Democrats decry slow spending of Indiana’s federal virus aid

("Indiana Statehouse" by Shawna Pierson, CC BY 2.0)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP): Indiana officials are still holding back on spending more than half of the $2.4 billion state government received in federal coronavirus relief funding.

Democrats on the State Budget Committee questioned Tuesday why there wasn’t more urgency in spending the money on the immediate needs of people around the state, while Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s top budget adviser blamed some of that on confusion over federal rules.

State Office of Management and Budget Director Cristopher Johnston presented a report to committee members showing that only $225 million, or less than 10%, of that money had been spent by the end of August. The report showed nearly $1.1 billion in total had been spent or committed toward programs or expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down much of Indiana’s economy through the spring and has killed nearly 3,500 people.

Democratic Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis said he was concerned about the slow distribution of the money approved by Congress in March for several of those state programs.

Among those he pointed out were only $17 million of $300 million dedicated to local governments being distributed so far, along with $960,000 of $30 million for small business grants and $19 million of $40 million for rent payment assistance.

“This is September 15th, I just don’t see us spending the money, getting the money out the door,” said Porter, the top Democrat on the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee. “I am very concerned about these dollars getting out, period.”

Johnston said he believed the rental assistance program money would be spent soon as so far 9,000 applicants had received payments and that some 10,000 more applications were being reviewed. He also said he expected the local government money would be fully claimed once city and county leaders had better instructions from federal officials on what are allowable payroll expenses related to coronavirus matters.

Congress approved $150 billion for states and local governments in March. That money was targeted to cover coronavirus-related costs by the end of this year, not to offset declining revenue resulting from the recession.

Holcomb is among some governors pushing for greater flexibility in spending the money on the state’s existing budget even though Congress and the Trump administration have been deadlocked on a new coronavirus relief package.

Holcomb has said his administration is being deliberate with spending decisions, while Johnston said Tuesday an unknown was whether states would gain any flexibility.

“Based on the last four months, I’m not going to predict anything,” Johnston said.

Democratic Rep. Carey Hamilton of Indianapolis said the state needed to address serious concerns for residents, including some 300,000 rental households facing possible evictions, widespread small business closings, and people struggling to buy food and pay utility bills.

“We’re just kind of waiting to hear, waiting to hear — it’s now the middle of September,” Hamilton said. “The more we can help Hoosiers from falling behind significantly, the quicker our economy will be able to rebound from this crisis.”


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