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Editorial: Isles eager, ready for COVID funds

Hawaii, and everyone suffering from pandemic economic losses across the country, did not need this extra helping of stress, desperately waiting for the promised $900 billion in federal relief and wondering if it would come through.

President Donald Trump withheld his signature on the measure, H.R 133, until Sunday, a day after critical unemployment benefits had lapsed. Among his complaints: that the $600 in stimulus checks for most Americans was insufficient.

That’s a rational objection, but after it became clear he couldn’t get Congress to quickly raise that to $2,000, it made no sense to stall any longer. Delaying his signature was a gambit that, by itself, won no concessions. After the measure was finally signed, the House passed a new bill on Monday to increase the payments, but Senate leadership has balked at falling in line.

It would have been better to use that bargaining power earlier in the negotiations — not after the clock has run out and real people will bear an even heavier burden. As it is, Congress, caught up in the political calculations of an election year, already had taken an indefensibly long time to produce this help, and too many businesses already have shut their doors for good.

In the end, all of this political posturing is likely to cost millions to at-risk taxpayers and cause struggling businesses additional delays in getting money they badly need.

Unemployment benefits now will take a week or more longer to get out the door. State labor officials said any delayed benefits will be paid retroactively, but for many individuals and especially small businesses, a delay could spell the end of the enterprise.

Now the rush has to be on getting federal guidance out on the assistance programs offered in the legislation, and for the state and private business owners to prepare to apply for the money being made available.

For their part, most of Hawaii’s congressional delegates have advocated for passage of the bill, with the notable exception of departing U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

On Twitter, she explained her “no” vote by saying “$600 is a slap in the face to every American struggling due to the pandemic. You deserve better. … I voted against the 5,593-page spending bill that gave billions to corporate interests, the military industrial complex &other countries, leaving crumbs for you who need help most.”

Again: Yes, the pandemic-weary public deserves better, but unless making the bill better was still possible, that’s a completely unhelpful position. There is some good that will come — an estimated $1.7 billion for Hawaii that will fund some of its COVID-related costs and make balancing the state budget at least marginally easier.

In addition to the direct check payments, totaling about $700 million to island residents, there are numerous crucial components:

>> $325 billion nationally for businesses, including the Paycheck Protection Program that helps employers retain their workforce and pay other costs.

>> $200 million for Hawaii in unemployment assistance, which is an extension of benefits such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for the self-employed, and a $300 weekly federal “plus-up” to state unemployment benefits.

>> $200 million in rent relief funds for Hawaii residents suffering from income loss due to the pandemic.

>> $200 million for Hawaii schools, which can and should support teacher salaries.

>> An estimated $35 million for this state to help with the critical distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Could the package have been improved? Undoubtedly. But the public is aching for this relief, and to move forward. Politicians need to lay off the sniping that only gets in the way.

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