The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March sent $11.24 billion in aid to the state. Of that, six Texas cities and 12 counties with a population more than 500,000 received over $3.2 billion.
The other 242 counties and cities within those counties were allowed to apply for per capita funding allocations from the state out of the remaining $1.85 billion earmarked for local governments.
An apparent gray area in the legislation, the CARES Act did not specify which entity — the state or the dozen large counties — should cover the small cities within the dozen counties that received direct funding. State leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott want the counties to pay; the counties want the state to share more of its cut.
The skirmish has meant that months after the major relief package was passed, funding for some Texas cities is in limbo, including for Houston-area suburbs such as Pasadena that have been hit with major outbreaks.
Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, a city of about almost 1,500 that has not yet recorded any COVID-19 cases, who is also president of the Harris County Mayors and Councils Association, said he and at least a dozen other mayors agree with the governor.
“It should come from the county,” Bechtel said. “Obviously a lot of the cities have had a lot of additional costs, and it appears that’s what the intent of the legislation (was) … They would like to see the money distributed to their cities, so they can take care of their expenses.”
Abbott — as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the state Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations committee chairs and vice-chairs state — in a May 11 letter placed the responsibility on the counties.
Two days later, the counties wrote to state leadership to ask for their reconsideration. While the counties account for about 69 percent of all COVID-19 cases, they received just about 29 percent of the relief funds, they wrote in a letter shared with Hearst Newspapers.
“We ask you to address this shortfall,” they wrote. “Counties are your frontline partners in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Help us help Texans stay in their homes, keep their jobs, and have food on their table.”
In his letter Friday, Abbott, who declined to comment beyond the letter, did not back down.
“It is our expectation, and we feel certain it is the expectation of county residents who live in cities within your county, that they be treated equally as citizens in the unincorporated areas of the county,” the letter stated.
Democratic state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, of McAllen, sided with state leaders in an op-ed in the Rio Grande Guardian on Thursday in saying that the large counties should step up.
“These 12 counties need to do their part in ensuring the local governments within their borders receive their fair share of the funds under the CARES Act,” Hinojosa wrote.