Senate GOP Proposes Stripped Back COVID-19 Relief Bill

By Megan Walter, NASFAA Policy & Federal Relations Staff

On Tuesday evening, Senate Republicans released a slimmed down version of the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act, the $1 trillion economic stimulus bill introduced in July to supplement the earlier Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The new stripped down bill, colloquially called a “skinny” bill, focuses largely on funding the United States Postal Service (USPS), continuing — though reduced — unemployment benefits, and providing liability protections for businesses, schools, and other institutions. 

The bill — the Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act — would provide an Education Stabilization Fund with $105 billion for programs housed under the Department of Education (ED), with just over $29 billion directed to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which would provide grants directly to institutions of higher education, based largely on the enrollment of full-time equivalent Pell Grant recipients. 

The HEERF funds distribution mirrors the HEALS Act, with 85% of the funds to be distributed to institutions based 90% on the enrollment of full-time equivalent Pell Grant recipients who were not exclusively enrolled in distance education at the onset of the pandemic, and 10% on full-time equivalent non-Pell Grant recipients who were not exclusively enrolled in distance education. 

Of the funding left, 10% would be distributed to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) to address needs directly related to COVID-19, and the final 5% would be directed to institutions that the secretary of education determines to have “the greatest unmet needs related to coronavirus.”

While the bill allows institutions to use the funds to defray costs they incurred due to the coronavirus and to provide emergency financial aid grants to students, including those exclusively enrolled in distance education, the bill does not specify an amount that must be distributed directly to students. The bill does not address student eligibility for emergency grants except for students enrolled exclusively in distance education.

Institutions subject to the endowment tax, not including work colleges, would have allocations reduced by 50% and would only be permitted to use funds for emergency grants to students. 

The bill also creates a $5.25 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF). The GEERF allows ED to make supplemental Emergency Education Relief grants to the governor of each state upon completion of an approved application. The funds can be used to provide emergency support to educational agencies, including institutions of higher education, that have been deemed most significantly impacted by coronavirus. The grants received could be used to aid the agency or institution in providing educational services and support the agency’s or institution’s ongoing functionality. 

Again, Senate Republicans chose not to include or extend any provisions for borrower relief that were originally included in the CARES Act. And with only $29 billion directed to institutions, the bill would not provide nearly enough money to make up for higher education shortfalls and reopening costs estimated by many institutions. 

It remains to be seen whether the bill will be brought to a vote on the Senate floor, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Ky.) isn’t sure that his party will have enough votes to send the bill to the House, and doesn't “want to interfere with the GOP convention” next week. House Democrats, who in May proposed a landmark $3 trillion dollar bill to supplement the CARES Act, have said they are open to negotiations if Senate Republicans will come up from their $1 trillion bill proposal, which was not done with this newest proposed bill. 

While the House was called back from recess due to USPS upheaval, the Senate is not scheduled to return to Washington until after Labor Day, making the path to finalizing a bill unclear. 


Publication Date: 8/20/2020

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