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Toomey, Keller Discuss COVID-19 Relief, Economic Recovery During Visit to Centre County

by on July 15, 2020 7:27 PM

When the U.S. Senate returns to session on Monday, its top issue will be whether to take up new legislation addressing the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and if so, what exactly that would entail.

While the $2 trillion CARES Act, passed in March, provided $700 billion in direct payments to individuals and forgivable loans to businesses, Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey said on Wednesday that he wants the next bill to take a more targeted approach than the last.

"I have great reservations about simply loading up the money cannon and sending out hundreds of billions, or even trillions as some of my colleagues have suggested, of additional money, especially considering not all of the money we have already authorized has yet made it to the intended recipients," Toomey said.

Toomey and U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, Pa.-12, visited the Centre County Visitor's Bureau on Wednesday for a forum hosted by the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County and Happy Valley Adventure Bureau to hear from local business and government leaders about issues they have faced and to talk about their views on what should be done next.

Through three relief bills to date, as well as authorization of Federal Reserve lending, the U.S. government has committed about $6 trillion so far to address the pandemic and its myriad impacts — from economic support to individuals, schools, businesses and state and local governments to fighting the virus with funding for vaccine development, hospitals and protective equipment.

"We wanted there to be jobs to go back to. We wanted businesses to survive," Toomey said.

"This combination of things has kind of provided a floor on the economy to make sure we don’t have a massive wave of bankruptcies so hopefully as we get back to normal sooner rather than later we have thriving businesses for people to go back to."

But, Toomey said, it all comes at a cost.

"There is no free lunch," Toomey said. "We didn’t take this money off the shelf. There’s a price to be paid for that, so I think we want to proceed cautiously."

Like Toomey, Keller said he wants to see a focused bill.

He noted that some states, like Pennsylvania, have not yet distributed all of their allocated funds. Pennsylvania still has $1.3 billion remaining of its nearly $4 billion in CARES Act funds.

"As the senator said, all that money has not been deployed yet so we want to see how that works before we start writing legislation to spend more money that our children and grandchildren will have to repay," Keller said.

State College Mayor Ron Filippelli said municipalities that were already operating on tight budgets will still need help if revenue declines continue. Without it, he said, they might have to cut into public services.

Toomey said he expects if a bill is passed it will include additional money for states and municipalities, but how to direct it remains a question as state and local governments face wide-ranging circumstances.

"It makes it challenging to figure out what’s fair, what’s right and what’s the sensible way to do this," he said.

Keller supports giving Pennsylvania more flexibility in how it can distribute its remaining CARES Act funding but said he wants to see a plan first.

"Giving it to the states when you look at the variety of things that happen might be the right way to do it. But we also want to make sure that money gets down to the municipalities," he said. "It’s important to me to make sure that the areas in rural Pennsylvania get the help they need and the money doesn't get stuck in state government."

For individuals, President Donald Trump has signaled support for another round of direct payments, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they're under consideration, though it remains to be seen who would qualify and how much they would receive. 

In the last bill, stimulus checks were sent for virtually every American taxpayer and child, but Toomey is reluctant to see such a broad disbursal this time around.

"One of my concerns is those direct payments, a very large percentage of them, go to people who never had any lost income," he said. "That’s not a very good way to target a scarce resource. If we do have another bill I would hope it would be more targeted."

Like several other business leaders, Fullington Bus CEO Jonathan Berzas told Toomey the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided loans to businesses to cover payroll and operations and could be forgiven if criteria were met, worked just as it was intended.

But Berzas is concerned about what's ahead. The motorcoach industry is facing a $15 billion loss and a two to four year recovery.

Toomey said it's a challenge to find ways to aid different sectors of the economy that face varying circumstances.

"One of the things I’m confident of is all of these problems are easier to solve if we have a vaccine," he said. "The reluctance of people to travel, to go to restaurants, to get on your bus is going to diminish dramatically if people are confident there is an effective vaccine."

Some of Toomey's priorities for a potential new bill include liability protection from lawsuits for employers who show good-faith efforts to provide recommended public health safety measures, and adjusting Medicare rules to help struggling hospitals. He also said Congress should address issues in capital markets, particularly commercial mortgage-backed securities, the principal funding mechanism for commercial real estate which is seeing a wave of defaults by borrowers.

"The main guiding thought is what can we do to help ensure a strong economic recovery and people getting back to work," he said.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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