U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has raised concerns about St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s plan to use pandemic relief money to provide a guaranteed income for 150 poor families — including whether such a program is allowed under federal law.
In a letter to Carter on Wednesday, McCollum, a St. Paul Democrat, cautioned that the program “will require careful design, implementation and oversight by your administration.”
“I know the City is aware that every precaution must be taken to avoid unintentionally violating federal law pertaining to the use of federal funds or making participants in the pilot ineligible for existing income-determined public programs,” she wrote.
The City Council was scheduled to vote Wednesday to appropriate more than $290,000 in CARES Act money to the program, which would provide $500 per month to families with small children for 18 months. The council voted instead to delay their decision a week in light of the questions that McCollum raised.
In an interview Wednesday, Carter said the program passes muster — and that city staff has already answered McCollum’s questions with their design of the program.
“I look forward to providing the answers and moving forward on this next week,” he said, adding that further delay will mean missing the first monthly payment in September, and so having less CARES Act money to work with as the Nov. 15 deadline to spend that money approaches.
Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, declined to comment.
The congresswoman’s questions included whether the $500 payment would affect eligibility for other assistance, such as food stamps; whether immigrants will be eligible for the program regardless of their legal status; whether the program is an allowable use of CARES Act dollars, and if the city is prepared to cover the cost of litigation should the Trump administration challenge the program’s legality.
City staff told the City Council they were still answering some of the questions raised in McCollum’s letter.
“We’re trying to get this money out the door as quickly as possible,” said Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney, “and so there’s a little bit of learning going on as we’re trying to implement the program.”
Office of Financial Empowerment Director Muneer Karcher-Ramos said the program qualifies under CARES Act guidelines because it requires that participants demonstrate financial hardship related to COVID-19. “Undocumented” immigrants would be eligible, he said, but the city would pay them with philanthropic dollars, not federal funds.
Finance Director John McCarthy said the state Management and Budget office had similar questions to those McCollum raised, and that “those conversations were positive once we laid out the plan for the proposal.”
Council Member Mitra Jalali was the only vote against delaying the funding decision. Given the city’s track record of providing services to residents during the pandemic, she said, “I was honestly surprised, and a little disappointed, by the letter from the congresswoman’s office.”
City Council President Amy Brendmoen asked that council members be included in Carter’s response.
“Our goal is to be, obviously, in compliance,” she said, “and our goal is to work in partnership with our great congresswoman to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Carter launched the People’s Prosperity Guaranteed Income Pilot by executive order last week, saying that payments could begin this fall. The $1.5 million program, which would be funded mostly with philanthropic dollars, would aim to contribute to a growing body of research about how a guaranteed monthly income impacts poor Americans.
Council members said Wednesday that while they support the idea, they had learned about the pilot only recently and had questions of their own about eligibility guidelines. Council Member Dai Thao asked whether older adults, and not just those with young children, could participate in the program. Council Member Chris Tolbert questioned why participants would be limited to four ZIP codes.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker noted that McCollum’s letter pointed out the national attention that the experiment could draw to St. Paul.
“We want to make sure that that’s positive national attention,” she said.