Oregon senators push for coastal support

Oregon’s two U.S. senators are pushing for direct payments to small businesses and mass purchases of seafood to better help coastal communities in the next federal coronavirus relief bill.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley joined coastal legislators for a virtual town hall Friday before returning Monday to the Capitol, where they face a slate of coronavirus-related priorities.

Wyden, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, said he is proposing payments worth up to 30% of a company’s gross revenue the previous year, or $75,000, whichever is lower, to help businesses with fewer than 50 employees and less than $1 million in gross revenue.

Small business owners have complained they have largely missed out on the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan intended to help cover payroll and other expenses for businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

“I just think in all these packages, small business has really been the forgotten constituency, so I’ve really zeroed in on that,” Wyden said by phone Monday.

The Oregon Democrat’s proposal would help provide the liquidity many small businesses rely on to stay open, he said.

Merkley is asking Congress to buy $2 billion in seafood as part of the next coronavirus relief bill.

The seafood industry received $300 million from the first $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed in March. But Merkley said during the virtual town hall that the previous relief package isn’t enough for a seafood industry losing much of its domestic market with restaurants shuttered and more people cooking at home and eating less fish.

“That translates to the prices our fishermen are paid, and the ability to sustain the entire coastal fishing economy,” the Oregon Democrat said.

His proposal will target the types of fish usually sold at restaurants. In addition to the seafood purchases, Merkley’s idea would pump $1.5 billion into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for targeted relief to damaged fisheries across the country.

Wyden said he hopes to have a lot of frozen seafood in a strategic food reserve he has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support in Oregon.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already fragile food supply chain in Oregon and the nation,” Wyden wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “The farmers and agriculture producers who help feed my state have been hit hard by this pandemic and the need for a program that provides long-term stability in times of crisis, has never been more apparent.”

Wyden asked for emergency food supplies to fill a 70% increase in demand food banks have experienced and said the USDA could support farms and ranches with loans, purchases, payments and other operations; buying and donating food to domestic relief agencies; and developing new domestic markets for agricultural commodities.

“I ask the USDA to use its capacity to support the current hunger needs in Oregon and an Oregon-specific program that identifies immediate availability of food that is in oversupply and at risk of being dumped due to market disruption,” Wyden wrote to Purdue. “It can also work with and pay Oregon processors to freeze, aseptically pack, dry and create shelf-life for their product to go into storage.”

Wyden, who helped create the law expanding federal unemployment benefits through July, including the $600 weekly payments, said he is also negotiating a trigger that would extend the expansion longer if employment hasn’t recovered.

“At the end of July, if the economy has come back, it’s not an issue,” he said. “But if, say, there’s a lot of continued economic hurt, you could have a trigger to ensure the extra benefits were tied to labor conditions on the ground.”

Wyden and Merkley, along with 31 other legislators, have also pushed for more funding for local, state and tribal governments to receive flexible funding in the next coronavirus relief bill.

Democrats have proposed more than $500 billion in such aid, with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently suggesting around $1 trillion. Cities around the U.S. are facing massive budget shortfalls, including those on the North Coast losing lodging tax revenue to government restrictions over the virus.

“Not only are these public servants on the front line of the immediate response effort, they are also major employers navigating unprecedented declines in revenue just as the need for their services hits an all-time high,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. “We can and we must work together to get this essential funding to our local partners as quickly as possible.”