Tennessee could see up to $3 billion in federal aid from Congress' COVID-19 response bill

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Rep. Chuck Fleischmann answers questions during an editorial board meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press Thursday, January 2, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee could see up to $3 billion in federal aid under a $2.2 trillion emergency COVID-19 economic rescue and aid package that cleared the U.S. Senate this week and is expected to come before the House on Friday, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday.

Calling it a "significant federal funding package," Lee told reporters during a teleconference call "we certainly hope for the sake of America that bill can pass [the House] and that the relief funding can make its way to the states" not only for businesses and unemployed Tennesseans but for "quick targeted dollars" at fighting the virus, which so far has officially infected 957 Tennesseans, hospitalized 76 people and claimed the lives of at least four people, including two in Hamilton County.

While Lee said his administration doesn't "know the details of the bills," Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, as well as U.S. Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, had far broader knowledge of provisions.

Fleischmann said Tennessee should see between $2.8 billion to $3 billion from the bill, dubbed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act or CARES Act. It includes provisions that put unemployment benefits on "steroids" for workers losing their job as a result of the pandemic.

Many provisions benefit businesses.

Lee said his newly announced "COVID-19 Unified Command" has already put together a team that includes his office, state legislators and Comptroller Justin Wilson's office to establish an "accountability structure to ensure it [the money] is directed in the most efficient ways to alleviate unemployment" and help uninsured Tennesseans testing positive or already sick from the disease.

"It will be targeted at individuals," as well as efforts to provide personal protection equipment for frontline medical workers risking their health and lives treating patients as well as other medical supplies and boosting hospital bed capacity.

But under one provision of the bill, direct federal aid will come only to Tennessee's two largest cities, Nashville and Memphis, because their populations exceed a half million people, Fleischmann said.

The congressman said he unsuccessfully sought to include cities with populations of 150,000 and above for the direct funding in order to bring in Chattanooga, Oak Ridge and Knoxville.

"All cities except Nashville and Memphis must go through the state," said Fleischmann, noting he has an "abundance" of city mayors affected in his district, including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. "I wish that [qualifying] number had been lower," the congressman said.

Alexander said the "sweeping relief" will soon be on the way for workers and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his news release, the state's senior senator said the "unprecedented" legislation will provide $1,200 checks for individuals and increases in unemployment compensation.

Other provisions defer tax and student loan payments and generate trillions in economic support to keep businesses open and billions to help hospitals buy medical supplies and speed development of tests, treatments and vaccines.

It also contains provisions for state and local governments, including $274 billion for states and local communities to respond to COVID-19 and nearly $127 billion for a Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund and $100 billion for hard-pressed hospitals.

"The government has temporarily shut down the economy because of this disease, and the government must help those who are hurt by it," Alexander said.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act

The massive $2.2 trillion spending measure, which will provide up to $3 billion directly to the Tennessee government, includes the following to combat the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic:— Provides $350 billion to support loans to small businesses. If they use the loan to pay wages and employee benefits the loan will be forgiven under a “Paycheck Protection Program.”— Authorizes the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department to create trillions more in financial support for states, cities, and large businesses so they will be able to stay in business.— Expands the emergency paid sick and family leave to workers who were laid off and later rehired by their employers— Relieve burdens for individuals and families:— Checks to individuals and families: $1,200 for individuals; $2,400 for a couple; $500 for each eligible child— Delays filing deadlines on federal income taxes until July 15, estimated taxes can be delayed until Oct. 15, and the legislation will make it easier to use retirement savings without penalty— Student loan payments delayed for six months for 95% of students— Gives states the ability to provide unemployed workers an additional $600 per week in Unemployment Insurance benefits, waives the waiting week and expands eligibility to self-employed and independent contractorsLocal levelThe measure provides $339.8 billion for programs that will go to state and local governments, including:— $274 billion for states and local communities to respond to COVID-19— $5 billion for the Community Development Block Grant to states— $13 billion for K-12 education— $14 billion for higher education— $5.3 billion to help children and families, including $3.5 billion for Child Care Development Block Grants, which will provide immediate assistance to child care centersContaining the disease— Make all COVID-19 tests free— Nearly $127 billion for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund: $100 billion for hospitals; $11 billion for diagnostics, treatments and vaccines; $16 billion for the Strategic National Stockpile— $4.3 billion for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: $1.5 billion for state and local preparedness and response grants; $500 million to improve public health surveillance— $80 million for the Food and Drug Administration for diagnostics, treatments and vaccines— $1.32 billion for Community Health Centers (1,400 centers with 12,000 sites) for COVID-19— $20 billion for veterans’ health careSource: Office of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander

During his interview with the Times Free Press on Thursday, Fleischmann, who was leaving Chattanooga for Washington ahead of Friday's expected House vote, also said a $100 million provision in the bill will benefit national laboratories including Oak Ridge National Laboratory's supercomputers working on finding a cure for the deadly COVID-19 virus.

Fleischmann said that while he has "some misgiving about some of the provisions in this bill," he intends to vote for it. It will "get aid to individuals, gets aid to distressed businesses, gets aid to distressed industries. It clearly assists the health care system that is in complete disarray. And also has some large appropriations in it."

It amounts to a 5-point plan "that overwhelmingly has much more good than bad in it and helps a nation in crisis," said Fleischmann, noting he expects several Tennessee congressmen to vote against it.

Senate Republicans and Democrats spent days battling over details on the package before coming away with an agreement that could pass the chamber.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the act includes provisions that put unemployment benefits on "steroids" for workers losing their job as a result of the pandemic.

"I hope the House will pass this bill immediately so the president can sign it into law and provide this sweeping relief for Americans who have been hurt by the COVID-19 disease," Alexander said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.