By Peter White

Budget Priorities With Less Money to Spend

NASHVILLE, TN – State Comptroller Justin P. Wilson chaired a meeting of the State Funding Board last week for Governor Lee who attended remotely. Lee has to plan for the state’s recovery and figure out what has to be cut from his budget. 

Five economists gave their forecasts for the state’s economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Two of the five analysts said unless the coronavirus is contained all bets are off. They estimated tax revenue shortfalls that ranged from $583 million to $1.7 billion next year. All predicted single-digit percentage declines in revenue for 2021.

Dr. John L. Smith with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research outlined different scenarios. The impact of the coronavirus is not fully known and Smith said it could take from 3-5 years for the economy to recover. Others said it could take ten years.

Senate Democrats unveiled their own budget framework of six priorities. The first one, contain the virus, is in line with the advice Governor Lee heard from the economists. Democrats are in favor of Gov. Lee’s criminal justice reforms that could save $175 million.

Three Democratic proposals will be contentious and may not sail through the legislature easily. They include extending Medicaid, no cuts in education, and a balanced budget that dips into savings to make up shortfalls.

The CARES Act provides Tennessee with $2.4 billion. Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) is on the committee that decides where to spend it. She said we have to give assistance to people who are quarantined, to the homeless, to people who can’t pay their rent, and to small business left out of the Paycheck Protection Program. 

Akbari wants Washington to add funding for state and local governments to the next installment of the CARES Act. It would replenish the shrinking unemployment fund so rates don’t go up for employers. 

“There are lessons to be learned from Gov. Bredesen’s leadership during the Great Recession when budgets were balanced without layoffs or furloughs, without raiding pensions, and without sacrificing our long-term investment in public education,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Senate Minority Leader. 

Computers Go On Strike at Unemployment Office 

NASHVILLE, TN – Last week we asked Commissioner Jeff McCord of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development for an interview. He has not accepted our invitation. So we sent him about a dozen questions and asked him to explain why money Congress approved for unemployed workers is not reaching so many who have lost their jobs in Tennessee. We received a press release from McCord’s Director of Communications that offered some explanation but not much insight or clarity about what is going on over there. 

Apparently sometime in March the computers went on strike after getting 500,000 new applications. They have been overhauled with new programs twice since then. Four hundred claims agents have been hired and trained to intake new applications over the phone. And they say people will soon be able to leave them voice messages. Twenty-five more specialists have been hired to handle problem claims and unsnarl them from the dark computer memory hole of lost applications.

DHS Is Slow With EBT Cards

NASHVILLE, TN – The Department of Human Services distributes federal food relief to needy families but it has yet to send out EBT debit cards to families with children who qualify for free school lunches. Metro schools have been closed for two months. 

President Trump signed the CARES Act on March 27. Tennessee submitted its request to provide Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service on April 16.

“Our federal partners just recently approved that request,” said DHS spokesperson Sky Arnold Monday.

During the 6-week delay, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee has been providing free breakfasts and drive-by lunches at several Metro schools. It started doing that March 18 when Metro school first closed. Second Harvest and The Bridge Ministry have also distributed food boxes and bags of food at those schools.

The unemployed and small business owners who have been impacted by the pandemic have also had difficulty collecting the funds Congress earmarked for them in the CARES ACT. (See Thousands of Unemployed Tennessean Wait on Hold All Day Long, Tennessee Tribune, 1A, May 28 and How the Best Laid Paycheck Plan Went Awry, Tennessee Tribune, 1B, April 30)

The details of how and when EBT cards will be distributed are still being worked out, according to Arnold. He said DHS is talking with the Department of Education and DHS’s EBT venders but no date has been set for the program to begin or what exactly it will entail. We know that special CARES Act funds for food relief for needy families will end December 31, 2020.

The Cares Act provides $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs in the form of additional funding for food purchases and demonstration projects to increase flexibility for schools; $15.51 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); and $450 million for commodities and distribution of emergency food assistance through community partners, including food banks.

DHS already distributes EBT cards to food stamp recipients in Tennessee. The Tribune would like DHS Commissioner Danielle Barnes to explain why there has been such a hold up and to explain her agency’s role is in distributing the Pandemic Relief funds and other federal nutrition-related funding.