Trump Approves ‘Major Disaster Declaration' for DC

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President Donald Trump approved a "major disaster declaration" for Washington, D.C., on Sunday, freeing up federal funds as the city's coronavirus cases continue to rise.

"FEMA announced that federal emergency aid has been made available for the District of Columbia to supplement the District’s recovery efforts in the areas affected by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic beginning on Jan. 20, 2020 and continuing," the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a release.

Federal funding is also available to D.C. and certain private nonprofit organizations for "emergency protective measures."

D.C. leaders called on Congress to adjust the coronavirus relief bill that Trump passed last week, saying it would give the District less than half the money allocated to states though D.C. has more residents than two states.

Each state stands to get a minimum of $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund but the District will only get about $500 million, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said in a letter Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Mayor Muriel Bowser and every other member of the council signed on.

"It would be unconscionable to provide the District, which pays the most in federal taxes per capita, with the least amount of relief funding per capita of any state," the letter said.

Some D.C. residents are struggling to get basic necessities amid the coronavirus pandemic. News4’s Jackie Bensen explains how one D.C. Council member is helping.


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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called the disparity "shameful" and "outrageous."

Bowser and Mendelson appeared together at a press conference Thursday, saying that D.C. was unfairly grouped with territories even though the District carries a heavier tax burden than such places.

"We are hopeful that the Congress will rectify this shortfall. Because this affects people. This is not simply a statehood issue," Mendelson said. "We are seeing people suffer."

The funding allocation amounts to about $700 per resident, compared to $2,000 per person that states with fewer residents than D.C., such as Vermont and Wyoming are set to get, Mendelson said. Washington, D.C., has a population of about 705,000, compared to Vermont's 623,000 and Wyoming's 578,000, according to the Federal Reserve.

Mendelson called on federal officials to treat D.C. like a state when doling out relief funds. Local governments are struggling as unemployment claims spike and economies contract due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced Thursday he is leading a bipartisan coalition with the National Association of Attorneys General and 36 other attorneys general to implore the Senate, House and president to treat the District of Columbia as a state to receive more funds from the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

"Indeed, as a densely populated urban center, the District is uniquely vulnerable to the spread of the virus and is already experiencing significant economic loss due to the ongoing public health emergency. The District’s tourism, hospitality, and restaurant industries, along with its world-class colleges and universities, are already suffering, as are small businesses throughout the District," the coalition said in a statement.

Under the version of a massive $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the Senate, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other territories would split a $3 billion pool. The money would be divided based on population. Puerto Rico has a population of over 3.1 million.

Coronavirus Cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia

COVID-19 cases by population in D.C. and by county in Maryland and Virginia

Source: DC, MD and VA Health Departments
Credit: Anisa Holmes / NBC Washington

Washington, D.C., receives money from other federal programs as if it is a state, Bowser said. The bill in question defines D.C. as a state in some sections but specifically allocates the $1.25 billion minimum to "1 of 50 states."

The bill did allocate $5 million for the District's security costs during this time, subject to congressional rules.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in Congress, said she hoped the funding gap was an oversight. She called on Senate Democrats, including many who co-signed a bill that would make D.C. a state, to fix it.

But Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat representing Maryland, said on the Senate floor that it was not a mistake.

"Republican negotiators insisted on shortchanging the people of the District of Columbia. And if I'm wrong about that, it would be a very easy fix," he said.

D.C. residents send more tax revenue to the IRS than residents of 22 other states, Van Hollen said. He went on to say that he would not vote against the $2 trillion aid package, however, because of where D.C. stands.

The relief bill passed the Senate 96-0 on Wednesday night.

"Every state that has two senators was treated the exact same way," Bowser said. "That's why we have pushed so hard for statehood."

For so many people, relief from the federal government can't come soon enough. Businesses are trying to keep as many people employed as possible, and those who have lost a job are trying to figure out how to pay the bills. News4's Cory Smith talked to a few people struggling to make ends meet.

Bowser said she was hopeful that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would work in the next rounds to get D.C. more federal funds, but said the two haven't talked recently.

Del. Norton has been in contact with Pelosi or her office, Bowser said, but the expectation is that changes will come in the next round of negotiations.

Later, Pelosi said that the bill treats D.C. in a “discriminatory way," NBC News reported.

D.C. Council Member Charles Allen called the funding gap "ridiculous on so many levels."

Dozens of coronavirus cases have been diagnosed in D.C. Lawmakers have closed many businesses and say the lucrative tourism and nightlife industries are taking major hits from the coronavirus pandemic.

The sudden drop-off in the tourism and hospitality industries is hitting D.C. particularly hard, Mendelson said Thursday.

Bowser said that reserves will quickly dry up when it can't collect income and other tax revenues over the next several weeks. Mendelson said lost revenue could reach half a billion dollars.

D.C. decided not to delay its property tax deadline, coming up on March 31, to ensure it had the cash to continue the basic functions of city government, Bowser said.

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