More funding for rural counties and assistance for small businesses are high on U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s agenda for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wyden, D-Oregon, said the healthcare crisis has made it even clearer how important it is for Douglas and other rural counties to have Secure Rural Schools funding on a permanent and stable basis.
Wyden co-authored the first Secure Rural Schools legislation in 2000 to replace money the counties formerly received from federal timber revenue sharing.
Secure Rural Schools funds provide money for local governments and are critical to the operations of county government. But it has had to be re-approved every year, or two or three, and has occasionally skipped a year.
Wyden re-introduced legislation in 2019 to make the funding permanent. Wyden and a bipartisan group of 23 other senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday calling for action to be taken as quickly as possible.
Wyden said in a phone interview with The News-Review on Thursday he is optimistic McConnell will consider it.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew that rural communities were just on a roller coaster,” he said. “And what the pandemic has shown is that these systems, we’ve got to get them fixed.”
Wyden also announced Thursday he will push for a program in the next COVID-19 relief funding package to include cash payments for very small businesses, with gross receipts of under $1 million and 50 or fewer employees.
His proposal would enable those businesses to receive checks for 30% of the gross receipts reported in a previous year, up to $75,000.
Those businesses often need relatively small amounts of cash for things like insurance or equipment that are really important to them, Wyden said.
“So my hope is that I can get some bipartisan support for something like that that recognizes that in a multi-trillion dollar budget this is not a big item but it’ll make a big difference to a lot of small businesses,” Wyden said.
He acknowledged difficulties small businesses have faced getting the loans already passed under the previous relief package, and said they’re understandably furious when they read in the news that some large corporations have been receiving loan money.
He said he pushed the Trump administration, the Small Business Administration and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin hard to put out a new framework to make clear the money was “intended for the small businesses and not for the big guys.”
“They put out the guidance today to basically limit the loans that were going to the big guys, so that’s a step in the right direction,” Wyden said.
Wyden also said he’s pushing for aid for rural hospitals in the next relief package because many of them have been hurt financially by shutdowns of non-emergency services.
Wyden said every day at his desk in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., he’s working on legislation he hopes will get needed benefits to Oregonians.
He feels optimistic that Americans will beat COVID-19, and said Oregon “really stepped up on this virus.”
He said the state’s infection and death rates are lower than many states’ rates because because “a lot of Oregonians said we’re in this together” and practiced social distancing and followed other safety recommendations.
“I’m really proud of our state, and I like to think that sitting at my desk for weeks on end trying to get help to deserving Oregonians has been able to provide a measure of comfort to folks at a time when there’s obvious tremendous concern and worry about family and friends and community,” he said.