Touted as the most significant financial relief package passed in American History, the $1.9 trillion "American Rescue Plan" has already infused millions of Americans with $1,400 stimulus checks, reinforced unemployment insurance benefits until September
Touted as the most significant financial relief package passed in American History, the $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” has already infused millions of Americans with $1,400 stimulus checks, reinforced unemployment insurance benefits until September and is slated to inject $1.78 billion into Rhode Island – including $27 million for Cranston, $24 million for Warwick and $2.9 million for Johnston.
The conflicting responses to this package – as mostly every policy decision made in the previous 20 years has been subject to – relies heavily upon when end of the political spectrum you find yourself. It passed without any Republican support in the Senate, and could only do that through the chamber’s reconciliation process that insulated it from being strangled to death by a filibuster.
But regardless of whether you believe the plan to be a sorely-needed economic boost to states that have been hammered by financial consequences of a once-in-a-century public health crisis or an overreach of government welfare that will only plug holes temporarily and boost the national deficit, the money is coming. So, the discussion now must become how that money is spent in a responsible and effective manner.
There have been reports from critics that this money can be used for any measure deemed appropriate by individual governors and municipal leaders, however this is not exactly true. While the program does not yet have strict guidelines on what projects are precisely eligible – and bear in mind, the U.S. Treasury Department will be releasing more detailed guidelines in the coming days – the money expressly cannot be used to cover pension fund shortfalls or budget gaps created by tax cuts, such as the car tax phase out in Rhode Island’s case. Additionally, the money can be utilized to mitigate damages wrought by the pandemic all the way through 2024.
So what causes are most worthy of receiving an infusion of temporarily available, non-recurring dollars? The last part of that question is an incredibly important piece to the puzzle. This money is not a new funding source and will not be replicated any time soon – therefore while it may come in handy to zero out a redlined item that was in the red purely due to the pandemic, to use any significant amount of this money to plug a recurring budgetary gap – especially if that item routinely runs in the red during healthy financial times – would be foolhardy.
However, using this money as a means to invest in one-time expenditures that can make a lasting difference in the present and future lives of Rhode Islanders is exactly what should be discussed and debated. And clues as to what endeavors are the worthiest can be found in recent bond measures that have been put forth to voters in 2016 and, most recently, in 2020.
Voters have overwhelmingly approved the state to go out for borrowing on projects associated with shoring up infrastructure, bolstering efforts against climate change, creating more affordable housing, expanding access to early childhood learning and after-school programming, maintaining our natural resources and public assets such as public parks and beaches and, not to be forgotten, bringing our aging and deteriorating school buildings into the modern era so our students can enjoy a safe and warm learning environment.
All of these endeavors, with the right direction, can support existing programming, put people back to work and improve the quality of life dramatically for thousands of Rhode Islanders.
Each city and town should assemble a committee to take public comment and identify the key areas in which this money could most benefit the citizens of each municipality. This money, like the stimulus checks themselves, is for the people and the betterment of our society at large. Citizens should have a say in how it is spent.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime infusion of dollars that could potentially fund the establishment of long-term systemic changes that produce a net benefit for many Rhode Islanders, and it must be done with care and long-term thought in mind.