(The Center Square) – Georgia's neediest communities were left out of previous rounds of federal aid meant to help states recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, community leaders told a legislative panel Wednesday.
As lawmakers prepare to decide how to spend the next round of taxpayer-funded federal aid, the Senate Interstate Cooperation Committee held a public hearing Wednesday to allow Georgians to voice their concerns and recommendations.
"There is no playbook for this pandemic," said Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, vice chair of the committee. "Everything we're doing, we're trying to make sure that our country remains viable economically, remains healthy and on and on and on."
The sixth federal COVID-19 relief plan, the American Rescue Plan Act, was signed into law in March by President Joe Biden. The $1.9 trillion package includes about $17 billion for Georgia. It earmarks funding for fiscal relief for state and local governments, education, housing, food assistance and additional funding for grant programs. The U.S. Treasury on Monday issued guidance for $350 billion in direct aid earmarked for state, local, territorial and tribal governments.
Many of the Georgians who testified before the panel Wednesday said the other rounds of aid did not do enough to address needs in rural communities and among the homeless population, Black Georgians and small business owners.
Warner Robins resident and business owner Fenika Miller said lawmakers should ensure the aid will be distributed equitably and not based on the status quo.
"We need more transparency and accountability for regional economic centers across the state, and we need mandates for Black economic project assistance," Miller said. "We want to make sure that federal funds are appropriately distributed and overseen through an anchor with an equity lens and that there's a mechanism in place on the front end to track that data and the use of those funds."
The U.S. Small Business Administration has approved more than $782 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans to more than 10 million businesses. Nearly 323,000 Georgia businesses have received $9.4 billion in loans.
The program, established through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was designed to help small businesses retain their employees after COVID-19 shutdowns. Recent reports, however, show thousands of loans were granted to companies that were not eligible and major corporations and small and minority-owned businesses disproportionately received less aid.
According to the Brookings Institution, small businesses received an uneven share of the aid because of a lack of outreach and understanding of the process.
Alice White Bussey, a business owner and chair of the Concerned Black Clergy of Metro Atlanta, said the federal government should reevaluate the process.
"We can have Congress allocate funds, but we do not have the procedures, nor processes put in place," Bussey said. "The paper forms that they're using don't even represent small business. They just use boilerplates for large banks that they use for bigger business."
Andrew Heaton, state outreach director for U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said local governments and small towns and cities could request relief from the American Rescue Plan Act directly from the U.S. Treasury.
"We hear a lot in the media about how there's just been this economic boom and this amazing economic recovery," Heaton said. "Yes, for a lot of our areas in the country, for many companies and corporations, they're doing great, but I think those of us in the room know that there are too many communities at all levels that are in fact still struggling and are still working to get past the damage that was done through this year of the pandemic."
Committee Chair state Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, urged local governments and organizations to send in one-page proposals for the federal aid to the committee.