• By Pacific island Times News Staff

Use it or lose it: Sablan says CNMI must use relief funds by Dec. 30

The CNMI government must expend the relief funds it has received from the federal government by Dec. 30, otherwise the money will be returned to the U.S. Treasury, Rep. Gregorio Sablan, the CNMI's delegate to Congress said Friday.

Sablan said the U.S. Treasury has confirmed that $36.28 million in relief funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act Act was remitted to the Commonwealth government last week.

Sablan said he has not yet seen the Commonwealth’s plan of expenditure for the $36 million. Congress required the money be used for coronavirus-related expenses that were not foreseen in a state or territory’s current budget.

“The public has a right to know exactly how this money is going to be used,” Sablan said.

CARES Act provided $150 billion for state, local, and tribal governments to manage the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and all funds have now been paid out. Funds were distributed in part by population, although non-state areas, such as the CNMI , received about $702 per person, as compared to an average $424 per person in states.

“Congress gave the U.S. Treasury until April 24 to transfer the money to state and territorial governments; and Treasury now tells me they made the deadline,” Sablan said. “But there is a lot more money in the CARES Act that has not yet reached the individuals it is supposed to be helping. There are unemployment payments, money for teachers and schools, recovery rebates of $1,200 and $2,400 for single and joint taxpayers – people need this support now.”

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In guidance to states and territories receiving the Relief Funds, Treasury gave many examples of acceptable uses. Coronavirus-related expenses of public hospitals, the expense of setting up temporary public medical facilities, and the costs of providing testing were at the top of the list, along with the purchase of sanitizing products and personal protective equipment for essential workers most at risk.

The unbudgeted payroll expenses of these essential workers – medical personnel, police, social workers and child welfare officers, and those providing services directly to older adults and individuals with disabilities in community settings – are also acceptable uses of the CARES Act money.

One permissible use Sablan strongly favors is assistance to the Public School System to make online learning viable for all Marianas students. “Even wealthier school districts in America are finding it a challenge to teach online,” Sablan said. “And it is that much more difficult here in the Marianas, where so many students do not have access to their own computer and their households do not have high-speed internet.

“Of course, we have to stay focused first on keeping the Marianas healthy. But would it not be great to use this present crisis and the money Congress provided, also, to do something truly transformative for our future leaders, business and professional people, and teachers, who are in school today? That kind of investment would pay economic dividends for decades,” Sablan said.

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The $36 million in Relief Funds can also be used to smooth over the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus. Grants to small businesses and unemployment payments for workers not covered by the CARES Act unemployment assistance are also permitted uses of the money.

“It is possible people will fall through the cracks on unemployment aid,” Sablan said. “We will not know until the Commonwealth gets the program up and running. But, if there are people out of work and not eligible for the CARES Act unemployment aid, the Relief Funds can help them.”

Sablan made direct aid to territorial governments one of the four key priorities he pushed for during negotiation of the CARES Act. And he was able to make those priorities the bipartisan consensus among all the island Delegates in Congress.

As negotiations begin on a CARES Act II, more direct aid with even more flexibility continues to be a priority for Democrats in Congress. A Democratic alternative to the CARES Act had twice the funding, but Senate Republicans blocked that additional aid the first time around.

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