Summit County’s state and federal reps talk aid response, delayed payments and economic recovery
FRISCO — Federal and regional governments across the planet have been at the core of the global effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic. On the American homefront, the crisis has required unprecedented cooperation and coordination between state and federal governments to address the world’s worst public health crisis in a century.
Summit County, with its tourism-based economy, has been shut down since March 16. The county’s businesses and workers have been at the mercy of the state and federal bureaucratic machinery meant to keep Americans from going homeless and hungry, and it certainly did not start out smoothly.
Glitches in the state and federal programs — including the rollout of the mammoth $2 trillion CARES Act — caused delays of payments as well as confusion as to who was eligible for benefits. Most businesses were initially shut out of taking part of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program and various Small Business Administration loan and booster schemes due to sheer volume of applications and apparent favoritism by certain big banks for their larger clients.
Representing Summit County in Colorado’s state house is Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, who sits on the critical Joint Budget Committee. McCluskie said she was well aware of the somewhat chaotic rollout of enhanced unemployment benefits in the state, which she said was due to the state’s system not being designed for the volume of claims with which it was hit.
In the weeks since, McCluskie said the agency had doubled its staffing and appeared to be processing claims at a better clip.
“We are hoping that people are finding it easier to use the system as of the last few weeks,” McCluskie said.
But the relief and emergency measures, combined with the sudden economic shutdown, are already leading to a projected dramatic shortfall to the state budget.
“In the middle of March, we had a forecast that indicated we would have a $1 billion state revenue shortfall,” McCluskie said. “By May 12, we will get an update to that forecast, but it is believed that we are looking at doubling or tripling that — anywhere from a $2 (billon) to $3 billion shortfall.”
McCluskie said that while emergency funds may cover the economy for now, the 2008 recession showed how economic downturns can have long-lasting effects on the state government’s budget.
“It will certainly create many challenges for us in continuing state services at the level we have been able to provide them until the pandemic hit,” McCluskie said. “I personally am very committed to making sure the state maintains essential services, including unemployment insurance for those directly impacted by the loss of work.”
Aside from the public health response, the economic recovery for the state was paramount on the minds of legislators, McCluskie said.
“We can’t talk about fixing the state budget without talking about getting the economy back up and running,” McCluskie said. “The High Country resort communities have been impacted in a far deeper way than other parts of the state given that 70% of our economy is driven by tourism, and tourism has come to a dead stop.”
McCluskie said that Gov. Jared Polis has put together an economic stabilization and growth council to start working on these issues with the goal of maintaining public health guidelines while “getting everybody back to work as soon as we can when it’s safe to do so.”
On the federal end, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, said he, too, was aware of how hard the High Country is being hit by the pandemic as well as how difficult it has been for the average residents to navigate the unemployment and aid programs as guidelines change and payments get delayed.
“In my view, the processes for providing emergency relief have been far too cumbersome,” Neguse said. “That was the reason we moved quickly with the CARES Act, as we understood the urgency of the crisis.”
But the execution of that legislation went awry, Neguse said.
“We worked with the expectation that this administration would be able to implement this quicker than we have seen thus far,” Neguse said about the White House. “We’ve obviously had a number of false starts and delays in facilitating direct transfers of unemployment insurance or (Small Business Administration) grants and loans. I have continued working with the Colorado delegation and in pushing the administration to work quicker and get relief into the hands of hard-working folks across Summit County and the state.”
Neguse advised any constituent having trouble getting their pandemic stimulus money or unemployment relief to contact his office, where he said staff members are compiling a list of constituents who are having trouble with federal programs during the pandemic.
Last week, Congress passed another stopgap aid package, which Neguse coined “CARES Act 1.5,” with additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program to help businesses keep employees working as well as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance program, which provides up to $10,000 in emergency loans to businesses struggling during the pandemic.
“We need to ensure there is a lifeline for small businesses that are so integral to our High Country economy,” Neguse said.
Neguse said the expectation is for Congress to pass a larger stimulus and aid package later in the spring or summer that would be similar in size and scope to the first CARES Act. That would include billions more in funding for hospitals and for widespread testing, which he said was key to reopening Summit County and Colorado’s economy.
“In order to move forward in a strategic way to reopen the local, state and broader economy, we need widespread and robust testing,” Neguse said. “We need to provide leadership for that at the federal level. The hope is that the next big package will include the necessary funding for testing and a mandate from Congress for the administration to come up with a cohesive testing strategy.”
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