Biden outlines stimulus plan including water rate assistance

A $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic stimulus plan outlined by President Joe Biden proposes billions of dollars to help low-income families pay water and other utility bills while also offering additional funds to supplement the budgets of state and local governments.

Called the American Rescue Plan, the President-elect’s proposal includes an abundance of Democratic priorities like a new round of stimulus checks for American households, an extension of enhanced unemployment benefits, expanded sick and family leave, and an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. While the plan will need to be distilled into legislative text on Capitol Hill – where a multitude of changes could be made along the way – it is nevertheless expected to inform the next COVID-19 response bill that congressional Democrats plan to consider in the coming weeks.

The Biden plan includes several items of interest to drinking water systems, including $5 billion “to cover home energy and water costs and arrears…for struggling renters.” The proposal does not make clear how the water rate aid would reach individual households, though it suggests using the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to distribute energy assistance funds. Last year Congress created two new avenues for low-income households to obtain water bill relief; one through a rental assistance initiative and another through a Department of Health and Human Services program based on LIHEAP. Lawmakers would ultimately decide whether the new $5 billion infusion would run through one of these nascent programs or a new mechanism.

The plan would extend the federal eviction moratorium through September 2020 but does not provide detail on any corresponding prohibition on water or other utility service disconnections during the pandemic. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and other water sector organizations have noted that many states and communities have voluntarily halted new water service disconnections, but some congressional Democrats and public interest groups have pushed for a federal ban. AMWA says it remains something that Congress could explore this year.

Another part of the Biden plan calls on Congress to provide state and local governments with $350 billion to support salaries of front-line workers, vaccine distribution efforts, school re-openings and “other vital services.” AMWA says depending on how Congress frames the program, communities could conceivably use a portion of these funds to support the ongoing operations of their water systems.

The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate pledged to make additional COVID-19 response legislation among their first orders of business now that Biden is in office. Senate Republicans, however,  could block advancement of legislation that fails to attract 60 votes. Democrats have discussed employing a procedural maneuver that could allow a COVID-19 response bill to pass the upper chamber with a simple majority.

Source: Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies

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