Expanding broadband access and providing further support for education, rural health care and businesses as they face COVID-19 challenges were among the topics discussed Thursday morning in a virtual meeting between local leaders and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
Blackburn met for 30 minutes with leaders representing local governments, both public school systems, Tusculum University, the Greene County Partnership and local businesses and industries. The Tennessee senator answered questions from the participants during the call about a variety of issues, most related to the COVID-19 pandemic and possible federal assistance.
Last year, Blackburn, a Republican from Brentwood, visited each of the state’s 95 counties on a listening tour. However, the coronavirus pandemic changed plans to do a similar listening tour this year.
“We decided to do a virtual tour because we don’t want to fall behind in hearing your concerns and addressing needs,” she said.
The federal government has set aside billions of dollars in funds for health care, education, law enforcement and small businesses to help with the challenges the pandemic presents. These funds have been funneled to each state, with $33 million going to Tennessee, and the state has used the resources, Blackburn said.
Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison asked the senator questions submitted by local officials, and the need for rural broadband access was a theme found in several of the inquiries, he said.
“This is the Tennessee Valley Authority of our time,” Morrison said. “We have learned over the past three months how important it is to be able to do things in an alternative way in a cohesive manner. It is going to require that concentrated accessibility.”
While broadband use has increased over the last few years, need for expansion still exists as there are areas where the service is not available or people are not adopting the service if it is available, Blackburn said.
“Getting that adoption rate up is something that will be important moving forward,” she said.
The Federal Communications Commission has funds available for technology to assist education and health care, Blackburn said. She encouraged the local officials to work with state officials to obtain funding for broadband initiatives.
With the pandemic, some thinking outside of the box may be needed to address the existing lack of broadband accessibility in the immediate future, Blackburn said. Some school systems have equipped buses with Wi-FI as the vehicles are used to deliver meals for children. The buses are parked at fire halls or other locations within areas without broadband access to allow families to pick up the food and receive internet service, she said.
She encouraged local leaders to visit the grants.gov website to explore possible funding for broadband expansion as well as for projects in other areas.
The FCC assistance can provide access that will make telehealth a possibility for a larger number of people as well, Blackburn said.
The allowance of reimbursements for telehealth care will likely continue after the pandemic passes, she said.
“What we have learned with COVID-19 is that while telehealth was previously seen as a luxury or a convenience, it is a necessity,” she said.
Asked about measures the federal government is taking to help rural hospitals, Blackburn noted the support for telehealth and grant funding available to establish free-standing emergency rooms that can refer patients to hospitals if needed.
TAX, UNEMPLOYMENT CONCERNS
With the coronavirus, shortfalls in sales tax revenue are a concern for municipalities and school systems in Tennessee, Morrison said.
Greene County Partnership President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Taylor asked if federal assistance would be provided for public schools as most states are facing shortfalls of revenue and are cutting allocations.
As part of the CARES Act, $2.5 billion to $3 billion was allocated to Tennessee, Blackburn said, and the governor has not distributed a portion of those funds to cities and counties while waiting for more flexible language from the federal government dictating how the funds can be used.
There is currently not a call for additional federal funds to go directly to cities and counties. There is $129 billion earmarked for COVID relief that has not been used yet, Blackburn said. “I don’t see a push for additional funding until those funds are expended,” she added.
However, she said, there are calls for regulatory relief, tax credits and liability protection on the federal level.
“What we hear from a lot employers is that they would like to a see a payroll tax holiday,” she said. “That would put more pay in the pocket of the employees and save the employers that expense.”
The payroll holiday would also help address another business concern about people returning to work, Blackburn said in response to a question about the possible extension of the federal unemployment benefit being provided now due to the coronavirus.
The unemployment benefit is not expected to be extended past its original July deadline, she said. A question had been asked by industry representatives about the benefit amid their concern that employees would not want to return to work due to the amount of their unemployment.
However, Blackburn said, if a person is asked to return to work and fails to do so, that person will lose the unemployment pay.
Federal officials have also discussed a holiday on taxes assessed on capital investments, Blackburn said.
Allowing businesses a tax deduction based on how much has been spent on measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is also under consideration, she said.
Possible federal legislation concerning liability protection was addressed in a question from Tusculum University President Scott Hummel. The Tennessee Senate recently passed a bill that would provide liability protection from COVID-19 claims. However, the state House of Representatives did not pass the legislation.
There is currently work on a federal bill that would provide liability protection from a legal claim that an individual contracted the coronavirus at a particular location such as a retail store, restaurant or school, Blackburn said.
The liability protection was included in the initial CARES Act proposal but was removed by “our friends across the aisle,” she said. “We are continuing to do work to address this on a federal level, and it is my understanding that the governor is considering opening a special session of the General Assembly to address a liability bill.”
Hummel also asked about possibly expanding Pell grant and other federal student assistance programs due to the coronavirus.
Blackburn responded that an expansion of those programs is not expected but measures have been put in place to accelerate the process to determine eligibility and the amount of aid and get that information more quickly to students and their parents.