THIS WEEK IN CONGRESS - October 02, 2020

Oct 4, 2020

In this issue:

•     $12-16M for Marianas food aid

•     Dems keep working for more relief

·     $1B for CNMI operations

·     $14M for food aid

·     $160M more for Marianas schools

·     More PPP, targeted for small business

·     $600 FPUC through January 

·     Another $1,200 recovery rebate

·     US pays Earned Income Tax Credit

·     Treatment, vaccine costs covered

·     Medicaid FMAP: 95/5 for Marianas

•     Vets therapy bill to the President

•      $566k for solid waste management

•      Help schools cover safety costs

•      1,000 Abbott rapid tests promised

•     USCIS fee increase blocked for now

•      Blanket CW filing extension denied

•      Rota park study comments still open

•     Military academy nominations open

•      Oct. 15 - Medicare open enrollment

•     Telework update

•      Kilili Time Capsule

•     Opportunities

•    Legislative highlights

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$12-16M for Marianas food aid

The Marianas will have an additional $12 to $16 million in food aid for families with school-age children thanks to legislation enacted this week. The continuing resolution with the new Pandemic EBT funding was signed into law on Thursday. Democratic leadership extended Pandemic EBT to the Marianas after the U.S. Food and Nutrition Services informed me on September 14—and I informed Speaker Nancy Pelosi—that the Marianas Nutrition Assistance Program would run out of money sometime next year.

Congressional committee staff estimate from $12 to $16 million will be paid out to Marianas families, but how quickly is now up to the Commonwealth government. Your congressional office has asked FNS to give the Commonwealth technical assistance to get Pandemic EBT up and running; and the federal agency agreed. As the name suggests, the program is intended to get money to families through an electronic benefits transfer—EBT—system. FNS approved the Commonwealth’s plan to stand up an EBT system in fiscal 2018, but three years later the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, which runs NAP, has failed to follow through.

Dems keep working for more relief

House Democrats introduced on Tuesday and passed on Thursday an updated HEROES Act to help individuals, businesses, schools, and state governments deal with the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus. Senate Republicans have refused to act on the HEROES Act the House passed in May, but this week’s action by the House brought the Trump administration back to the negotiating table. We have summarized, below, some of the assistance that would go the Marianas in the updated Democratic bill, H.R. 8406:

·     $1.02B for CNMI operations. The cash-strapped Commonwealth government would receive $1.02 billion under the Democrat-passed bill. Senate Republicans have offered nothing for the Marianas or other state and territory governments to make up for lost revenue due to the pandemic, because the President says they are mismanaged. The $1.02 billion is ten times more than the FY21 Commonwealth government budget signed into law this week. $1.02 billion is equal to $19,699 per person for the Marianas. Guam receives $6,980 per person. In addition to the funding for the central government, the municipalities of Rota, Tinian, Saipan, and the Northern Islands would share $14 million. 

·     $14M more for food aid. Responding to Governor Torres’ last-minute announcement he would be cutting families from the Marianas Nutrition Assistance Program and reducing benefits for those remaining in the program, I spoke with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday and we agreed to include $14 million in the new HEROES Act, $2.4 million more than the Governor demanded in his letter of August 26. 

·     $160M more for Marianas schools. The updated HEROES Act builds on the CARES Act Education Stabilization Fund with an estimated $160 million for Marianas schools. The CARES Act provided $27,940,945 for Marianas education, which ended teacher furloughs and provided schools and students the resources and technology needed to continue learning and reopen safely. Heroes Act funding can cover teacher and staff pay, distance learning technology, sanitation of schools, transportation, and health services. The bill sets aside $25 million for Marianas and other insular area K-12 school facilities repairs, including HVAC and ventilation. There is, also, an estimated $20 million for Northern Marianas College and an extension of the CARES Act’s suspension of student loan payments through September 2021. 

·     More PPP, targeted for small business. The updated HEROES Act extends the Paycheck Protection Program, so businesses and non-profits hard hit by the pandemic may obtain a second forgivable loan. Democrats’ new bill also provides targeted assistance for restaurants and live venue operators and for smaller sized firms. The original PPP created in the CARES Act in March provided $38 million in relief to the Marianas. The bill also allocates for Marianas businesses at least $2.9 million for direct grants. 

·     $600 FPUC through January. The updated HEROES Act extends the $600 weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) through January 2021. Workers who do not use all their 39 weeks of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) by the end of the year could also continue through January. At my request, the new bill makes it specifically clear that CW-1 workers are eligible for the combined $945 in weekly PUA and FPUC, just like anyone else in the Marianas. This was Congress’ original intent in the CARES Act, which the Trump administration ignored, and will pump millions of dollars into the Marianas economy at a time when we desperately need it.

·     Another $1,200 recovery rebate. The updated HEROES Act provides a second $1,200 stimulus check ($2,400 in the case of joint tax filers) to every eligible taxpayer.  Taxpayers would also receive an additional $500 per qualified dependent. The bill uses a more expansive definition for dependents than in the CARES Act, ensuring that adult dependents and children, including students up to age 24, are included. 

·     US pays Earned Income Tax Credit. We kept federal funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit in the updated relief bill. I have been working to get the cost of EITC covered by the U.S. since I introduced H.R. 4309 in 2015. Taxpayers can use the credit to offset what they owe in Commonwealth income tax or get a cash refund. In the same way, the relief act makes the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, so even those families that lost their jobs and income in the pandemic may benefit. The relief act provides 75 percent of the cost of EITC and the full cost of the Child Tax Credit.

