Lankford Highlights His Priorities, Frustrations in COVD-19 Relief Proposals
Lankford: “I think we should be more strategic, understanding that what we're spending is other people's money. It's not just printed Monopoly money that we can throw out of here.”
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WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today shared his priorities for the ongoing coronavirus relief legislation conversations and shared some of his frustrations with the proposals so far. Lankford highlighted proposals to update the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), individual assistance payments, and other positive areas of the CARES Act. However, Lankford also addressed partisan politics in the ongoing conversations that have included non-health-related items in the proposals so far, including bail-out money for state budgets. Lankford indicated that since this is a health crisis, the bill should first and foremost be health-related.
We have been talking here in the Senate for months now about what needs to be done with COVID-19. We are debating behind the scenes right now a fifth bill dealing with COVID-19. We have already passed four through the House and the Senate that the President has signed. Many Americans know the effects of those previous bills. They have received a deposit from the Treasury of $1,200. They have received assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program. Their schools have received assistance. Their hospitals have received assistance. Their states have received assistance. Their local jurisdiction has received assistance. There has been wide support from multiple areas for housing and for health, for testing and for vaccines. All of those things that happened in the previous four bills.
But when we passed the last set of bills, there was a lot of thought about what would happen next, how would the virus spread, how long would this last, and would Americans continue to just stay sequestered in their homes away from everyone else? Now, after months of dealing with this COVID-19 not only in the United States but globally, we know a lot more now of not only how we are going to respond, how to treat the disease, but also what we're dealing with.
COVID-19 doesn't affect everyone the same way, health-wise or economically. There are some people who get COVID-19, and they literally never know it. They experience no symptoms at all. And others end up in a hospital in ICU or on a ventilator or even fatalities. Economically, we're at the same spot with COVID-19. Some businesses in America and some individuals in America are literally making more money now than they ever have before. They are in one of those businesses that's in high need. Maybe home improvements as lots of folks are staying at home and they are doing home improvements so the price of lumber has skyrocketed. Replacement windows, all kinds of people installing pools in their homes because they are not going on vacation this year, so they are doing things to be able to fix up their home. So construction and home improvement has skyrocketed. Retail sales and craft businesses and things to be able to do at home has skyrocketed. A lot of other businesses that we've seen have actually increased dramatically, not just grocery stores and department stores and such, but online retailers have done a really good business.
Many small towns in my state, their income to their community is higher now than it ever has been in the history of their city. Because people aren't driving in to other towns to go shop. They are staying at home, and they are shopping local, or they are shopping online and that revenue is coming back in from tax revenue back into the city. So literally they are doing better now than they ever have been. Other communities and other businesses are having a horrible effect during this time period. If you're a hotel or convention center or restaurants around a convention center. If you are businesses that deal with travel, transportation, vacations, all of those are struggling horribly during this time period. And there are multiple others. So the challenge that we have is, is our response now to be the same as it was in March, to just pretend that this has struck everyone exactly the same or should we pay attention to the realities economically around the country?
I think we should be more strategic, understanding that what we're spending is other people's money. It's not just printed Monopoly money that we can throw out of here. It's debt on our future, or it's literally taking money from the person next door or from your house. So what do we need to do on a bill and what are the needs at this point? Well, some of them are very obvious. For the next bill that's coming, we need to focus in on vaccines, tests, therapeutics. What are we going to do with telehealth? How are we going to be able to help? This is first and foremost a health crisis, and it's amazing to me the number of topics that are being discussed for the next bill that have nothing to do with COVID-19, nothing to do with it. My friends on the other side of the aisle came forward with the HEROES Act, great name, a $3 trillion bill that a full trillion of it has nothing to do with COVID-19, unrelated completely. A trillion of it because it’s a big bill and we want to get other things in we want to be able to do and just throw it in there. Well, why don't we start with this as a health crisis, and let's focus in on the health issues there, vaccines, testing, therapeutics, telehealth. What can we do for rural hospitals? What needs to happen in urban and suburban hospitals? Those are basic questions that should be there.
One of the most successful programs that we have put forward in the CARES Act was the Paycheck Protection Program. Now it's had its headlines, as some folks have said there have been people that have abused it. Well, welcome to government. Every single program that comes out of government will be abused by someone at some time. We've seen that in the unemployment system where unemployment insurance has gone out, and it has been widely abused. So has some portions of the Paycheck Protection Program. But we have all seen the long lines at unemployment offices around the country. The reason this was put in place as the Paycheck Protection Program was to do whatever we could to be able to help shorten lines at the unemployment offices, for people to not leave and go on unemployment but to be able to stay connected to their small business or nonprofit. That has worked. In my state, 65,000 businesses and nonprofits have taken advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program, about $5.5 billion of assistance just in my state. But there are some things that need to be done with it.
