Gov. Wolf pushes for COVID aid spending during visit to York City

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Gov. Tom Wolf, flanked by local Democrats, visited a York City flower shop Friday to urge his Republican colleagues in Harrisburg to use federal COVID-19 aid funding to support small businesses.

"We have to use this," he said. "And there are people and businesses who need this right now."

Wolf is pushing to use some $1.7 billion in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funding for a variety of programs intended to bolster the state's economy, including a $225 million proposal that would provide a new round of grants to small businesses.

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Schaefer Flowers received $50,000 in federal grant dollars during the pandemic, according to owner Chris Sallade, who said those dollars were vital to keeping the business open. The florist has been open since 1898.

"These grants were huge for us in helping out with salaries, benefits, payments of bills, all kinds of things to get us back on our feet," he said. "It was a lifeline for us and a lot of other small to medium businesses in the state."

Wolf's plan calls for:

  • $500 million toward the PA Opportunity Program, intended to provide relief to workers and families for child care and household expenses and opportunities to complete a degree, credential or license to strengthen skills and increase income.
  • $225 million toward the Small Business Assistance Program, which could support approximately 11,000 small businesses across the state.
  • $204 million into the existing Property Tax Rent Rebate Program for a one-time bonus rebate.
  • $325 million toward health care, including $250 million for long-term care recruitment and retention incentives and workforce development.
  • $450 million toward investing in conservation, recreation and preservation and to address climate change.

Wolf noted that his plan would only draw from ARPA funds. Those funds must be allocated by the end of 2024, less than two years away.

"I'm open to suggestions as to how to spend this money, but doing nothing is not an option," he said.

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Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, implored her Republican colleagues to support small businesses like Schaefer Flowers.

"For many businesses in Pennsylvania, it's not drizzling, it's pouring," she said. "It's time we got the General Assembly to release some of this funding to help small businesses in Pennsylvania."

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf speaks with Representative Hill-Evans.  MARCH 25, 2022 - YORK, PA

Some Republicans have their own plans for the money, including holding onto it for the Rainy Day Fund to fill possible future budget deficits.

"My colleagues in the majority party want to hold the money for a day when Pennsylvania really needs it," Hill-Evans said. "I say: 'What better day than today?'"

Mayor Michael Helfrich said the governor's plan would give money back to businesses that not only provide services but pay taxes.

"A wise person, in my opinion, would allocate this money as soon as possible so that you can begin all the processes that it takes before you'll be able to spend this," he said. "This isn't money you can hold over, it has to be spent." 

York Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks during a press stop with Gov. Tom Wolf.  MARCH 25, 2022 - YORK, PA

York County Commissioner Doug Hoke highlighted the county's use of its own ARPA funds.

"These funds were the difference between survival and closure for many businesses like Schaefer Flowers," the commissioner said. 

A Republican spokesperson was unimpressed.

"The proposals put forward by the administration, legislative Democrats, and now aspiring governor Josh Shapiro on how to spend remaining federal dollars are just merely talking points and not real plans," said Jason Gottesman, press secretary for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff via email.

"What will House Republicans do?" Gottesman added. "We will continue standing up for taxpayers."

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.