The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has proposed a new coronavirus relief bill called “the HEROES Act,” which stands for the ‘‘Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act.’’ El Nuevo Dia estimates that the total payments to the Island could near $20 billion.
An early version of the bill lists many allocations for federal agencies which could benefit Puerto Rico. It also lists specific funds for Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories:
- Fiscal Relief for Territories – $20 billion in funding to assist governments of the Territories with the fiscal impacts from the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus
- Assistance to Homeowners–$75 billion to states, territories, and tribes to address the ongoing needs of homeowners struggling to afford their housing due directly or indirectly to the impacts of the pandemic by providing direct assistance with mortgage payments, property taxes, property insurance, utilities, and other housing related costs
- Emergency Rental Assistance, with territories again specified
- $2 billion to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for State, local, Territorial, and Tribal Public Health Departments
- Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the response of laboratories, diagnostic test manufacturers, state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, and relevant federal agencies, related to the COVID-19 epidemic with respect to the development, regulatory evaluation, and deployment of diagnostic tests, along with specific funding to State, local, Tribal, or territorial public health departments for the modernization of public health data systems and similar improvements to make the reporting possible
- Requirements for the CDC to work with territorial governments in the course of developing a national evidence-based system for testing, contact tracing, surveillance, containment and mitigation of COVID-19, along with funding required to accomplish this
- To the Department of Transportation for Highways, $15 billion for grants to support the ongoing work of State, Tribal, and Territorial Departments of Transportation and certain local governments to mitigate the effects of coronavirus including the salaries of staff and other administrative expenses
- Grants to state, local, and territorial health departments in order to support the modernization of data collection methods and infrastructure in order to increase data collection related health inequities
- A loan repayment program to enhance recruitment and retention of state, local, tribal, and territorial public health department workforce
- A GAO study to investigate gaps, challenges, and recommended steps for improvement associated with the Federal, State, local, Tribal, and territorial public health workforce
- Additional Economic Impact Payments to individuals, with instructions to the Treasury to make payments to the territories for the cost of providing the credits for each territory.
- Payments to the territories for their Earned Income Tax Credit programs and for Child Tax Credit payments
- $9.6 billion to the Social Services Block Grant for the sole purpose of providing emergency aid and services to disadvantaged children, families, and households. The legislation requires the Department of Health and Human Services to distribute the funds to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories within 45 days, and requires states and territories to obligate the funds by December 31, 2020.
- Federal Reserve’s assistance to local governments by allowing U.S. territories, as well as a greater number of cities and counties, to be eligible issuers in the Federal Reserve’s municipal liquidity facility
- Grants for child care, with territories expressly included and rules for the provision of the funds
- Financial assistance to low income and other adversely affected consumers to assist with payments for drinking water and wastewater expenses by authorizing $1.5 billion for grants to states, territories and Indian Tribes
- Fish and Wildlife Service to provide funds to States, the District of Columbia, Tribes, and territories to conduct surveillance of emerging wildlife-borne diseases with the potential to infect humans.
The previous relief bills have included funds for the territories, but have not been so specific in their intentions to provide equally for territories. In some cases, they specifically excluded territories in the benefits provided for States. The language of the bill also focuses on deadlines for the disbursement of funds. Puerto Rico still has not received most of the funds allocated for emergency relief after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and the HEROES Act appears to be designed to get funds out more quickly.
The HEROES Act also waives the buy-American requirement for territories which is included in the Stafford Act. This is expected to help Puerto Rico and the other territories cope with shortages of medical supplies.
It is not expected that the HEROES Act will become law in its current form. The House is expected to approve the bill on Friday, and then the proposal would move on to the Senate, where it is likely to face resistance. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants to “hit pause” on coronavirus relief.