“States are trying to just get these dollars out to areas in need the most,” said Emily Maher, policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is tracking the distribution.
Throughout the public health emergency, governors and state lawmakers have used the CARES Act money for a wide variety of purposes, including coronavirus testing, personal protective equipment, distance learning, unemployment benefits and housing assistance.
States are no longer waiting.
“We urge Congress to extend federal unemployment programs, but with their future unclear, we are stepping in to try to provide a level of assistance and certainty,” said Laura Fortman, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.
“People are looking at a financial cliff ahead of them with absolutely no guarantee that there is any money on the other side of it,” Fortman said.
The payments are only one of a flurry of CARES Act allocations Democratic Gov. Janet Mills announced in recent weeks. Maine also has launched a $40 million grant program to help small businesses in the tourism, hospitality and retail industries, put $6.2 million towards rent relief, dedicated $10 million to help food and agriculture firms and sent $2 million to food banks and pantries.
Meanwhile, in New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a $330 million package late last month that provides funding for housing assistance, food banks and a one-time $1,200 payment for more than 100,000 jobless residents. Also, businesses with fewer than 100 employees that suffered revenue losses amid the pandemic can apply for grants. Nearly all of it was paid for through the state’s CARES Act allotment.
Had Congress passed a relief bill, the state might have allocated the money differently, sending more to health care and hospitals, said Democratic Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chair of New Mexico’s House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
A big increase in demand for social services, including Medicaid, food stamps and behavioral health services, signaled to state lawmakers that they needed to provide more assistance to residents, she said. So many people signed up for unemployment benefits that New Mexico had to get a federal loan to make the payments.
“When you see a trend like that, you know it’s an emergency situation,” Lundstrom said. “You just have to jump in and try to help.”
Some states are urging their residents to take advantage of the relief programs they’ve set up before the funds expire at year’s end. Kentucky set aside $15 million to help low-income residents affected by the pandemic pay for natural gas or electric utility bills and water and wastewater costs. So far, only $6.8 million has been requested, so Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear this week reminded people to apply.
“These one-time payments can make a huge difference in keeping the lights, water or heat on this winter,” he said.
Helping small businesses keep their doors open and residents pay for housing, groceries and other necessities also benefits states financially. New Mexico’s direct payment, for instance, will be spent at local businesses, Lundstrom said.
“States are acting now with the hopes that it will help their economies remain afloat,” Gordon said.