It’s Raining Government Aid

By Reginald Stuart

NASHVILLE, TN — As health workers around the city, region, state and world do all they can to help combat the deadly airborne coronavirus, known in the health world as COVID-19, political leaders at all levels of government across America this week continued to figure how to salvage and recharge the derailed economy that has thrown millions out of work and money, shut schools and put an overall pause on everyday life as we knew it at the beginning of the year.

The $2.3 trillion federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act is federal tax money being allocated to help governments and businesses—large and small—survive COVID-19, as thousands died from the disease, a respiratory infection characterized by extreme shortness of breath and exhaustion. Tennessee expects to get $2.3 billion for its needs.

Tennessee is among a majority of states to put a pause on life’s button even if it hurts their economy temporarily, in hopes the mitigation steps will slow and eventually stop the disease, until a cure for it is discovered.

A small portion of CARES Act fund is for district school systems in need of aide to continue nutrition and related programs. Large chunks of the money so far, has been awarded—some as grants and some as loans—to major businesses  

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, acting on the heels of recent Congressional approval of the  $2.3 trillion emergency financial aid package to the states, met with his special 10 member Stimulus Financial Accountability Group by audio-video communications this week to discuss how best the state will divide its expected share of the multi-part federal aid appropriation that is part loans, part grants.

“The CARES Act has given our state critical relief to help mitigate the spread of covid-19 and begin reopening Tennessee’s economy,” Gov. Lee said last week in announcing his stimulus accountability group. “We must ensure that these funds are spent wisely and effectively,” he said. 

With COVID-19 turning the state’s economy upside down in the first quarter of the year, he has seen the state budget start with a flush cushion for the year’s budget. By the end of the legislative session in March, he had been forced to slash the state budget significantly even before the federal help was approved by Congress, giving some federal tax money to the states.   

State Representative Harold M. Love, Jr., who represents parts of Davidson County that include North Nashville and the university district hit by the recent tornado and other weather storms, is a member of Gov. Lee’s stimulus group. Efforts to reach him by press time regarding the challenges the group were unsuccessful.

Gov. Lee was among the nation’s governors to met last week with President Trump via conference call to discuss the status of the virus in their areas.  During the call, President Trump urged governors to lift their state wide shut downs as soon as possible, despite the persistence of the virus and in contrast to advice from his own federal health officials to stay put and take it slowly. 

Few governors, including Mr. Lee, were among those asserting support for ending calls to shut public and private places-from schools to parks to churches, athletic games, weddings, parties and retail stores– down for a while to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Keeping one’s distance—at least six feet apart—is a key to mitigating the virus spreading, health officials say.

In a brief statement after the governors’ conference with Mr. Trump, Gov. Lee said: “The more we stick to our social distancing practices the more robust our reopening can be.”

The CARES Act designates some $250 million for the Tennessee Department of Education, most of which will be used for helping public school districts across the state based on several criteria, including federal education Title I. 

Public school officials in Nashville and across the state have estimates of what their school systems are likely to get, as most aid in based on student enrollment records and per student funding formulas. Still, most officials are being silent on the fund since the state has not signed distribution checks yet.

Regionwide, The Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, SEF, issued a strong condemnation of school aid allocations in the CARES Act as far too little based on what is needed.

“While the emergency funds are necessary, they are insufficient for the work ahead, with each K-12 pupil receiving an average of only $270 extra,” the foundation said in a statement in its analysis of the CARES Act. “In the South, more students of color attend public schools than white students and a higher percentage of students in nearly every southern state qualifies for free or reduced price lunch….With expected declining tax revenues following the covid-19 crisis, states will have even less overall dollars to target resources to low income districts,…” the SEF statement said.  

More than 30,000 people in the U.S. have died from the COVID-19 respiratory disease, the cause of which medical scientists have yet been able to identify. Several hundred Tennesseans have died of the disease and unknown numbers are carriers of it. 

While news and official health reports from numerous cities –including New York City, New Orleans, Richmond, Va., Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco, Detroit and Chicago — signal employers and the general public have taken strong measures to curb gatherings of five or 10 people and keep distances of six feet per person, the health appeal is still not embraced universally. 

Reports of COVID-19 deaths are still hitting at random and the disease seems most effective striking small clusters of people regardless of age, race, religion, ethic group or sex. People who have ignored health warnings and ignore social distance suggestions unintentionally become a COVID-19 vortex by doing what has been done historically, health leaders say.