·     Treatment, vaccine costs covered. The updated HEROES Act ensures that no individual will have to pay out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 treatment or a vaccine. This includes those with private employment-based group health plans. And the bill makes $75 billion available to support continued testing, contact tracing, and surveillance efforts. An additional $28 billion would be available for the procurement and distribution of an FDA approved COVID-19 vaccine.

·     Medicaid FMAP: 95/5 for Marianas. The Marianas’ local match for Medicaid health insurance would fall again in the new HEROES Act. The Families First Coronavirus Act lowered the Mariana's FMAP to just a 10.8 percent local match. The new proposal cuts that to 5 percent. The bill also reinstates Medicaid eligibility for citizens of the Freely Associated States, residing in any state or the District of Columbia. Territorial governors would have the option to grant eligibility.

The HEROES Act passed the House with no Republican votes. Now, Senate Republicans must decide whether it is finally time to help.

Vets therapy bill to the President

With suicide rates on the rise, the Veterans Administration must do a better job in providing veterans with the care and tools needed to get on the path to recovery, including alternative therapies like meditation. This is the goal of H.R. 2359, the Whole Veteran Act, which Congress passed and sent to the White House on Thursday. The bill includes my amendment requiring a VA plan to provide its Whole Health program services in the Marianas with services such as massage, acupuncture, healing touch, guided imagery, and yoga, among other holistic treatments. 

$566k for solid waste management

The CNMI Office of Planning and Development is receiving $565,980 to improve solid waste management capacity in the Marianas, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday. This grant is the first installment of $56 million I included in last year’s disaster relief act, Public Law 116-20. This initial funding will enable the Office of Planning and Development to hire new staff for Tinian, Rota, and Saipan by May 2021 and create an inter-island solid waste taskforce. The taskforce, including the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality and the Department of Public Works, will develop plans for zero waste projects for each municipality and proposals for emergency infrastructure repairs at the Marpi landfill.

Help schools cover safety costs

FEMA should reverse its decision to stop helping schools pay for face masks and cleaning supplies to keep students and teachers safe. That was the point of the letter I sent this week, along with 52 of my Democratic colleagues, to FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor. His agency issued an interim rule, effective September 15, saying FEMA no longer classifies disinfection of classroom, temperature scanners, masks, and similar gear as “emergency protective measures” and will not reimburse schools for these expenses. Instead, these safety costs will fall on state and territorial governments that are already struggling with severe budget shortfalls due to the pandemic.

1,000 Abbott rapid tests promised

CHCC will receive 1,000 Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 tests, the Trump administration promised this week. This point-of-care diagnostic delivers results in 15 minutes or less without the use of additional laboratory equipment. The test received the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization on August 26th. The U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services is distributing the Abbott tests nationwide to expand the availability of testing. As of September 26, 17,711 COVID-19 tests have been conducted on 15,182 people in the Marianas.

USCIS fee increase blocked for now

A federal court has blocked the Trump administration’s fee increases for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The court granted a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the increased fees for CW-1 petitions and other immigration benefits scheduled to take effect today. Accordingly, USCIS announced Thursday that it would continue accepting the current edition of USCIS forms and fees, and adjudicate requests under existing regulations and guidance. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found plaintiffs, comprised of eight immigration rights organizations, met the standards warranting the injunction based on their claims that former Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolfe were unlawfully serving when the Notice of Proposed Rule and Final Rule were issued. They also argue the rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and would cause irreparable harm, and that the injunction is in the public interest. The rule is enjoined pending outcome of the trial. DHS has 60 days to appeal the ruling, Immigration Legal Resource Center et al., v. Wolf, et al.

Blanket CW filing extension denied

On Tuesday, the Trump Administration said no to my request for additional time for employers to file fiscal year 2021 CW-1 applications. I asked for the extension because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus and because the Commonwealth did not complete submission of its 2020 prevailing wage survey until September 10.  Last year, I convinced USCIS to provide extra time because employers and the U.S. Labor Department were still adjusting to the new U.S. Workforce Act. The Act requires the Department certify U.S. workers are unavailable for a job before an employer may petition for a CW worker. The Workforce Act also protects U.S. workers’ wages by specifying CW workers be paid at least the prevailing wage. Despite the Trump administration negative response to a blanket extension, the congressional office will continue to direct individual constituents to any information pertinent to helping them decide their next steps.

Oct. 15 - Medicare Open Enrollment

Open enrollment for Medicare begins on October 15 and will remain open through December 7. 2021 plans are now available on the Medicare Plan Finder to help beneficiaries review coverage options that will best fit their health needs. Beneficiaries that do not wish to change their current Medicare coverage plan do not need to re-enroll. Information on coverage options can also be provided by phone at 1-800-MEDICARE.

OPPORTUNITIES

Grants

·     A note to those receiving or applying for federal grants during the coronavirus crisis: The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) may extend for up to 12 months certain grants set to expire between March 31 and December 31, 2020. OMB is also providing some deadline flexibility for grant applications. Check out these links for OMB’s March 9 and March 17 memo on these extensions.

·     Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants

·     NEH Care: Cultural Organization

·     Citizenship Instruction and Naturalization Application Services

LEGISLATIVE HIGHLIGHTS

THIS WEEK

·     H.R. 360 - Cyber Sense Act of 2020 (passed by voice vote)

·     S. 1982 - Save Our Seas Act (passed by voice vote)

·     H.R. 7496 - COVID PREPARE Act (passed by voice vote)

NEXT WEEK

Bills to be considered not available at time of print.