U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says he still has hopes for a follow-up federal aid plan for individuals and businesses, both of whom could have fared worse during the coronavirus pandemic without the money from the CARES Act last spring.
The Senate returns Tuesday, Sept. 29, to vote on a short-term extension of federal spending authority. The Oregon Democrat says any aid will not be part of that continuing resolution, but there are parallel talks about a potential framework for a new aid plan. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Trump administration's lead negotiator, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who leads the majority Democrats in that chamber — say they want to see a deal before Congress recesses for the Nov. 3 election.
Still uncertain is the stance of the Senate's Republican majority, whose $500 billion plan failed to advance on a procedural vote Sept. 10. Merkley and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, also a Democrat, opposed it as too little. The House passed a $3 trillion HEROES Act back on May 15; Democrats say they are willing to come down to $2 trillion.
"Hope has been renewed," Merkley said Saturday on a stopover at Mill City.
"The president has expressed hope several times he would like to see a deal, though he really hasn't pushed it. But as the election gets closer, I think he is feeling the heat of people who are suffering because of his inaction and McConnell's inaction. So I am hoping a deal is coming together for next week as we stand here."
Trump did sign an executive order Aug. 7 that drew $44 billion from federal disaster relief for a six-week extension of extra unemployment benefits at $300 weekly, instead of $600. The eligibility period in Oregon was July 26 through Sept. 5; back payments from the Lost Wages Assistance program were scheduled to start at the end of September.
Last week, state economists told lawmakers that Oregon's personal and corporate tax collections went up, not down, as a result of at least $14 billion in federal aid from the CARES Act. About half went to individuals in the forms of $1,200 one-time stimulus checks and $600-per-week extra unemployment benefits. The latter stopped at the end of July. The other half went to businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, which loaned money that could be converted to grants if people remained employed and targeted aid to some larger businesses.
Mark McMullen, the state's chief economist, also said every outside source consulted in the preparation of forecasts has advised the state that Congress will come up with a follow-up aid plan.
The Sept. 23 forecast put Oregon's state budget back to where it was in March, before the pandemic triggered business shutdowns and curtailments that resulted in the statewide unemployment rate jumping from a record-low 3.5% that month to a record-high 14.2% in April. It has since dropped back to 7.7% in August, less than the peak of 10% during the 2007-10 Great Recession but still high by historical standards.
A state economic forecast released May 20 had been based on a projected rate of 20% — and a projected multibillion-dollar shortfall in personal and corporate tax collections, which account for more than 90% of the state's tax-supported general fund.
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