Bethlehem City Hall is the chief administrative building of the city of Bethlehem. Gov. Tom Wolf recently visited Bethlehem at the state general assembly to plan the division of federal COVID relief funds. (Xiaozhe Zhang/B&W Staff)

Gov. Wolf proposes plan for untapped COVID funding


The federal American Rescue Plan Act, also known as the COVID-19 Stimulus Package, was passed in March 2021, providing aid to many Americans affected by the pandemic’s prolonged economic hardships.

Pennsylvania received $7 billion from the act, about $2 billion of which was left unused in the state budget, Pennsylvania State Rep. Steve Samuelson said. 

Samuelson represents the 135th District, which includes Northampton County.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced his plan for these funds last month: $1.7 billion of the funding would be sent to help the people of Pennsylvania, specifically the elderly population, disabled individuals and small businesses. 

Wolf proposed the legislation in the beginning of February. Samuelson is gathering co-sponsors and will introduce it to the House of Representatives mid-April.

A press release about Wolf’s announcement outlines that of the $1.7 billion, $225 million will be allocated for small business support, $204 million for low-income renters and homeowners, $325 million for Pennsylvania’s healthcare system and $450 million to invest in conservation, recreation and preservation. 

Samuelson explained how Wolf’s budget proposal will impact a property tax rent rebate program that has been around for 50 years in Pennsylvania. Each year, people can apply and get a partial rebate (a type of refund) on part of their rent. According to Samuelson, more than 430,000 people in the last year have received a property tax rebate.

Depending on an individual’s income, rebate payments vary in amount, ranging from around $250 to $500. Some low-income households may be eligible for $600 or $650. With the governor’s new proposal, increased rebate payments would double.

“Doubling the rebate payments will be a way to help senior citizens and people with disabilities,” Samuelson said. “If enacted, there’ll be no separate application that people would have to fill out.”

Samuelson is also the democratic chair in the House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee. He is working with Sen. Maria Collett, who is the democratic chair of the Senate Aging and Youth Committee. If approved, seniors and people with disabilities will be able to use the rebates for the essentials such as rent, utilities, energy costs, food and anything else they may need.

Deputy provost for Academic Affairs and professor of political science Jennifer Jensen described the tax rebate plan as a classic fight over budgets: how Wolf wants to see funds helping the state, versus how the Republicans want to see it.

She also raised important questions about the unallocated COVID-19 relief funds.

“Is it wasteful to let money sit in a rainy day fund when there are still people hurting?” Jensen asked. “Or does it make sense to keep that money in reserve, because there has already been significant government assistance and the jobs are easy to find, even if inflation is very high?”

Jensen said Wolf is making his case for the rebate plan across Pennsylvania, vying for a much-needed surge in support from his republican colleagues

Stephanie S. Augello, executive assistant to the Mayor of the City of Bethlehem, works at her desk in Bethelehem City Hall on March 31. Gov. Tom Wolf recently visited Bethlehem at the state general assembly to plan the division of federal COVID-19 relief funds. (Xiaozhe Zhang/B&W Staff)

“He’s smart to point out the benefits to senior citizens,” Jensen said. “They vote, and both parties know it.”

Deputy press secretary in Wolf’s office Rachel Kostelac said the office was unavailable for an interview but stressed the importance of passing the legislation.

“Pennsylvanians can not afford to wait for relief. We need the legislature to act now to support his plan to use ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding to provide immediate fiscal relief to Pennsylvanians,” Kostelac said. “The governor and Senate and House Democrats are working to move forward this agenda.”

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