By John Cheves
The state of Kentucky should get $2.41 billion from the CARES Act coronavirus relief package that Congress passed last month, with the largest sum — $1.59 billion — going to state government to help it cover virus-related expenses through Dec. 30. Smaller sums will go to schools, universities, public transit, child care, housing and other areas, to help Kentuckians get through the pandemic.
But Washington hasn’t released the funds yet, causing some grumbling from the nation’s governors. And at present, officials in Frankfort say they are still awaiting more explanation on how the money can be spent.
“Until the U.S. Treasury issues guidance, we are unclear on what is eligible,” state budget director John Hicks said Wednesday of the $1.59 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund that is meant to help pay for the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
Among the state’s costs that likely will be covered are thousands of lab tests, the construction of field hospitals in Louisville and Lexington and activation of the Kentucky National Guard, Hicks said.
The relief money can’t be used to compensate the state’s General Fund for what are expected to be huge revenue losses this year as the pandemic shutdown closes thousands of businesses and forces many tens of thousands of Kentuckians out of work, Hicks added. It can only be used for expenses, he said.
The $2.41 billion in virus relief for Kentucky is separate from additional money in the federal CARES Act package that will go directly to Kentuckians for enhanced unemployment benefits, ”economic security” payments to individual taxpayers (that’s the $1,200 check, plus $500 per child, that Americans earning up to $75,000 a year have been promised) and small business loans.
The sums that Kentucky will get are calculated using complex formulas, so they vary a bit depending on what source is consulted. According to U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, Kentucky can expect:
▪ $1.59 billion for Kentucky state government and $134 million for Louisville-Jefferson County metro government for pandemic-related spending. Only local governments with populations greater than 500,000 are eligible for a slice of this funding, so Lexington-Fayette County — with about 323,000 people — is out of luck.
▪ $203 million in Education Stabilization Funds to help Kentucky’s K-12 schools pay for their virus response, such as coordinating their long-term school closures and purchasing technology for online learning by all students.
In an online briefing on Tuesday, the state Department of Education said at least 90 percent of this money will be distributed to school districts based on their Title 1 funding formula, which provides federal aid to schools based on the poverty of their students. All Kentucky school districts receive some Title I funds, so every district should receive some of the virus relief funds.
Districts will have “broad local authority to use the money,” the department said, although it warned the districts against spending it on “recurring costs, such as salaries.”
Last Friday, the National Governors Association wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, urging “swift action” on the release of the Education Stabilization Funds and instructions on how the money can be used.
“States need time to establish both structures to evaluate student needs and processes to rapidly deploy these funds. That work cannot begin until the department provides guidance about how and when it will send funding to the states,” the national group wrote.
▪ $164.6 million in Education Stabilization Funds to help Kentucky’s public and private universities pay for their virus response, and specifically, the cost of closing their campuses and switching to online teaching. At least half the funds are to be used for emergency financial aid grants to students for their expenses related to the pandemic.
The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education this week said that it still hasn’t received a final word on the methodology that will be used to determine how much money the different universities will receive, so at present, it’s still working with estimates.
▪ $42.1 million in Education Stabilization Funds that can be awarded largely at Gov. Andy Beshear’s discretion, for K-12 schools and universities that are hurt particularly badly by the pandemic. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment this week on how this money might be spent.
▪ $8.29 million in U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Grants to help individual public agencies pay for lab testing, infection control, patient surveillance and other public health activities to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
▪ $25.9 million in U.S. Housing and Urban Development Emergency Solution Grants to protect the homeless or Kentuckians at risk of homelessness (defined in the law as anyone earning less than 50 percent of their area’s median income). This can be spent on a variety of costs, such as additional staff, beds and sanitizing equipment at shelters, and vouchers for hotel rooms if shelters are full.
▪ $67.2 million in Child Care and Development Block Grants to provide child care during the shutdown for the families of Kentucky’s essential workers. It also will provide some minimum level of financial aid to other child care centers that were ordered closed during the emergency.
This aid will prove inadequate for many of the nation’s child care centers, warns the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington. Recent research shows that only 30 percent of 6,000 child care centers surveyed would be able to survive a closure of more than two weeks without “substantial” financial support, the center said.
▪ $10 million in Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants for additional support for state and local law enforcement.
▪ $133.3 million in Transit Infrastructure Grants for public transportation. These grants are meant to help the city bus systems clean their buses and buildings and buy personal protective equipment, and also cover paid leave for employees if necessary so that jobs aren’t permanently cut despite a drop in ridership and revenue.
▪ $17.9 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, to help low-income families pay their heating and cooling bills.
• $6 million in Election Security Grants, to help Kentucky pay for virus-related challenges to the 2020 elections. Secretary of State Michael Adams told lawmakers recently that it’s likely the June primary — postponed from May because of the shutdown — will rely heavily on mail-in absentee ballots because of the logistical problems that in-person voting at the polls are likely to pose.