The forgiveness system on it is just coming out, much delayed, much to our frustration. But there are some straightforward things that can be done. If you're an entity with a loan that's $150,000 or less it should be a very straightforward process of testimonial, a single page to be able to fill out to complete it. We want to be able to see this. We want to see businesses with the highest needs, businesses with 35 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, some of them, 70, 75 percent, loss in revenue from the previous year should have an eligibility to be able to get through this. Some businesses took the Paycheck Protection Program, and they had a 5 percent loss over last year. To me, that is fine because at the beginning of this, no one knew who was going to survive. Many business owners were in the process of saying, ‘I’m going to have to lay everyone off or I can keep them on the Paycheck Protection Program.’ They kept them on the Paycheck Protection Program that helped those families have a stable time where they knew where their check was coming from. It helped those businesses be able to reopen, and many of them are reopening now. It kept them off the unemployment assistance.
Now if we do a second round, though, of Paycheck Protection, it needs to be focused in on those businesses that are significantly off on revenue that will not survive without some additional help. We need to be attentive to how we handle this and be more strategic. We're not in the same situation that we were in March. We need to also look at businesses that were funded with private equity. It makes no sense to me that if a business started and got their loan from a bank they can get a Paycheck Protection Program, but if they got their capital from private equity, they're not eligible for this. The employees that work there don't know where the capital came from to start the business. They just know they work there. But for some reason, there's a continual pushback to say, ‘Well, if they were funded with private equity rather than a bank, then they're evil.’ No, they're start-up companies doing technology, innovation, and health care. That's the kind of companies that are out there that are being funded with private equity, but yet we've told their employees, ‘You can just go to unemployment,’ and literally the business next door to them, ‘No, you can get Paycheck Protection.’ That makes no sense. We should fix that.
We should put into this next bill some help for schools that are reopening. Not every school is reopening. They're not going to need the same level of help. Some schools are not reopening or they're choosing not to. I understand that. We gave additional funds, $30 billion of funds across the country from the previous CARES Act to be able to help schools transition to online learning, to be able to help them get through the process of finding cleaning supplies, do additional training. That was $30 billion that we sent out to do that. Additional dollars should be helping schools that are reopening that will have additional expenses. They're going to have to run additional bus routes to be able to make sure they keep kids separate. They're going to have to do A and B schedules to open up their classrooms. It's going to be greater expenses for them, so we should be able to help those schools opening through the process. That's common sense in this.
There's been a request for an additional assistance check for those that need additional assistance. There are some families struggling to be able to make their payments, and they're going to be evicted. The $1,200 sent out earlier this year went out to be able to help stop that early in the year, and some families are still unemployed and still struggling through this. What are we going to do to be able to help with that? There are strategic ways to be able to get out additional assistance, but we should target it to families with greatest need, and that should be the same with their unemployment assistance.
Unemployment assistance passed in March, there was an additional $600 per week per person that was sent out in unemployment assistance in addition to the normal state unemployment assistance. For many individuals in my state, that meant you made more on unemployment than you did on employment. That's a problem long term. Now this program was set up to be short-term, that it would be assistance until the end of July, which has now passed. That’s a week ago. But individuals applying for unemployment assistance this week are still getting unemployment assistance from my state, exactly as they were in February of this year, exactly as they were in November of last year, exactly as they were in August of last year. Unemployment assistance is still happening in my state just like it's happening in every other state. But the debate is do we want to do above-and-beyond unemployment assistance that literally takes people to the spot that they make more staying at home than they do at work.
Now there are some folks that are saying that doesn't actually incentivize work. Really? Tell that to the folks that I’ve talked to that work in manufacturing, that they're at the job working every day, and the person that usually works a pod away from them is at home because they talked to them, and they're saying, ‘I’ll come back once my unemployment goes away.’ So this person's busting their tail working, making less than the person that's staying at home. And the person staying at home is telling their friend, ‘I’ll come back when the benefits run out.’ That's not right for either one of those folks. That tells that person working, ‘You're a sucker for not just staying home and getting somebody else's money.’ We should not incentivize people not working. We should help people get through a very difficult time, and that's what this is, but not discourage engagement in work. That's not fair to the guy or the lady that is still working. That's not fair to the employer that's opened up and saying, ‘I’ve got jobs available, but no one will apply.’ And that's not right for that family that's staying home taking money from their neighbors when they know they could come back and work.
Now the law says if you're offered a job and you're on unemployment, you have to take it. But we know of way too many cases already where individuals are not taking the job that they're offered, and the employer knows that's one of their employees, that's a good employee, they want him to come back, so they hate to turn them in. So it puts everyone in a quandary, the employer and the employee, because the employee is breaking the law by staying home, teaching their family to do the wrong thing because it gets them more money. We shouldn't put them in that spot, and we shouldn't encourage people to be in that spot. In this bill, we should deal with unemployment, but we should make sure we're helping people through this season, not incentivizing them to break the law.
