It’s hard to pinpoint just how inadequate Colorado’s newly-approved $342 million pandemic relief package is to plug the numerous and profound forms of economic leakage among people, businesses and institutions here, said Dominick Moreno, the top budget official in the state legislature.
But if he had to estimate how great the actual need is, “I’d put that number in the billions.”
The amount needed to get Colorado through this far-from-over pandemic, added Moreno, a Democratic state senator from Commerce City, and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, is “not in the single-digits billions. It’s in the tens of billions.”
Since March, about $25 billion in various forms of federal relief money has flowed into Colorado, Moreno said. With that money mostly depleted, and no new round of federal economic stimulus, state lawmakers held a special session last week, in an effort to spread some relief to the ever-growing number of people facing hunger, housing insecurity, business losses and unemployment.
But lawmakers are under no delusion that the $342 million package they passed, which included assistance for sources including small businesses, food pantries, childcare providers, renters and landlords, will cure what ails Colorado. The state can’t deficit-spend and must pass balanced budgets, which is why the package isn’t bigger.
“It might buy us a couple weeks,” Moreno said. “That’s what we could do.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis consistently referred to the special session as a “bridge” to what they hope will be another round of federal stimulus. Talks in Washington on this front reportedly have accelerated in recent days, but there’s no promise of a specific date or total money amount for a potential national aid bill.
And many Coloradans who are counting on aid have been clear that they can’t hang on much longer.
“Little bit of breathing room”
David Diaz, who owns the Edgewater personal training company Fitness Together, said he’s expecting the special session will net up to about $7,000 in relief.
Earlier this year he received $27,000 in relief — $5,000 of that came from the city of Edgewater — but even that, plus a likely upcoming boost out of the special session, isn’t nearly enough to float his business and its employees, who work in an industry that’s been about as hard-hit as any during the pandemic. Gyms were closed entirely early in the pandemic, then allowed to reopen, with capacity limits shrinking as the virus has spread and government has added restrictions.
An extra $7,000, Diaz said, “could cover almost a payroll.”
“That gives you a little bit of breathing room,” he added. “I appreciate the state doing this, I’m very grateful for it, but I think so many businesses need help from the feds.”
The state agrees, of course. And there’s a general consensus among unions and professional associations this week that the state stimulus is helpful, but, as Diaz and Moreno say, it doesn’t at all minimize the desperate need many see for new federal dollars.
Diaz put everything into this business in 2005. He quit his old job, leveraged his home and depleted his savings down to $2,000. And while he’s optimistic that Fitness Together will survive the pandemic, he’s taking a massive step backward this year and may, in effect, have to rebuild aspects of his business from close to scratch. He said his staff of four, which he’s been lucky to hang onto since March, is looking for other work now.
Samiksha Bindra, owner of Mad Science, a Denver-based mobile learning company that does work statewide and relies heavily on contracts with schools for in-person programming, feels similar anxiety.
She started the company about 20 years ago, and, since the spring, she’s had to let go of all 28 part-time staff she employed. She lost most of them in one fell swoop in March, when schools closed, and the others in July. What was once a five-member full-time staff is down to two, including her. The special session, she said, gave her hope that her business won’t have to close after this month.
“But if the schools aren’t back in January, I don’t think beyond January, February we can survive,” she said. “I’m still hoping against hope.”
A statement to The Denver Post from Eat Denver, a group that comprises and advocates for dozens of local restaurants, read in part: “We are concerned that thousands of restaurants will be applying for a small pot of money. Overall, our limited state budgets just aren’t able to give significant relief to restaurants and other industries.”
Added Eat Denver’s Dana Query, who co-owns 12 restaurants in Colorado through her company, Big Red F, “I don’t think there’s any way for (the state stimulus) to be anything but a Band-Aid.”
That metaphor may even overstate the usefulness of this money, several recipients of state relief said.
“It’s a Band-Aid on a volcano,” said Dianne Myles, owner of the Denver creative content agency Dope Mom Life. Myles counts herself as fortunate, because business for her has actually been good lately. She knows many small business owners aren’t as lucky.
“It doesn’t solve anything”
Similar to struggling business owners, many individuals and households are simply hanging on right now, grateful for a short-term boost from the state but highly anxious about what 2021 might bring. In addition to the spending that came out of the special session, the state also sent out $322 direct payments — $375, minus taxes — to some 408,000 Coloradans who’ve faced unemployment and who earn less than $52,000 annually.
And that stimulus money does make a difference, recipients said.
“Any time you can get 30% of your rent covered, it is always helpful,” Reid Bervik, of Denver, wrote in a note to The Post. “It doesn’t solve anything, unfortunately, as you know rent will continue and the pandemic will continue. I’ve had to bounce around to different retail jobs (Walmart, Home Depot, Lululemon) to try to make ends meet. And I drive Shipt grocery delivery. So not a solve, really wish federally the government actually cared.”
Thousands of workers in the state have relied upon federal aid to get by. But among the many federal funding sources that have expired or are expiring before year’s end are two pandemic unemployment benefit programs authorized by the CARES Act, which means some of the roughly 150,000 Coloradans relying on those programs are looking extra warily toward the new year. The amounts of money people get from those two programs varies by income level, and the programs combined have paid out about $1.1 billion in Colorado to date, the state reports.
Katie Johnson, who works in community arts in Lakewood and who has lost more than half of her normal paid hours, has for months been bleeding about $500 every four weeks. She said she’s got about $4,000 in savings, but at this rate, in the absence of federal intervention — or, ideally, a swift end to the pandemic and a rebirth for the performing arts industry — she’s not feeling confident beyond next summer.
“I see people in the street and they ask me for money and I’m like, ‘I can’t, man. If I do, I’m you,’” she said.
Johnson said she put her $322 check from the state toward a new laptop, which is her primary means of connecting with her loved ones and friends, as she lives alone and now is largely in isolation.
Having just passed the aid package, the state legislature is expected to take a few weeks off before starting its regular annual session on Jan. 13. The spending lawmakers just authorized involved one-time available funds, however, and they have been blunt about the fact they can’t simply run it back come next month, barring an unlikely turnaround in revenue projections for the state’s heavily damaged budget.
Said Fitness Together’s Diaz, “The crystal ball is definitely the most foggy I’ve seen it in in my 15 years in business.”
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