As Anchorage returned to a limited hunker down on Tuesday, closing bars and restaurants to dine-in services and putting strict capacity limits on other businesses for the rest of the year, the city launched a voucher program to provide individuals and families between $200 and $400 for groceries, gas and other necessities.
It’s one of the last programs that will be funded with the federal relief dollars provided by the federal CARES Act passed in the early days of the pandemic. With both the money close to running dry and the deadline for the money to be spent by the end of the year approaching, state officials are pleading for another round of help.
“I am calling on our congressional delegation to put politics aside and pass another round of economic stimulus,” Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson said last week when she announced the hunker down. “There is no legitimate reason that they have not done this.”
Quinn-Davidson is pushing for $15 million of the municipality’s remaining relief funds to go to rent and mortgage relief and grants for small businesses and the hospitality industry.
She was joined on Tuesday by a bipartisan collection of legislators pleading with Alaska’s congressional delegation to get behind whatever is politically possible.
“The stories we hear of businesses on the edge of closing, families with depleted savings and organizations and governments preparing to make devastating cuts to staff and services requires the utmost urgency,” the group wrote. “While the vast majority of funding provided by the federal CARES Act has been expended, Alaska remains in a challenging economic position: Tens of thousands of Alaskans are still unemployed and increased federal benefits have expired; many small businesses continue to struggle; local governments are considering cuts to services or increased taxes to offset revenue losses; and schools and universities are grappling with reduced enrollments and increased costs. … Without further federal assistance, the negative health and economic impacts being felt by Alaskans will continue and will likely increase significantly.”
The outpouring from not just elected officials but everyday Alaskans has, at least, captured the attention of Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski who on Tuesday put her support behind a last-ditch effort to pass a relief plan before the end of the year. She cited Anchorage’s hunker down in comments on Tuesday.
The plan, put forward by a bipartisan group of moderate U.S. senators, proposes a $908 billion economic relief package that would include boosted unemployment benefits, aid for state and local governments and another round business support grants.
Murkowski said it’s not everything to everyone but called on fellow lawmakers to support the measure as better than nothing with individuals and businesses in desperate need.
“Our responsibility is to come together not as Republicans coming up with a plan, not as Democrats coming up with a counterplan, but coming up with a proposal that will provide for targeted emergency relief and it’s been said this is not what everybody would wish,” she said. “People are going to look at these buckets they’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute, my bucket isn’t there,’ or, ‘My bucket is only half-full.’ Well this is emergency relief. This is designed to get us through this next quarter. We know that we have more to do but we cannot leave, we cannot abandon the American people. The families that are suffering at this time and waiting and begging for Congress to act.”
Today, Congressional Democratic leaders signaled their support for the measure.
Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and U.S. Rep. Don Young have not signaled support for the measure.
Why it matters
Several economists from the national level to the state level have stressed that aid now is critical to avoid long-term damage to the economy. Mouhcine Guettabi, an economist at the Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research, said that, essentially, it’s a matter of helping people survive now or dealing with the economic scars of bankruptcies, closures and evictions next year.
“Eventually, if you don’t have either the economy on its own recovering or more aid, you’re going to have the health of the consumer start to get impacted in a way that’s really hard to fix,” he told us in October. “Some of these issues are much easier to fix in real-time than to fix an issue like having 20% of businesses go under or having 20,000 Alaskans be long-term unemployed. Once you have these long-term issues, talks about the recovery become really complicated.”
He also said that the initial stimulus went a long way to bolstering incomes amid dramatic job losses.
“The first round of stimulus was obviously very, very large and it raised the economic floor of activity meaning that it makes things seem a lot better than they actually are,” he said. “At least initially we had a very bad jobs shock, but we did not have an income shock because of the generosity of the federal aid.”