Congress is nearing a $450 billion deal to replenish a program to help small businesses devastated by the pandemic. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says among the key pieces included in this interim deal is money for rural hospitals, which have had to furlough hundreds of workers to offset financial losses.
"We're hopeful that the next bill has money specifically for hospitals," she said on Monday, ahead of what could be a vote later this week. "We're expecting to get about $75 billion, which was half of what we had tried to get. We tried to get $150 billion, but President Trump said no. But there will be money for rural hospitals there."
North Country Public Radio spoke with Gillibrand on what's included in the package, what got left out and what could get tossed into the next round of funding, which Congress is already working on.
Q: We also have dairy farmers, as you know, in this part of the state. They've been dumping milk because of supply chain disruptions. You recently introduced a bill that would help small farms. Can you talk about what that would help them do?
Gillibrand: The idea of this is there's a lot of small farms across New York and across the country who are struggling, are going out of business and have been for a long time.
So my bill specifically allows for any small farm to be able to get rid of their debt. So they could get rid of about $250,000 of debt per small farm.
And that would make a huge difference to have that kind of debt forgiveness. So hopefully we can get this bill put in code for a bill, which is the next major bill we're writing now. And I'm hoping that we can have this provision be part of it.
Q: Is there anything that can be done now to keep these products from going to waste?
Gillibrand: What we've heard is that it's a problem of packaging. So dairy farmers used to be able to bring large amounts of milk to large facilities like a school district, and they didn't have to package it individually. They could just send it in bulk so it could just be served directly in a refrigerated type of service machine.
So what we're trying to do is find other places where that milk can be brought, where it doesn't have to be packaged. We don't want [them] dumping milk just because you can't package it. We have people who need it.
So we're looking for, again, kitchens, community centers, restaurants who will take the milk refrigerated and distribute it through a service. Like let's say a restaurant is willing to be a community kitchen. They'll offer lunch and dinner every day for anybody who comes through. So, again, any listener who knows of food that's being unused, please call my office. We will find a supply chain hookup for you.
Q: Another piece that was left out of this current package is aid for state and local governments. Governor Cuomo, among others, is asking for something along the order of $500 billion to help states through the crisis. Is that realistic?
Gillibrand: It is. I mean, our state, New York, is struggling. We desperately need money. Our governor, along with our mayors, are unable to balance their budgets in any meaningful way. So what we need to do is have a huge sum of money going straight into the states. We were hoping to include $150 billion from the states and localities in this bill. But [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and President Trump said no. So we weren't able to include it.
We hope to have that be the centerpiece of COVID-4, which will be the next major funding bill, which hopefully we'll start working on this week. And so it could be ready hopefully by mid-May.
Q: Pivoting back to the interim bill that's being agreed upon, or voted on this week, for small business aid, Bloomberg News published this kind of widely shared map that showed that Republican-led states were getting more of the aid than Democratically led states. So how can New York get its fair share when you know that we have a president sort of notorious for playing favorites among governors and especially in an election year?
Gillibrand: Part of this interim bill for small businesses is directing the money to go to businesses that are underserved.
So whether they're in inner cities or whether they're in rural areas, if they don't have access to a big bank or they'll use a community bank or a credit union, the money is going to be made available specifically to those businesses that were left behind in the last bill. So that should help a lot of businesses in New York, because we have inner city businesses that are underbanked. We have rural businesses that are underbanked. And so those are our opportunities in that bill.
We also hope that the money that we provided for testing* will help all states, specifically a state like New York that is being hit so hard. So that's $25 billion just to create the supply chain for testing. And if we can get testing into our communities in New York City and in other parts of the state that have been hit hard, we'll be able to reopen businesses and schools.
Q: Bottom line, this interim package... is it a good deal?
Gillibrand: It's a step in the right direction. It's money for small businesses that's immediate, which is urgently needed. It's $300 billion urgently for small businesses, which is good. It has money for testing. $25 billion to start a chain of testing and some money for our hospitals. It's got $75 billion for hospitals and our medical profession, who are literally our frontline warfighters right now. ... It's not everything. It was never intended to be the next big bill. It was intended to be an interim bill.
So I think it's a good first step. A good next step. And there'll be another next step and another next step. I wouldn't be surprised if there's five more bills before we're through this.
And so I would just urge New Yorkers to keep being heard, making sure their concerns are being met. To the extent the SBA lending still isn't working for you or your business, call my office. So any family or organization that needs our help. We are working 24/7 on the phones to help people everywhere they need it.
*Funding for testing was still under negotiation as of Monday afternoon.