Texas lawmakers weigh how to spend state’s $16B in federal COVID-19 relief

Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — With only two weeks left in the third special session, state lawmakers are weighing how to funnel federal COVID-19 relief for the first time in committee Monday.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, outlined the first draft of Senate Bill 8 during the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing Monday morning.

“Senate Bill 8 includes $7.2 billion to replenish the unemployment compensation fund, ensuring that businesses are not faced with an increase in unemployment taxes due to pandemic related layoffs; $3 billion to deploy hospital surge staffing, purchase therapeutic drugs and support regional infusion centers; $3.7 billion to cover salaries and benefits for state employees directly working on pandemic response; $500.5 million for broadband expansion,” Nelson explained.

“$200 million for cyber security; $160 million to shore up funding for crime victims programs; $286 million to the Teacher Retirement System to cover COVID-related health care claims; $237.8 million to expand access to mental health care,” Nelson continued.

The bill layout was followed by hours of testimony, where industries across Texas were asking for a portion of that funding, from tourism to arts.

Lawmakers wanted to ensure they don’t double up on previously distributed federal funding, including State Sen. Charlies Perry, R-Lubbock.

“Can we or do we know if we’re being duplicative in dollars?” Perry asked the Texas Legislative Budget Board.

But Eduardo Rodriguez with the LBB explained the state does not have a system in place for uniformly tracking that information, unless the money has been funneled through a state agency.

“It is difficult trying to get local entities, hospitals, that are not under the state’s direct purview to respond or to provide that information,” Rodriguez explained, saying that information won’t be available for another couple weeks to the legislature.

Unlike hospitals and nursing homes, Perry pointed out other frontline workers, like home health care providers, haven’t gotten anything from the state yet.

“They didn’t get a PPE COVID dollar… that is a legitimate ask,” Perry said.

The industry, already facing staffing issues before 2020, has only seen those problems increase since the beginning of COVID-19. That’s left parents like Jeff Parker forced to keep their children in hospitals, desperately looking for an at-home nurse.

His 4-year-old daughter Dallas, who qualifies for 168 hours of at-home health care a week, has been in the hospital now for weeks.

“Starting around March of last year, when all of COVID hit, is when they started, we started to see a shortage of nurses,” Parker said.

“My wife and I have been the ones that have been working around the clock, getting roughly four hours of sleep every night, working in shifts, so I usually don’t go to bed until one or 1:30 at night. And then my wife — our day starts at 1:30 in the morning,” Parker explained. He’s hoping lawmakers hear parents like him and consider a temporary boost to the industry, even if it’s just for PPE.

“I think the funding would help out. It would incentivize people to come back into the homes and give bonuses and just competitive pay rate. You know, when you can make more money working at some of these gas stations than you could potentially working with a child that is medically fragile, you’re going to take the better pay,” Parker said.

But, this is only the initial framework. Lawmakers have until the end of the day to make final requests.

“Provide suggested bill language and recommend where you would reduce funding in the bill in order to pay for your request,” Nelson explained.

The state is still waiting on a final decision from the federal government as to what exactly can be covered by the relief money. That decision is expected by the end of the year.

For now, the state is depending on the federal government’s latest generic guidance, which says the funding must be used to combat, prevent and mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

If the state allocates funding to an agency, but the federal government decides it does not fall within the restrictions it sets, that money will go back into the state’s general revenue, with the same spending stipulations the federal government lands on.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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