the Senate.

“The House taking that vote actually kind of took some air out of the room that might have been building,” he said, referring to bipartisan talks.

Golden said his top priority is making sure the health care system is adequately funded, drawing attention to two Maine hospitals in his district – in Calais and Lincoln – that have filed for bankruptcy.

“Access to those hospitals is important for health but also when you think of job creation, attracting new business becomes 10 times harder if your hospital has closed,” he said.

Golden agreed that more money is needed for states and he supported the SMART Act because every locality would get assistance.

His third priority, he said, would be doing more to help businesses and keep people employed. He said he’s open to supporting another round of PPP funding, but said that’s not the only solution. Golden said he plans to reintroduce a House version of a Senate bill called the RESTART Act that would be similar to PPP, but would make loans available through the rest of 2020, target businesses that are hardest hit and allow repayment over a longer period of time.


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