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St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Says Latest Federal Relief Bill Falls Short

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to the other extremely serious issue related to the coronavirus pandemic - the financial relief millions of Americans still need while waiting for things to get back to normal. It seems that relief is still a ways off. On Friday, lawmakers agreed to additional funding to keep the federal government open for two days, but they were not able to strike a deal on a full relief package. And this is while some 12 million people face losing unemployment benefits on December 26.

One thing negotiators appear to agree on now is that the relief package will not include funding for state and local governments. Aid to smaller governments has been a Democratic policy priority until the demands seem to have been dropped this week in an effort to pass the bill before the year is over. We wanted to understand what this could mean for cities that are already facing budget deficits, so we've called Mayor Melvin Carter III. He's the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., and he is with us now.

Mayor Carter, welcome. Thanks so much for taking the time.

MELVIN CARTER III: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: First, could you just tell us what your reaction was this week when you heard the reports that Congress would not include assistance to city and state governments in the relief bill? I mean, this is something that, you know, the two sides have been sort of fighting over literally for months now. How did you hear about this, and what did you think when you heard it?

CARTER: You know, I saw it on the news, same as everyone else. We've been working closely with our federal delegation to try to make sure that this type of funding is included. It's devastating for it not to be. Cities are on the frontline. States are on the frontline. Counties are on the frontline of this crisis. We're the ones trying to help residents who experience unemployment. We're the ones trying to help residents make sure they have food on the table for their children to eat.

And it's disappointing to see this be a political football that's tossed back and forth. That's not pulling the rug out from under me as the mayor of the city. It's pulling the rug out from under the city employees, from under the residents, from under the businesses that we're all struggling to serve.

MARTIN: Could you just give us a sense of what you would have used that money for? Like, what are some of the particular needs in St. Paul?

CARTER: There's no shortage of needs in St. Paul. We are doing everything different than we would have this time a year ago. Our parks and recreation workers have distributed over a million meals to our residents. Our police and firefighters are working with residents in all types of different types of crises - physical, mental health challenges, et cetera.

We're working to help provide direct support to businesses, so we created back this spring what we called our St. Paul Bridge Fund, which sent over $4 million out the door in direct aid to local small businesses and families. And we were able to send that money out, and that helped a great deal. But the waiting list and the list of folks who need those resources and weren't able to access them are very long. We need to be able to help connect people to resources. We need to have the support for our individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Those are all the things that we're scrambling to provide right now. And we need help from the federal government to do it.

MARTIN: The city council passed a budget earlier this month that includes cuts to police funding. And, of course, you know, policing in Minnesota has been very much in the spotlight since the killing of George Floyd in your sister city earlier this year. Without federal funding, could the police department see additional cuts?

CARTER: I think we're at a space where we've figured out kind of where our - how to navigate the cuts that we have to make to meet our budget next year. But it's really painful. For example, we're not going to be able to have a police academy next year at a time where we know that we have to be able to keep diversifying and building the services that our residents rely on. It's our police department. It's our fire department. It's our library system. It's our parks and recreation system. We've had to make reductions. It's the wrong time to do that. But like I said, we don't have another option.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons this sort of strikes me is that the Republicans have been extremely critical of the movement to defund the police. But if - but doesn't this essentially do that if by denying aid to - federal aid to cities that are experiencing these budget shortfalls, isn't this essentially the same thing? Aren't they essentially defunding the police?

CARTER: You're exactly right. As a city, about half of our budget is police and fire. And so if, you know, we have cities across the country who are in financial crisis right now - which is absolutely the case - and they're going to withdraw or withhold aid from those cities, then there's not really a way to balance our budgets across the city without impacting those emergency response budgets. And you're exactly right. They are forcing the same exact types of decisions that they're saying they oppose.

MARTIN: Just to sort of push back on the other side of it, though, I mean, the Democrats have been - at least the progressive wing, if we can call it that - has been really pushing for these direct payments. The argument is that those are perhaps even more compelling because it allows people to handle their immediate needs. I mean, people are facing evictions. So, you know, how would you advise your congressional representatives to sort of balance those compelling and competing demands, if that's indeed what they are?

CARTER: I think that what we need is a stimulus package of historic proportions that meets the enormity of this moment with an enormous demonstration of what it means to be a country that truly cares for one another. This country was built of the people, by the people and for the people. And we have the opportunity to demonstrate that with a significant stimulus package that would actually meet the needs that people have today.

We launched this fall what we call our People's Prosperity Guaranteed Income Pilot, wherein we used a portion of the CARES funding that we received this summer - and it's important to note, none of the stimulus packages have included direct aid that's helped St. Paul. We're a city of just over 300,000 people, so we're large enough to have significant concerns and challenges related to this pandemic, but CARES funding went directly to the jurisdictions that had over 500,000 in population, which excluded us. So we were fortunate to be able to partner with the state to get a - get pass-through access to some of those CARES funding through the state.

We used that to help start our Guaranteed Income Pilot, which identifies a cohort of 150 families who will receive an unconditional cash benefit of $500 a month for the next 18 months. That's the type of big help that I think we need right now. And it always amazes me that 60 years into a war on poverty, jaws drop to the floor because it's so strange, the notion of investing directly in our lowest-income families.

MARTIN: That was the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., Melvin Carter III.

Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

CARTER: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIESINFONIE'S "ENSNARED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.