Utah still has more than $300 million of unspent federal pandemic relief aid to its name, money that the state must use in the next few weeks or risk losing altogether.
Officials in charge of state budgeting are confident that they’ll be able to exhaust this mountain of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act cash before the federal government reclaims it. Their task in the next few weeks will be to figure out which agencies have too much funding and then redirect any excess to programs that can spend the money by the Dec. 30 deadline.
“Our plan is to find good uses for all of it,” said Duncan Evans, budget manager in the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget (GOMB).
But lawmakers and community advocates are looking ahead with concern to the months after the federal CARES Act aid dries up — when the pandemic will continue to tax the resources of Utah’s families, businesses and local governments.
“I really worry that we’re going to have some tough economic times, with people losing their apartments, losing their homes, losing their businesses,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, who’s helped fellow legislative leaders decide how to spend the federal pandemic assistance. “Some people have muddled through and struggled through and made it to this point. And if you give them three or four months with the same economic downturn, but without CARES Act money, they’re not going to make it.”
King said he’d like to see more money carved out for tenants who are at risk of losing their housing as the pandemic weakens the economy and wipes out jobs. Senate President Stuart Adams said he’s been hearing about the need for more resources to support testing in K-12 schools.
And Ze Min Xiao, who’s helped lead a multicultural subcommittee inside the Utah COVID-19 response, said she’s hoping for additional relief for groups disproportionately impacted by the virus. Utah’s Hispanic and Latino communities, along with Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, have suffered higher coronavirus case rates than the Utah population at large, she noted.
She expects that the pandemic’s long-term economic and social repercussions will also fall most heavily on communities that have been historically disenfranchised.
“Those that have been systemically left out of the system,” Xiao said, “they’ll be the ones who continue to suffer.”
Nearly $935 million in coronavirus relief funding has poured into state coffers since the start of the pandemic, and state leaders have assigned a specific purpose to all but about $307,000 of that amount, Evans told state lawmakers last week.
About $247 million of the total has gone to Utah counties, cities and towns, and state officials are checking with these local governments to make sure they’re spending the money by the Dec. 30 deadline. If any of them have funding to spare, the state will pull it back and redistribute it for other needs, Evans told lawmakers.
More than $135 million has gone to the Utah Department of Health for coronavirus testing initiatives, supporting local health departments and renting quarantine housing for COVID-19 patients, among other things. The state reserved about $41 million for personal protective equipment and testing supplies and another $125 million for enhanced internet access and digital devices for students, educators and health care providers during the pandemic.
The Governor’s Office of Economic Development landed more than $150 million in CARES Act funding for commercial rental assistance, business loans and grants, hospital grants and the “Mask for Every Utahn” initiative.
But simply setting aside the money for a particular program doesn’t satisfy the federal government’s requirements, and states must actually spend the money by the year’s end or relinquish it. As of Nov. 13, the state had already used about $628 million of its CARES Act funding, leaving about $307 million unspent.
Adams, R-Layton, described the task of doling out the money as “the legislative process on steroids,” explaining that state lawmakers have relied on government agencies, health care groups and industry and community members to guide them in distributing the funds. GOMB handled some of the funding in the very early days of the pandemic, he said, but the state Legislature has been responsible for appropriating the bulk of the money since then.
When there’s extra funding in any one program, legislative leaders — Adams, King, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne have been working with the state’s pandemic response team to redistribute the money.
Both Adams and King say that process has worked smoothly so far, without any major clashes over about the best use of this federal aid. The two lawmakers also agree that the state shouldn’t blow through the CARES Act aid over the next few weeks just to beat a deadline.
“You don’t want to be profligate and irresponsible in how you spend that money,” King, D-Salt Lake City, said.
Evans’ presentation last week showed that some projects have barely started to tap the CARES Act dollars. For instance, the Utah Department of Transportation has used about $1 million for its $30 million initiative to add broadband internet access along at least 100 miles of Interstate 70 from Cove Fort and along Interstate 84 from Tremonton to the Idaho border.
But Lynne Yocom, the transportation department’s fiber optics manager, said the project is on track to spend all of its money before December ends.
Representatives of the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) say they also expect to run through the entire $125 million they received, even though they still have about $49 million left to go. The network has invested the funding in new software, wireless equipment for K-12 schools, telehealth enhancements, training educators in teaching remotely, internet access for families that most need it and a hot spot lending program at some of the state’s libraries.
“It’s ensuring that when students go to the buildings, that there’s adequate Wi-Fi, so if they need to social distance, they’re able to do that a little bit more effectively,” said Kelleigh Cole, UETN strategic initiatives manager. “The laptop lending programs at the universities and colleges are helping fill the gap for students that might not otherwise be able to do work from home. ... So we really have a broad spectrum of projects that are meeting different parts of the need.”
A spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services said her agency expects to use most of its CARES Act funding before the expiration date, even though several programs have barely touched it so far. The agency has received money to assist seniors, invest in services to address the emotional toll of COVID-19, help family support centers and domestic violence services, and run an array of other programs.
Other programs have already used up their entire federal aid allotment. The multicultural subcommittee that Xiao leads has already disbursed the full $4.5 million in grant funding it received from the CARES Act. That money went to community-based organizations that work directly with marginalized and underrepresented groups who often encounter barriers in accessing mainstream assistance, she explained.
Programs led by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development have spent much of their federal funding allocation, according to state records. Businesses snapped up the $62 million in grants that helped companies provide deals and discounts to attract customers in the wake of COVID-19, said Kori Ann Edwards, the agency’s managing director.
The agency also doled out more than $20 million in commercial rental assistance funding and more than $17 million to hospitals reeling from the pandemic.
But Edwards, too, is concerned about what happens after the federal funding is gone.
“All eyes are watching to see if there’s going to be any other federal stimulus packages,” she said. “We’re definitely watching that to see if that comes and how it comes and how much comes.”
Adams said state leaders have asked Utah’s congressional representatives to work to extend the Dec. 30 cutoff and ease some of the pressure attached to the federal funding. If that doesn’t happen, Adams said, the state might have to dip into its reserve funds for pandemic-related emergencies in 2021.