By Dean Franks, senior vice president, congressional relations 

A bipartisan group of Senate and House members Dec. 14 released bills to provide $908 billion of COVID-19 relief to ailing sectors of the economy, small businesses, and individuals. Congress has been deadlocked since enactment of the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, so the proposal is a notable step toward providing additional economic relief.

The $908 billion proposal has three sections in order to segment more controversial aspects from those with broad agreement:

  • A $748 billion relief package, with broad bipartisan agreement from the group;
  • A $160 billion package of assistance for state and local governments; and
  • COVID-19 liability protections for businesses. 

Of interest to ARTBA members, the proposal contains aid to severely impacted modes of transportation and reforms to the Paycheck Protection Program. Highlights include: 

Transportation Aid:   

  • $17 billion for airlines and airline workers . 
  • $15 billion for public transit agencies. 
  • $8 billion for transportation services/bus companies.  
  • $4 billion for airport operations.
  • $580 million for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. 
  • $420 million for Amtrak service in the rest of the country.   

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP):    

  • Clarifies that business expenses paid with PPP loans are treated as tax deductible. 
  • Simplifies the loan forgiveness process for borrowers who received $150,000 or less.
  • Allows certain businesses with fewer than 300 employees or a 30 percent or greater revenue loss to apply for a “second draw” (i.e. additional loan) from the PPP program.
  • Extends PPP eligibility to 501(c)(6) organizations with 150 or fewer employees, provided they do not derive more than ten percent of their income from, or spend more than ten percent of their time on, lobbying activities. 

State and Local Aid: 

  • $160 billion for state and local governments.
  • State departments of transportation could benefit from these funds, since flexibility is included to make up for lost revenue.
  • Would be dispersed in three separate installments through Sept. 1, 2021, based on population and revenue losses in proportion to previous year’s revenue loss. 
  • The $61 billion for localities (40 percent of the total) will be dispersed by the governors according to population, lost revenue, or some combination thereof.
  • Proposal would broaden flexibility for the use of unspent CARES Act money, allowing states with remaining unobligated funds to use those dollars to make up for unforeseen lost revenue.    

Business Liability Protections:   

  • If one or more COVID cases can be traced to a workplace, but the business is/was trying to conform to the best known and available public health guidance relating to COVID-19, then the employer would not be subject to liability under federal employment law.  
  • This provision would be retroactive to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Congressional leaders continue to negotiate a path forward on all three parts of the proposal. COVID relief legislation is likely to become part of a must-pass year-end spending bill later this week. Check for updates.