By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and Representative Harold Love, Jr. (D-Nashville) are the only Democrats in Governor Lee’s Stimulus Accountability Group. Other members of the group are department and agency heads, most white and mostly male.
Both Akbari and Love believe the Medicaid program should provide coverage to the 1.2 million people without health insurance. They also believe the punishment for protestors who vandalize property should get less than six-year prison sentences. Regardless of the reason or choice neither lawmaker thinks women should go to jail for having an abortion. Akbari and Love strongly support raising the pay of teachers. Democrats and Republicans often vehemently disagree on these and other issues.
“Sometimes policy is more difficult to craft because it becomes very political,” Love said. “This accountability group allows us to have conversations about the problems we saw happen at the federal level that we wanted to avoid at the state level.”
With Republicans enjoying such large majorities in both houses, Democrats lose a lot of legislative battles. But being in the stimulus group and working on a common agenda helping small businesses, public health departments, industries left out of federal COVID-19 relief programs, local governments, the unemployed, schools, food banks, and more—well, it feels a lot like winning.
COVID-19 has impacted so many, the Lee administration is making an unprecedented effort to respond with help. If there is a silver lining to the crisis, it is that politics has taken a back seat to serving the people in this time of need.
Akbari said the Governor and his staff set the agendas of their virtual meetings where they hear how money is being spent or about new relief programs. But those initiatives grew out of previous conversations with members of the group and did not come out of the blue.
“It’s an open line of communication. For instance, Harold and I were concerned about minority businesses and nonprofits having spent money that needed to be reimbursed,” Akbari said.
A lot of small businesses, including a lot of African American-owned businesses, were effectively shut out of the first Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the second allocation did somewhat better but still a lot of minority-owned businesses did not get loans. (See Minority Businesses Are Getting More Paycheck Protection Loans, Tennessee Tribune, June 4, 2020.)
Akbari and Love wanted to create an alternative to the federal PPP program at the state level. Akbari said the seed they planted fell on fertile ground. Business relief programs worth $101 million are in place.
“It’s pretty straightforward as far as what we can and cannot use the money for. These are federal dollars that are passed down to the States so it’s not something that directly impacted state revenues. It’s not taking away from any department or any other item in the budget so we really have the ability to work at programs that can directly benefit those who are impacted by COVID-19 whether it’s for businesses or nonprofits.”
Akbari said the group awarded two facilitator grants to large non-profits with experience in grant-making in each of Tennessee’s three grand divisions
The grant-administrators are The United Way of Greater Knoxville, Greater Chattanooga, Greater Nashville, and Mid-South, in addition to the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle TN.
“It was a good strategy,” Akbari said. Those large non-profits reached out to their networks of smaller NGOs, held seminars, and supported them in making applications for relief funds.
Love said it has been a busy Summer for the Stimulus Accountability Group.
• On June 2, Lee’s office announced it would direct $200 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds towards business relief. About 28,000 businesses were expected to qualify for grants.
• On July 7, Lee announced $81 million in grants to schools to get ready for re-opening this Fall.
• On July 20, Lee announced $115 million for local governments to offset costs incurred in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
• On Aug. 6, Lee announced $15 million in grant funding to school districts to purchase wifi or mifi devices for their students.
• On Aug. 15, Lee expanded the list of eligible businesses to the state’s Small Business Relief Program. He announced $50 million in aid to agriculture and forestry, $25 million to the tourism industry, and $9.5 million for workforce development.
• On Aug. 21, Lee announced another $61 million for small businesses that apply directly to the Tennessee Department of Revenue.
To date, Tennessee has received $13.6 billion in COVID-19 relief. Of that, about $8 billion has been federal funds. Davidson County has received $2.54 billion, $1.6 billion from federal sources.
“I think the expectation was that it wasn’t going to last this long and so now we’re doing things to mitigate those problems,” Love said.
The accountability group has been putting out spot fires all Summer long and the tab for COVID-19 relief is running. CARES Act funding has to be spent by December 31, 2020. Its sequel, the Heroes Act, may not pass before the election. Mitch McConnell and the White House have stalled the bill since the House passed it in May.
“The problem with politics is that we are so quick to point out what someone has done wrong, we often don’t make space to say ‘yeah you did wrong in this area but at least you got it right in this area’,” Love said.