Texas state senator says relief funds aren’t being withheld, but local leaders still need to apply

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EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas state senator who is on the governor’s committee recommending how best to disburse federal coronavirus relief funds said Friday it is up to jurisdictions to take the time “to apply” correctly.

Texas state Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, D-20, is seen on May 15, 2020, at his South Texas office in Edinburg. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Contrary to complaints by two Texas congressmen that the state is failing to give out CARES Act money, Democratic state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, told Border Report on Friday that the State of Texas is not improperly holding on to any funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Rather, he said, it is incumbent upon all communities with populations of less than 500,000 to directly apply to the Texas Division of Emergency Management for COVID-19 relief funds.

And they must apply strictly following federal rules set out by the U.S. Department of Treasury or the federal government might “clawback those monies,” he said from his office in Edinburg, Texas.

“We’re not waiting on anything. Apply if you want the money,” Hinojosa said. “Just like Hurricane Harvey (relief funds), you can’t send the money out without applying.”

Hinojosa’s comments came after Border Report published a story Thursday quoting two South Texas congressmen — U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Filemon Vela, both Democrats — who complained that federal coronavirus relief funds are not reaching their constituents in smaller communities. Both said they don’t understand why the state has not disbursed $1.85 billion to the 242 counties with populations under half a million people, including most South Texas border communities.

When Congress approved the $2 trillion CARES Act on March 27, it provided $150 billion for state and tribal governments to distribute. Communities with populations over 500,000, however, could receive direct federal funds from the Department of Treasury if they applied directly. Twelve of the state’s most populated counties, like Hidalgo County, and six cities did just that and have already been approved for federal funds totaling $3.2 billion.

Hidalgo County, South Texas, for instance, has been green-lit to receive $151 million, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez said earlier this week.

But Hinojosa — who has been appointed by Gov. Gregg Abbott to the state’s budget workgroup that is charged with making recommendations to distribute the funds to local government entities — says regardless of size, there is a process for proving that expenses meet the parameters of necessary spending under the CARES Act to ensure that the relief funds are spent only on coronavirus-related costs before actual funds are received in hand.

Hinojosa is only one of two state senators appointed to the task force, the other being Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson.

Hinojosa added that the state is concerned that smaller communities might not have the extra staff to fill out the required forms and understand all the necessary legal information and he said the state officials want to work to help smaller communities appropriately apply and access the relief money.

“We are aware that some smaller cities will need help. And we are willing to help them,” Hinojosa said. “If they show they spent this on coronavirus expenses they will qualify. At the end of the day, the federal government will require proof and could audit so we must be very careful.”

At the end of the day, the federal government will require proof and could audit so we must be very careful.”

Texas state Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, (D)

Hinojosa said that eligible jurisdictions that apply to the state’s Division of Emergency Management will be “immediately funded 20%” up front. The remainder of the allocation will be “reimbursement based” on expenses incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, according to the Coronavirus Relief Fund Terms and Conditions by the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

As to the funding split that the state of Texas is giving — $55 per person, versus $174 per person that the federal government is allocating for direct payments to large-sized populations — Hinojosa said all of that was laid out in the federal law and is not the fault of the state.

And he says he is in agreement with the two congressmen that the HEROES Act currently being debated in Congress could provide more much-needed funds that could go directly to smaller jurisdictions.

“The cities need the money. There’s no doubt about that, but there’s a process in place,” Hinojosa said. “We’ll work through it. I wouldn’t blame Gov. Abbott.”

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