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State has not handled federal aid well

Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have not done a good job of distributing federal coronavirus aid to cities and counties around the state, and have been especially bad at explaining what they were doing and why.

Congress appropriated $1.39 billion for Oregon as part of the CARES Act, some of it intended to help local governments pay for the costs of responding to the pandemic. But Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney decided to restrict the first $400 million of that money to reimbursing local governments for direct costs related to public health — buying personal protective equipment, testing supplies and contact tracers, for instance — and not for aid to small businesses affected by the governor’s shutdown order.

The three Democrats did this in meetings not open to the public or other lawmakers, and without disclosing their plan in advance. Last Friday, the Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board, meeting remotely by video conference, was asked to approve the plan. The E-Board, made up of lawmakers, has the power to allocate money when the Legislature is not in session.

The E-Board approved the plan on a party-line vote, after Republican members objected that the formula favored counties with high numbers of COVID-19 cases and therefore more direct costs to reimburse, at the expense of counties with fewer cases but severe economic damage to businesses that had to shut down and lay off employees.

Jackson County commissioners sent a letter to lawmakers and county commissioners across the state objecting to the formula because it prevents local governments from using any of the money to help businesses and workers hit hard by the shutdown.

The League of Oregon Cities has pushed back against the governor’s plan, saying no other state is placing such restrictions on the federal aid.

The state is holding $525 million in reserve for later use, and Kotek’s office said some of that money could be used for a rental assistance program or for increased aid to businesses. Maybe.

The governor’s office said it is unsure whether any additional funding will be coming from Congress, so it is prioritizing reimbursement for direct public health expenses with the aid it has received so far. A spokesman said “we hope to address” economic assistance to businesses “if and when” more federal aid becomes available.

That‘s not good enough. Vague assurances about future help don’t meet immediate needs. And they don’t address the lack of transparency that has characterized this process so far.

The public — and its local government leaders — should be kept informed of discussions about allocating federal aid, and state leaders should consult local officials before making decisions about how that money is to be spent. That hasn’t happened.