Second round of COVID-19 relief provides help to rural Americans, packed with other benefits

Late into the night on Dec. 21, just before their return home for the holiday, Congress passed its version of an early Christmas present to many in America who have been affected by COVID-19.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate Amendment to H.R. 133, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2021, which not only offered up $900 billion in COVID-19 relief to Americans, but also appropriated $1.4 trillion for fiscal year 2021. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-OK, said in a statement, “The package passed today provides Paycheck Protection Program loans helping the hardest hit businesses, delivers additional federal unemployment aid, and gives individuals and families ore direct stimulus—all a bridge through the next few months until mass immunization occurs.

“It also provides funding for K-12 schools to reopen safely and responsibly as well as an investment of $69 billion for the procurement and distribution of coronavirus vaccines,” he added.

The bill faced an unexpected hurdle when President Donald Trump announced his opposition in a public address Dec. 23. He called the bill a "disgrace" and said the stimulus checks should be $2,000 per individual and $4,000 per couple, not $600 and $1,200, respectively.

Agriculture and the food supply chain

The pandemic revealed gaps and challenges to America’s food supply chain in the past nine months. From the early challenges of switching from a food service to retail supply chain, to rising use of America’s food banks by the suddenly unemployed, Congress had to find a way to address feeding the nation in this act. According to Rep. Lucas’s office, one such measure in the act establishes a grant program for small meat and poultry processors to upgrade their businesses so that they can be federally and state inspected, allowing them to sell their products across state lines. That’s one way to fill the retail meat demand from Americans eating at home.

The act provides:

• $13 billion in a third round of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program support of farmers, ranchers and the agriculture sector. The funds will target specialty crop, non-specialty crop, livestock, dairy, and poultry producers.

• $1.5 billion will be directly used to purchase food and ag products for distribution through nonprofit organizations like food banks, and for buying Personal Protective Equipment for food processors.

• For those livestock producers who had to depopulate their animals due to the bottlenecked processing capacity at the start of the pandemic, the act will compensate producers 80% of the fair market value of the animal, plus the cost to depopulate. And for cattle producers who fell in the gap between CFAP 1 and CFAP 2, it provides an inventory top-up payment.

• The Renewable Fuels Association reported that the bill explicitly provides eligibility to renewable fuel producers as entities able to receive COVID-19 emergency relief. It also extends key tax provisions that support expansion in the renewable fuels industry, including the Second Generation Biofuel Producer Tax Credit, Alternative Fuel Refueling Property Credit and the Section 45Q tax credit for carbon sequestration.

“More than half of the ethanol industry shut down during the extraordinary demand collapse in the spring and producers across the country still have not fully recovered from that market shock,” said RFA President and CEO Geoff Cooper in a statement. “The pandemic has cost the industry nearly $4 billion in lost revenue to date, with losses expected to continue well into 2021.” The bill extends through 2021 the $1.01 per gallon nonrefundable income tax credit for second-generation biofuel sales and more.

The Livestock Marketing Association reported that among the many benefits to livestock producers included in the bill, there’s a Dealer Statutory Trust that was included in the package. Modeled after the existing Packer Statutory Trust, the Dealer Statutory Trust will give unpaid sellers of livestock first priority in recouping their losses if buyers default in payment.

The Texas Cattle Feeders Association reported that the FY21 omnibus package also:

• Extends the Livestock Mandatory Reporting through Sept. 30, 2021.

• Extends the waiver from Electronic Logging Devices for livestock haulers through FY21.

• Provides $32 million in funding for the Ag Quarantine Inspection through FY21.

• Provides $115 million for the Bureau of Land Management to continue its multi-year project to decrease wild horse populations in FY21.

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The American Veterinary Medical Association reported that language was included in the bill to directly help animal health infrastructure that can respond to animal disease prevention and response capacity. Including:

• $8.5 million for the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, $3 million for the Veterinary Services Grant Program, and $2.5 million for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank;

• A $3.2 million increase for the APHIS Center for Veterinary Biologics;

• Funding for APHIS Animal Welfare Act enforcement and APHIS Horse Protection Act Enforcement;

• Funding increases for USDA research, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and the Foreign Animal Disease program at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility; and

• $2.5 million in funding for the Protecting Animals with Shelter program.

Health care funding

The battle to reopen America and slow the spread of COVID-19 is being waged in American hospitals. Now that there are two vaccines with emergency use approvals from the FDA, that reopening is on track for 2021. But between now and when vast numbers of Americans are vaccinated, thus slowing the community spread of COVID-19, health care workers and rural hospitals need assistance in the fight.

The act will spend $20 billion to procure COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. It also will allocated $8.75 billion to distribute those vaccines and another $3 billion is earmarked to rebuild the National Strategic Stockpile.

It also funds COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and mitigation programs. And there’s funds earmarked for individuals and families affected by the mental health effects of COVID-19.

Fighting the pandemic on the frontlines has been devastating to many first responders and health care workers, and the act sets aside $3 billion for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Provider Relief Fund. It also ends surprise medical billing.

Benefits to individuals and businesses

The act will provide direct payments to individuals, families and small businesses to help Americans recover from the pandemic. Among the economic relief benefits are the following:

• A $600 stimulus check per individual or child, and $1,200 per married couple, based on IRS 2019 tax information.

• Adds $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits through March 14, 2021, and extends those benefits to self-employed individuals, gig workers and those who have run out state unemployment benefits.

• Extends the CDC eviction moratorium through Jan. 31, and provides $25 billion in rental assistance.

• Provides $13 billion to increase food stamp benefits by 15%.

Families and rural businesses that had to work and educate their children at home during the pandemic felt the gap in broadband internet connectivity the hardest these last 9 months.

Rep. Ron Estes, R-KS, released a statement supporting the $300 million earmarked in the act for broadband infrastructure in unserved areas, and prioritizes those and rural areas for deployment. It also establishes a $1 billion program at NTIA to support broadband infrastructure for federally recognized tribal nations, according to Rep. Lucas.

The act aims to fix some of the obstacles and loopholes to the Paycheck Protection Program from the first CARES Act at the start of the pandemic 9 months ago. With $284.5 billion allocated to the Paycheck Protection Program for first time and second time borrowers, it creates a farmer and rancher calculation. It also created a simplified PPP loan forgiveness application for loans under $150,000, expands the list of eligible expenses to include property damage costs due to public disturbances that weren’t covered by insurance, and caps the maximum loan amount for a second PPP loan at $2 million.

Getting students back into the classroom

One vital part of reopening the nation and getting the economy back on its feet is ensuring that children can go back to school safely and responsibly as the vaccine rollout spreads across the nation this winter and spring. The act sets aside $82 billion for an Education Stabilization Fund, which includes:

• $2.75 billion for private schools to cover costs due to the pandemic.

• $54.94 billion for the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Fund, which serves public schools K-12.

• $22.96 billion for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

The act also forgives nearly $1.3 billion in federal loans to historically Black colleges and universities.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].