November 20, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
While the country waits – and waits – for Congress to negotiate another COVID-19 relief bill, there is something President Donald Trump could do now that would provide substantial help to nonprofits, local governments and states struggling to contain this pandemic. Even better: It would cost a fraction of what a new COVID bill would cost, a few billion dollars or so.
In his March 2020 federal disaster declaration, Trump directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to activate its Public Assistance program “to assist state, local, tribal, territorial governments and other eligible entities with the health and safety actions they take” to protect the American public from COVID-19. As FEMA explains, this program requires that the costs of any PA-funded projects be shared by the federal government and its partner, whether that partner is a state, tribe, local government or eligible nonprofit. Legally, the federal government has to carry at least 75 percent of the burden.
As a 2003 Goverment Accountability Office report stated, however, if the costs “greatly exceed” the state, local government or nonprofit’s financial capabilities, FEMA can recommend that the president increase the federal share to up to 90 percent.
Relative to other mechanisms for delivering aid to nonprofits – through a COVID relief package, for example – this process is easy. FEMA makes the request and the president approves it.
Still, the Trump administration has not budged. Despite the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, and the considerable costs that states, cities, and nonprofits have undertaken to protect the American public, the federal share remains at 75 percent.
This fact is unfathomable since previous presidents have acted quickly for less costly disasters. In the middle of his 1992 re-election campaign, President George H.W. Bush implemented a 100 percent cost share after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and Louisiana and Hurricane Iniki hit Hawaii.
According to the GAO report, FEMA officials are often “reluctant to recommend a 100 percent federal share for projects” since “a matching share creates incentives for state and local officials to control costs and closely evaluate projects.”
That is fair. Setting the share at 90 percent would ensure that states and localities should have skin in the game, so to speak. But the White House hasn’t acted at all.
If it won’t, Congress must step in – just as it has in the past.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress has adjusted cost shares through legislation even when costs have not grown beyond states’ or localities’ capacity to pay. Nearly three decades ago, for example, “FEMA and the Clinton administration adjusted the cost-shares for some states affected by the 1993 Mississippi River flooding” and “in 2007, Congress adjusted the cost-shares following the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005 for states that did not meet the identified threshold.” Historically, Congress has been inclined to give states, localities and nonprofits more, even when their cost burdens do not meet the statutory thresholds.
In full disclosure, the nonprofit I run is hoping to have an application accepted under the PA program. We would benefit from a more generous federal cost share. Waiting for Congress to act, as they have in most recent disasters, would be in our greatest interest.
But we also face rapidly rising costs for personal protective equipment, staffing and facilities – and that is not counting our increased demand for services because of the pandemic and recession. Our food pantry, for example, has seen a 500 percent increase in demand from February. We are now serving 130,000 meals a month, and are trying to do so while protecting the health of our staff and the New Yorkers we serve.
We need help quickly. In the absence of a COVID spending bill that includes general aid to states and cities, the FEMA program would provide a lifeline. As one of his last acts in office, Trump should provide that aid. If he will not, Congress should pass legislation before the December holiday. There already is a bill moving that would allow that: The U.S. House approved Rep. Pete DeFazio’s FEMA Assistance Relief Act of 2020 on a voice vote on Tuesday.
It now will move over to the Senate. Will senators act first, or will the president?
Joanne M. Oplustil is president and CEO of CAMBA and CAMBA Housing Ventures, a New York Citywide nonprofit social services provider and affordable housing developer based in Brooklyn.
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