As Congress considered a massive COVID-19 relief package earlier this year, hundreds of mayors from across the U.S. pleaded for “immediate action” on billions of dollars targeted to shore up their finances and revive their communities.
Now that they’ve received it, local officials are taking their time before actually spending the windfall.
As of this summer, a majority of large cities and states hadn’t spent a penny from the American Rescue Plan championed by Democrats and President Joe Biden, according to an Associated Press review of the first financial reports due under the law. States had spent just 2.5 percent of their initial allotment while large cities spent 8.5 percent, according to the AP analysis.
Many state and local governments reported they were still working on plans for their share of the $350 billion, which can be spent on a wide array of programs.
Though Biden signed the law in March, the Treasury Department didn’t release the money and spending guidelines until May. By then, some state legislatures already had wrapped up their budget work for the next year, leaving governors with no authority to spend the new money. Some states waited several more months to ask the federal government for their share.
Cities sometimes delayed decisions while soliciting suggestions from the public. And some government officials — still trying to figure out how to spend previous rounds of federal pandemic aid — simply didn’t see an urgent need for the additional cash.
“It’s a lot of money that’s been put out there. I think it’s a good sign that it hasn’t been frivolously spent,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said. He was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors when more than 400 mayors signed a letter urging Congress to quickly pass Biden’s plan.
The law gives states until the end of 2024 to make spending commitments and the end of 2026 to spend the money. Any money not obligated or spent by those dates must be returned to the federal government.
The Biden administration said it isn’t concerned about the early pace of the initiative. The aid to governments is intended both “to address any crisis needs” and to provide “longer-term fire power to ensure a durable and equitable recovery,” said Gene Sperling, White House American Rescue Plan coordinator.
“The fact that you can spread your spending out is a feature, not a bug, of the program. It is by design,” Sperling told the AP.
The Treasury Department set an aggressive reporting schedule to try to prod local planning. It required states, counties and cities with estimated populations of at least 250,000 to file reports by Aug. 31 detailing their spending as of the previous month as well as future plans.
More than half the states and nearly two-thirds of the roughly 90 largest cities reported no initial spending. The governments reported future plans for about 40 percent of their total funds.