After Congress cut aid to local governments from its next round of COVID-19 relief, a coalition of local and state leaders is demanding that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) use Maryland’s rainy day fund as a stimulus for local governments.
Congress recently cut $160 billion in direct aid to state and local governments from its next coronavirus relief package. Members of a new coalition, Maryland United for COVID Relief Now, say those cuts won’t just affect governments, but the residents and businesses who rely on local relief programs as well.
In a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) threw their support behind the coalition and urged Hogan to use the state’s reserves to help local governments, residents and businesses survive the final stage of the pandemic.
Kopp and Franchot represent two-thirds of the state’s most powerful spending body, the Board of Public Works. Hogan occupies the other seat on that board.
The coalition launched more than a week after Hogan said he’d introduce a large stimulus package during the 2021 legislative session. Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in an email that the details of that relief will depend on what kind of congressional aid Maryland gets in the next federal stimulus.
Franchot said Marylanders are weathering an “economic tornado, hailstorm and tsunami all at once,” although he was reluctant to say exactly how the reserve funding should be allocated. Franchot has repeatedly urged the use of state funds for aid in recent months, including calling for small business assistance.
All told, the state has more than $1 billion in reserves, Franchot said, including the rainy day fund and unallocated general fund money from the 2020 fiscal year.
Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D), another coalition member, stressed the importance of rental relief and eviction prevention funding for local governments.
“There is no reason that we should have hundreds of thousands of residents hungry and facing eviction, and hundreds of small businesses closing for good, while those state funds sit idle,” Hucker said.
The coalition includes business owners, advocates, local elected officials and community leaders. At the Wednesday event, Willie Flowers, the president of Maryland’s NAACP State Conference, said the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color – and that Maryland’s most vulnerable residents are in desperate need of relief funding.
He called on Marylanders across the state to contact their elected officials and urge them to join the call for a state stimulus package, and said such a relief effort needs to come sooner rather than later.
“Waiting on the turbulence in Washington to subside is not a good policy,” Flowers said.
Local leaders and housing advocates have long warned that, without additional rental relief money, tenants across the state could face eviction. Some lawyers and advocates have said the state and federal moratoriums on evictions don’t go far enough to help tenants, with certain evictions still taking place across the state.
Montgomery County tenant Jen Vanli, who is also an organizer with the immigrants’ advocacy group CASA, is one of those tenants who lost their home despite the rent relief and moratorium efforts.
At the virtual event on Wednesday, Vanli said her family lost their home in a tenant-holding-over action in September. She said she and her family couldn’t pay their rent due to a lack of financial resources during the pandemic and, when their lease expired, they were faced with a choice between vacating their home or heading to court.
Vanli said she and her family have lived in a hotel since then, and added that they’ve sometimes had to choose between paying for another night of lodging or eating a nutritious dinner. She said the passage of a statewide stimulus package is vital to keep Marylanders in their homes at the height of the pandemic.
Local governments across the state used their share of the first round of federal relief funding to set up rental relief programs. Some, like Montgomery County, sent millions toward already-existing housing programs. Others, like Baltimore City, used the funding to set up entirely new eviction prevention programs. Many local governments were overwhelmed with requests for relief in the early days of the pandemic, quickly depleting their relief programs.
Business owners have also relied on state and local programs to weather the pandemic: Eddie Wingrat, a coalition supporter who owns a flower shop in Baltimore County, recalled having to lay off his employees in the early days of the pandemic – and said government assistance allowed him to slowly bring some of those employees back.
“This is not a statistic,” Wingrat said. “I think we get caught up in the statistics all the time. These are human beings.”
While direct relief for local governments has been cut out of the next congressional relief bill, the legislation would still have a $9 billion impact of Maryland’s economy, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said at the Wednesday press conference.
Cardin said the lack of funding to local and state governments is a “major disappointment,” but stressed that the bill would still provide assistance to many Marylanders. The state will receive millions in Community Development Block Grant funding, Cardin said, a resource that the state has used to fund rental relief.
The federal relief funding contains roughly $25 billion for eviction prevention and rental relief, and includes an extension of a moratorium on certain evictions.
“I’m very proud of what we got done, but it should have been done in a much different way and at a much earlier pace,” Cardin said.
Cardin said the state will also receive millions for transportation relief, health department improvement and vaccine distribution. The legislation also features sweeping education funding, some of which will be administered by governors.
The legislation would also provide many Marylanders with $600 stimulus checks, although President Donald Trump has threatened to halt the bill unless that figure is increased.
Some of the state’s reserves have already been used for business relief: In October, Hogan used $250 million from the state’s rainy day fund to help small businesses weather the pandemic.
And just last week, a bipartisan legislative budget panel recommended using some of the state’s rainy day fund to combat anticipated shortfalls in the state’s budget.