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Manchin weighs in on H.E.A.L.S. Act

CHARLESTON — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., says he hopes to see some improvements to the new coronavirus relief bill drafted by Republican members of the U.S. Senate, while he also accused W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice of using money from the most recent relief package as a “slush fund.”

Manchin held a video conference call with reporters from his office on Capitol Hill Wednesday to address his concerns with the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability protection, and Schools (H.E.A.L.S.) Act, a COVID-19 relief package developed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Senate Republican Caucus.

The H.E.A.L.S. Act, also considered the fourth phase of coronavirus relief, would cost $1 trillion, though it is expected to go through many changes as Senate Republicans and Democrats negotiate amongst themselves and with the House of Representatives and the White House.

The current bill includes additional direct payments to taxpayers similar to the C.A.R.E.S. Act passed back in March. It also would reduce the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit from $600 per week — set to expire at the end of this week — to $200 per week until the end of September, when it would decrease to 70 percent of the recipient’s lost wages when combined with state unemployment compensation benefits up to $500 per week.

The H.E.A.L.S. Act would put $190 billion into the Paycheck Protection Program with changes in the eligibility for small businesses, due to complaints that larger companies were able to take advantage of the program. PPP forgivable loans are used to help keep employees on the payroll. The bill would also increase the employee retention tax credit from 50 percent to 65 percent, as well as increasing the amount of wages that can be claimed from $10,000 per year to $30,000 per year.

The bill would also provide $306 billion in additional funding for schools, hospitals, and other forms of coronavirus response. Speaking Wednesday, Manchin said the H.E.A.L.S. Act has a lot of positive segments but is noticeably lacking in other aspects.

“There’s a lot of things we can work on in that,” Manchin said. “I looked and saw things in that that were done prudently, taking money that hasn’t been spent yet from the first C.A.R.E.S. package and making sure we add to that. Some of that has been done.”

Manchin said that several items need to be added to the H.E.A.L.S. Act to get his support. First, it needs to include funding to help the growing number of homeless children. Last month, Manchin introduced Emergency Family Stabilization to set aside $800 million to help children and families at risk for homelessness during the pandemic. Manchin said with 1.5 million children facing homeless due to families being behind on rent, the funding is vital.

“There is no aid for children and youth homelessness,” Manchin said. It’s a disaster. It really is, and we have to find ways to save these children.”

Another issue, Manchin said, was a lack of dedicated assistance for rural hospitals. The H.E.A.L.S. Act includes $25 billion for the Provider Relief Fund for hospitals, yet only 10 percent of the $113 billion set aside in the C.A.R.E.S. Act has been used for rural hospitals. West Virginia has already seen several hospitals close over the last year.

“All I have said and all I will continue to say is that … 20 percent should be set aside for rural hospitals in rural areas because that is the percentage of America that’s been treated in rural areas,” Manchin said. “We’re asking for that adjustment to be made not for money, but for more to be set aside for rural hospitals.”

Finally, Manchin said more money needs to be set aside for broadband expansion. As of now, the H.E.A.L.S. Act does not include direct funding for broadband. Manchin is calling for increased funding for broadband expansion, distance learning for K-12 schools, and telehealth. Manchin would like to see $160 million set aside to purchase WiFi hotspots that can be lent out by public libraries to people who need them.

One area of criticism remains the $150 billion provided to state, county, and municipal governments through the C.A.R.E.S. Act. West Virginia received $1.25 billion, with new U.S. Treasury Department guidelines requiring at least 45 percent go to local governments. According to the State Auditor’s Office, of the $98.1 million in requests from counties and municipalities, the state has approved applications totaling $56.9 million.

Manchin said money needs to get out faster, even though 300 applications from counties and municipalities for C.A.R.E.S. Act coronavirus expense reimbursements have been approved and another 150 applications are pending. According to an interim report from the Department of the Treasury Office of Inspector General released last week, West Virginia has spent 48.6 percent of the $1.25 billion – or more than $607.5 million. Manchin accused Justice of hoarding the funding.

“(Gov. Jim Justice) is in an election year and using this as a political slush fund … he’s playing games with this thing,” Manchin said. “He can play all the games he wants to … but not with the people’s money that should be going to the counties and municipalities, to help the health departments, to help first responders, to help the children, help people and small businesses in those areas. That’s not your money to play with.”

Responding to Manchin’s comments during his Wednesday coronavirus briefing, Justice accused Manchin of using his office to benefit Justice’s Democratic opponent in the general election, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango. Justice said Manchin’s accusations were untrue.

“It’s a lie,” Justice said. “What Senator Manchin ought to do is concentrate on the job he has in D.C. and get that job done and get that job done properly. He ought not concentrate so much on trying to run Ben Salango’s campaign. We have people all over the place following every guideline known to man and pumping out money like you can’t imagine … to say I’m sitting on money is just a flat lie.

Manchin said he is working with Senate colleagues to require the 45 percent of the C.A.R.E.S. Act funding for cities and counties be disbursed immediately based on population and the number of COVID-19 cases reported.

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