Wyoming could see $1.25B in aid

CASPER — Wyoming could receive $1.25 billion in federal aid under a massive, multi-trillion dollar stimulus package signed by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday to address the financial impacts incurred by state and local governments from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A small piece of the $150 billion in total aid headed to state, local and tribal governments under a deal reached early Wednesday by Senate leadership, the funding could be a critical part of balancing out any increased expenditures that state and local governments may have taken on to deal with the crisis between March 1 and December 30. 

The $150 billion is significantly higher than a $20 billion figure contained in the original GOP-led version of the bill earlier this week, and much smaller than the more than $700 billion amount floated by Democrats in their talks nearly one week ago. 

An estimated $688 million of Wyoming’s $1.25 billion share will go to the state while the rest will go to local governments, according to a Federal Funds Information For States readout obtained by the Star-Tribune.

However, it is still hazy what those funds can be spent on, only covering expenses deemed necessary to deal with the public health aspect of the emergency or for spending not accounted for in the state’s most recently approved budget. 

In Wyoming’s case, the budget fitting that definition would be the one signed earlier this month that would cover state spending from 2021-22. 

However, spokespersons in Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso’s offices did not offer clarification by press time. 

Gov. Mark Gordon, who said Wednesday he had been briefed on the specifics of the deal in a morning call with the National Governors Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

While the legislation — which still needs to pass the U.S. House of Representatives — could change before likely being signed into law this week, there are a number of other provisions benefiting state and local governments in the bill, including:  $4.3 billion to support federal, state and local public health agencies to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19;  $200 million for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to assist nursing homes with infection control and support states;  $1 billion specifically to aid tribal governments;  $850 million in Byrne-JAG grants for state and local law enforcement and jails to purchase personal protection equipment, medical supplies and cover overtime costs;  $400 million in election assistance for state and local governments if the virus persists into election season.

As of press time, it is unclear when the bill will receive a final vote to be sent to President Donald Trump’s desk for a signature. 

While the deal already stands as one of the largest single infusions of funding ever put into the economy, more money could be coming down the pike, Barrasso hinted in an interview on Fox Business on Wednesday morning, noting that the deal was intended to rescue the economy first, with the potential to stimulate it with more money later. 

“There may need to be additional work later in terms of stimulating an economy,” Barrasso said. “This, to me, is a rescue and relief package for the economy.” 

It seems the loss of income — rather than new expenses — are likely to be the problem for most. 

While Gordon said in a press conference last week that state agencies are currently operating within their existing budgets, local governments are likely to understand the hits to their own budgets sometime in the coming weeks, when they receive updated figures from the declines in sales tax many municipalities have seen in the weeks since social isolation policies began to take effect. 

How those dips in revenue will affect different regions and their abilities to run their governments will vary widely, depending on how much revenue they take in and how much they have in reserves, Wyoming County Commissioners’ Association President Troy Thompson said. 

“The counties with significant amounts in reserves, I think, are probably a little less concerned at this point,” he said in an interview this week. “But I think everyone is concerned. We’re worried about the health of our county employees and the health of people in our communities and, from a budget standpoint, we’re probably going to see immediate drops in sales tax income.”

In Converse County, Jim Wilcox — a commissioner there — was taking his turn as a volunteer “greeter” at the local courthouse, where social distancing restrictions have limited the number of people who are allowed in the building at any given time and necessitated a number of “friendly faces” to send visitors in the right direction. 

In cash-flush Converse County, the biggest immediate impacts to government have been in the way it does business, from facilitating requests remotely to offering other services — like license plate renewals or property tax documentation — through the mail or online. 

Other counties have looked to different solutions to keep operations running smoothly, like using an Amazon Alexa device in county offices to limit people’s contact with the telephone. 

“There is no template, so this doesn’t fit into any situation or scenario you’ve been working with in your preparations,” Wilcox said. 

In the meantime, the biggest concerns for the state’s county commissioners lie with other unknowns, like what happens when they have to close the courthouse, or completely shift their work forces to working from home. Spending money to address those solutions — while trimming back on some capital construction expenses — will likely be the biggest solutions to their cash flow. 

“Right now, we’re seeing some increase in technology expense,” he said. “We’ll probably see an increase in mailing expenses as well, but none of those are large-ticket items yet.”