June 29, 2020

Wyden Leads Colleagues on Senate Floor in Calling for Greater Assistance for State and Local Governments During COVID-19 Crisis

As Prepared for Delivery

Mr. President, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown this country into a nightmare-level crisis of joblessness. The Congress has not done enough to stop it and to save people’s jobs. I’ve come to the floor this evening with the Democratic Leader to call for the Senate to pass legislation that’s all about saving key public-sector jobs that form the backbone of our local communities – our teachers, firefighters, first responders and many others. They need our help, and they need it now.

Democrats have been warning since March, when COVID-19 cases exploded and our economy went into lockdown, that our states, cities and towns are facing budgetary disasters unlike any they’ve gone through in recent memory. The shortfalls state and local governments are facing due to this pandemic make the Great Recession look like a modest economic hiccup. Layoffs are now happening at nightmare levels. In March, April and May, there were a million and a half job losses among public employees – folks who teach our kids, work in public health and emergency response, and maintain our roads and highways.

Let me take a minute to run through some specific examples of why this is so important. First, what kind of sense does it make to sit back and allow thousands and thousands of first responders to lose their jobs in the middle of a pandemic? COVID-19 cases are spiking in places all over the country. Our public health systems are getting clobbered like a wrecking ball. State and local governments are being forced to cut EMS workers at the exact moment they need first responders who know how to keep ailing people safe.

Second, let’s talk about education. This country is in danger of losing a generation of teachers if the Congress does not act to save their jobs. The official jobs data showed that in April alone – just one month – nearly half a million K-12 employees lost their jobs. Half a million. Education experts have estimated that hundreds of thousands of teachers could be permanently laid off without action.

Schoolkids are already facing major setbacks due to the fact that they can’t get the same level of face-to-face instruction during the pandemic. Far too many kids who come from working families are falling behind because they don’t have the technology and support they need at home. Too many kids are hungry. Too many kids are neglected. Nobody knows when they’ll be back in the classroom full time. Helping those youngsters catch up when this pandemic ends is already going to be extraordinarily difficult work, and it’ll be even harder if the nation loses hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers in the meantime. And that’s just K-12.

The COVID-19 crash is a disaster for Americans who want to get an affordable college degree, too. Our public colleges and universities are taking enormous losses – in my home state of Oregon the losses added up to $130 million this spring. States are facing big higher-education budget cuts. School administrators are doing their best to plan for the future, but again, nobody knows when campuses will be back to normal. You only have to look back to the Great Recession to see what’s likely going to happen next. More and more costs will get pushed onto students and their families.

Two-thirds of the class of 2018 borrowed to pay for college, and those borrowers held an average of nearly $30,000 in debt upon graduation. Someday soon that may seem like a relative bargain.

Third, this nation’s already crumbling infrastructure is going to get even worse if communities can’t afford to invest in their roads, highways and other projects. It’s a self-defeating prospect – if the Congress doesn’t help communities tackle these projects now, they’ll cost even more down the road when the maintenance backlog grows. And delaying these kinds of projects make it even harder for local economies to recover, because all those workers will be out of a job, and a lot of businesses don’t want to invest in places with crumbling infrastructure.

So the proposal I’m offering tonight will help to save these jobs and stave off a whole lot of preventable economic hardship. One of the key lessons the Senate ought to remember from the Great Recession is that failing to support state and local budgets will prolong the suffering around the country. It’ll slow down the recovery, and it will guarantee this country doesn’t bounce back quickly in 2020.

My proposal builds on legislation that has already passed the House. It incorporates the state and local portion of the HEROES Act that rescues those teacher, firefighter, first responder and infrastructure jobs. It also includes my proposal dealing with two programs that have been economic lifelines for rural communities: Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes, what’s called SRS and PILT.

Even before COVID-19, rural communities started with weaker economies, fewer public health resources, and worse access to health care. They were bound to have a harder time responding to and recovering from the pandemic.

Secure Rural Schools is all about helping bring certainty and stability to communities and counties, often the front line health care providers in these far off places, that have traditionally depended on resource extraction – places where boom and bust cycles can make it nearly impossible to plan for what’s ahead. My proposal would create a permanent endowment fund to provide a predictable source of funding for county economic development, roads and schools.

Payments in Lieu of Taxes is all about providing that same kind of certainty to people who live in areas dominated by federal lands. They have the same right as anybody else to reliable services – schools, firefighters, safe roads and highways. Ten years of permanent, mandatory PILT will help those counties budget for the future.

I’ll close by responding to an argument I’ve heard from the other side – that these ideas are just a so-called “blue state bailout.” That is wrong, wrong, wrong. I bet teachers getting pink slips in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida don’t believe that saving their jobs is a blue state bailout. And of the 42 states and territories covered by SRS less than a handful are blue states.

The virus doesn’t care about political parties. It might have hit Democratic states first, but now it’s sweeping across many more parts of the country, including states that voted for Donald Trump. Despite being small, rural, and generally relatively remote, county governments that rely on SRS and PILT are responding to the same national health crisis facing larger cities and urban areas. The economic crisis is hitting everybody.

I don’t want to see hundreds of thousands of teachers laid off anywhere. Not in Oregon, not in Iowa, not in Texas, not in Kentucky. When it’s safe for kids to go back to school in person, I don’t want them packed into classrooms with 40 or 50 other students. I don’t want first responders to be laid off in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t want our nation’s roads and highways to crumble into even worse disrepair because the Congress failed to address this nationwide budget crisis.

The Senate has an obligation to act.