Congress expected to pass $900B coronavirus relief package today

Congressional leaders have hashed out a massive, year-end catchall bill that combines $900 billion in COVID-19 aid with a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill and reams of other unfinished legislation on taxes, energy, education and health care. The huge, still-unreleased bill is slated for votes today—with lawmakers having only a few hours to read it before casting their votes. 

“The recovery legislation is critical to bridging the [Capital Region] small businesses through the next several months,” says David Zoller, manager of governmental affairs with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. “While liability protection was not included, it’s important to note that Louisiana’s Legislature passed such protections earlier this year. Federal action to support businesses in maintaining employment levels and to support those out of work by bolstering unemployment benefits is necessary to ensure the economy has the footing to fully recover.”

Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President and CEO Stephen Waguespack says Congress’ decision to put more funding into the Paycheck Protection Program provides a crucial lifeline for Louisiana employers who are desperately trying to make payroll.

“After businesses have faced so many monumental challenges in 2020, this legislation serves as the bridge to help get our job creators to 2021 and a full reopening of our economy,” Waguespack says.

Below are some highlights of the measure with overall funding amounts and specific amounts for some but not necessarily all initiatives; some amounts are not yet available and some aspects of the catchall bill do not involve spending.

Direct economic relief ($286 billion):  The bill revives supplemental federal pandemic unemployment benefits through March 14, but at $300 per week instead of the $600 per week benefit that expired in July. The legislation also extends special pandemic benefits for “gig” workers and extends the maximum period for state-paid jobless benefits to 50 weeks. Individuals making up to $75,000 per year will receive direct payments of $600, with payments phased out for higher incomes and an additional $600 per dependent child. 

Small business ($325 billion): The bill revives the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to qualified businesses. Especially hard-hit businesses that received PPP grants would be eligible for a second round and the new legislation ensures that PPP subsidies are not taxed.

Vaccine, testing, health care providers ($69 billion): More than $30 billion has been allotted for the procurement of vaccines and treatments, distribution funds for states, and a strategic stockpile. The bill sets aside $22 billion for testing, tracing and mitigation, $9 billion for health care providers, and $4.5 billion for mental health. 

Schools ($82 billion): Public K-12 schools will receive $54 billion. Colleges and universities are in line for $23 billion and $4 billion would be awarded to a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. Nearly $1 billion would go to Native American schools.

Rental assistance ($25 billion): This provision in the legislation provides money for a first-ever federal rental assistance program. Funds will be distributed by state and local governments to help people who have fallen behind on their rent and may be facing eviction.

Food and farm aid ($28 billion): Food stamp benefits will be increased by 15% and additional funding will be sent to food banks, Meals on Wheels and other food aid. An equal amount ($13 billion) will be provided in aid to farmers and ranchers.

Child care ($10 billion): The bill will provide funding to the Child Care Development Block Grant program to help families with child care costs and help providers cover increased operating costs.

Postal service ($10 billion): The $10 billion loan provided to the Postal Service earlier this year will be forgiven.   

Surprise medical bills: Bipartisan legislation has been written to protect consumers from huge surprise medical bills after receiving treatment from out-of-network providers.

Tax extenders: A variety of expiring tax breaks, including lower excise taxes for craft brewers and distillers will be extended. Renewable energy sources would also see tax breaks extended, as would motorsports facilities and people making charitable contributions. Business meals would be 100% deductible through 2022.

Water projects: The bill includes an almost 400-page water resources section that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects.