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Editorial: Hawaii’s economy needs federal aid

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Hawaii’s taxpayers have an especially acute need for emergency help from their federal government, given how the coronavirus pandemic impact on the island economy has been so severe.

Nationally, though, the worsening COVID-19 conditions, as the population spends more time indoors over the winter months, have shifted the financial shortfall into crisis levels in many more states.

Despite the hopes for the new vaccine distribution, there are still months more of pain to endure first. The economic recovery that started earlier in the spring and summer has slowed, meaning that many people thrown out of work have neither returned to their old jobs nor found new ones.

And this is happening with federal unemployment assistance due to run out, the day after Christmas.

The prospects for ruin in households across the country is frightening, which means it’s imperative that Congress act quickly to stave off disaster.

Confidence is rising that the U.S. House and Senate are positioned to act on limited relief, skirting the issues that have bogged down negotiations since the first CARES Act package was enacted March 27.

Given the “desperate needs” of so many people, this is the near-term approach that should be moved to a speedy conclusion, said Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, speaking Wednesday to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial board.

Case argues, persuasively, that discretionary funds for state and local governments would be useful, because there are going to be significant unanticipated burdens on government budgets that have taken a severe hit from the loss of tax revenue. Hawaii’s is crippling: a projected deficit of $1.4 billion a year for four years.

But such help is simply not coming from the current Congress, so it’s best to set that issue aside and first deliver aid directly to people who are at risk of losing housing and going without essentials.

“It looks like people (in Congress) are coming together in the areas they actually can develop consensus on, and are agreeing to disagree on the other areas that are far more contentious and divisive,” Case said.

For now, the alignment has yielded a bill assembling about $900 billion to be distributed to all states. Its components, according to current reports, are likely to include:

>> Replenishment of funds for the Paycheck Protection Program, forgivable loans to small businesses, primarily to help them retain employees. This is estimated to comprise a third of the bill’s appropriated funds.

>> Stimulus checks, and money for supplemental federal unemployment benefits.

>> Assistance earmarked for vaccine distribution, medical providers and specific industries such as airlines.

Left off the list, in addition to the discretionary local government funds that congressional Democrats seek, would be the liability protection against pandemic-related lawsuits for businesses, favored by the GOP.

Case thought the local-government money might come through to help with the first few months of 2021, while state economies are still finding their financial footing. Beyond that, there likely will be some specific federal subsidies in the bill in hand for targeted uses.

All this uncertainty does underscore, again, the rationale for restricting state spending for the near term, including plans for public worker furloughs. These curbs can be lifted if and when, due to rebounding tax receipts or further federal aid, they are less necessary.

Congress has failed in the past months to get this job of COVID relief done for the public it serves. There is no margin for error left: Elected leaders need to seal this deal before leaving for any holiday break.

If they fail again, they wouldn’t deserve one.

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