Utah tweaks rules on spending millions in unused federal COVID-19 aid

(AP file photo) House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, bottom center, leads the Utah Legislature during a special session in June. Lawmakers on Thursday tweaked several federal programs for COVID-19 cash in hopes of getting more money out to renters, businesses, artists and other recipients before a Dec. 31 deadline for spending it.

Vast sums of COVID-19-relief dollars have already been paid out to help Utah businesses, farmers, displaced workers and nonprofit groups — but millions more are still sitting in government accounts.

State lawmakers voted Thursday to tweak their rules again for that mountain of money sent the state’s way under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, saying they wanted to make it easier to spend, especially before any unused funds expire at the end of the year.

SB6009 also expanded a program of forgivable loans to Utah’s oil, gas and mining companies while rebuffing a proposal to give the same help to firms in the renewable-energy sector, leading one Democrat to accuse colleagues of “picking winners.”

Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem and the bill’s chief sponsor, also included key language affecting Utah’s eviction process as part of an overhaul to CARES-backed rental assistance that had housing advocates warning it could harm some tenants.

The bill won unanimous approval in the Senate and a divided vote in the House, with 13 Democrats voting against it. The measure now heads to Gov. Gary Herbert for his review.

Hemmert told Senate colleagues that some aid programs they’d created in prior emergency sessions saw their budgets used up quickly, including ones helping nonprofits and heritage and arts groups, retraining laid-off workers and a shopping-promotion program dubbed Shop in Utah.

But money for loans to farmers, rental aid to individual tenants and businesses and a program to help small employers buy protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer was still on the table, Hemmert said.

“We’re trying to make it super easy to get this money out the door,” Hemmert said at one point. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said it amounted toputting more money in where it can be effective and moving money around to help those in need.”

SB6009 removes certain caps and other limits on grants and loans, moves money from underused programs to others in greater demand, and gives state officials overseeing the spending more leeway in how they divide money up among programs — in some cases, without having to seek the Legislature’s permission.

It also created an entirely new $5 million grant program for oil, gas and mining companies, an industry that Spendlove said “has seen a huge impact as a result of the coronavirus.”

By in a voice vote cast both online and in the House chamber, members defeated an attempt by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, to add renewable energy firms to those eligible for the program’s loans after a Republican colleague complained those companies don’t pay the state’s mineral severance tax.

Hemmert said SB6009′s broad intent was to also steer more funds overall to Utah’s small businesses.

SB6009 lowers the standard for farms to prove they’ve been financially harmed by COVID-19 to receive loans. Commercial tenants can seek rental assistance but use it to make mortgage payments. New startups can also apply for rent help under the bill. Rules for getting money to buy protective equipment are being eased, as are those for nonprofits with smaller budgets to apply for grants.

A $20 million program previously set aside with CARES money to help struggling renters is being adjusted to let landlords apply on their behalf, but only if those landlords guarantee they won’t evict tenants.

“The goal of this program is that there will be no evictions due to lack of payment of rent until the end of the year, when all this money has to be spent,” Hemmert said of the $20 million rental aid program, noting that Only $600,000 or so of those funds set aside in June have been used so far.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that people can stay in their homes,” he said.

Rep. Sandra Hollins and Sen. Luz Escamilla, both D-Salt Lake City, called for some kind of notice to tenants when landlords had sought payments for their lapsed rents. “There are a lot of sometimes predatory practices,” Escamilla warned, though she did not seek to amend the bill.

Earlier Thursday, housing advocates said a separate part of SB6009 that limits how the CARES Act is applied to some tenants threatened to worsen a potential crisis with evictions. A initial legal review circulated by Utah Housing Coalition said the changes could “leave thousands without shelter and deeply in debt.”

But Hemmert said the provision instead sought to clarify that a 30-day federal eviction moratorium for those behind on their rent and living in certain government-back properties did not affect the state’s process for issuing so-called pay-or-vacate notices for other reasons.

“The goal is that there are no more evictions due to lack of payment,” the senator said. “There can be evictions for other reasons, but for lack of payment, that should not be an issue because anyone should be able to access this money.”