We should deal with nursing care and senior living. We should deal with hospital care in this bill. Those are the areas that have been the hardest hit in all of America, the largest number of fatalities that we've had in the greatest amount of expense are in that area. We should do something to be able to come alongside of that. We should do something in this bill about liability protections. I have letters and phone calls from universities in my state and from businesses in my state saying they're terrified to be able to reengage for fear of what's going to happen with lawsuits coming in the days ahead that they can't stop. They want to be able to serve their students at school. They want to be able to serve their customers this their business and the families that depend on that but they're afraid of an entrepreneurial lawyer that will file lawsuits and will push them to be able to settle or push them into bankruptcy at a very difficult time for them only because this body won't step up and do basic liability protections. If there's gross negligence, we should never protect that company. But if they're doing the best that they can, why wouldn't we have basic liability protections for our universities, our schools, and our places of business?
We need to have in this bill some help for the postal system. There's a lot of debate of what that should be. Is this a total reform of postal system? No, that's not what this is about. Just like we helped the State Department in the CARES Act, we should help USPS in this bill as well. We've had some pushback on helping some of the areas on immigration. Many of the entities in immigration are totally fee-based. When someone applies to be able to come into the country with their visa system they pay a fee to be able to do that. Obviously they're not coming in right now, so those areas of our immigration policy are really struggling right now. We should come alongside and be able to help. That is a unique situation in the federal agency.
We should deal with election issues. Maybe not like some people in this body want. In the CARES Act, we included $350 million to the states to be able to help them in their elections for this fall. $350 million. Almost none of that has been used by states because in the bill itself, it also required their state legislature to add matching dollars and to be able to come into session. And when we put that out from this body, those state legislatures were going out of session or they were locking down because they didn't know what their expenses would be. And so almost no one has taken those funds because their legislature wasn't in session to be able to vote for it, and because they didn't have any ability to be able to anticipate what funds would be this session, and so there's $350 million of unused money from the last bill that we should just take the strings off of and to make it clear to states, you could use these funds for the election coming up for this fall. There's a big push to say, ‘Let's add another $350 million’. Come on, people, let's read the last bill that we wrote and bring it forward into this bill and fix the problems from the last one. It shouldn't be that difficult. Our states are going to need help on the elections this year. There will be much greater expenses, but we want the elections to go smoothly. We've allocated dollars. Let's allow them to be able to use it in the way they can during this session. But that shouldn't be for mass mailing of every ballot. Just printing off ballots and mailing it to every house doesn't solve the issue. It complicates the issue. But we should be able to help people with their election systems.
And while I speak on state funding, this whole issue of state funding does need to be addressed. During the CARES Act that passed in March, this body gave the states $150 billion. It was also an allocation for health care of $260 billion. There was an allocation for education of $30 billion. Why do I bring that up? The three most expensive aspects in any state budget are education, public safety, and health care. Those are the three most expensive portions from any state budget. This body allocated $260 billion towards health care, $30 billion toward education, $150 billion towards public safety and COVID expenses. Just to be able to put that in perspective, the total budget for every state in America is $900 billion. Every state's total budget combined spending that they do in a year, $900 billion. My Democratic colleagues want us to give almost $1 trillion to the states for COVID expenses. Their total budgets for every state in the entire country for the entire year is just over $900 billion, and they're willing to give $1 trillion to them on top of it. That is more than replacing every state budget in America. That is absurd. And that is why these negotiations are so difficult, because it's not reasonable. They can just throw a number out and say everybody needs this. Is replacing the budget of every state in America reasonable? I don't think so. Especially when we've already allocated $260 billion towards health care, $30 billion towards education and $150 billion towards public safety and COVID response. The real issue is with the public safety and the COVID expenses because so many of the states, now with this whole with defund the police movement, don't want to allocate their public safety dollars towards public safety. They want to be able to use it for other things. Not public safety. Well, that's a decision states can make, but they have the flexibility already to be able to use that dollar. Literally they could pay for every single law enforcement officer in their state, their salary and their benefits would be fully taken care of. But they're saying, ‘I don't want to pay our law enforcement. I want to use it for other things.’ Well, those funds have been allocated. And they need to make a decision on what they're going to do with that.
There's a lot that could be done with this bill, but my challenge for us is let's focus on the things that are essential to be done, not the long wish list of what people want to cram into a bill because it's getting big and they could hide something in it. Let's keep it focused, and let's continue to remember this is a health crisis, and we should be able to work across the aisle to be able to solve things that are common sense and not ignore the problem
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