WASHINGTON — State backlash against a restriction in the $1.9 trillion economic relief legislation that prohibits local governments from using aid money to cut taxes emerged as the Biden administration’s first major legal battle on Wednesday, as Ohio sued to block the provision and other states considered similar action.
The litigation came amid growing pushback from Republican lawmakers and state officials, who say that the strings attached to the Covid relief money are a violation of state sovereignty and that imposing tax cut restrictions is an infringement on a state’s right to set its own fiscal policies.
On Tuesday, 21 Republican attorneys general wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen seeking clarity on the portion of the law that prevents them from using the federal funds “to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue” resulting from state tax cuts.
The attorneys general called the provision “the greatest attempted invasion of state sovereignty by Congress in the history of our Republic.”
But the Biden administration showed no signs of backing down, saying on Wednesday that the restriction on how states can use their federal funds is constitutional and that those governments should not use stimulus money meant to combat the coronavirus crisis to subsidize tax cuts.
The fight could slow the rollout of more than $200 billion in relief funds that states are expected to receive to help cover Covid-related costs, including money for schools and infrastructure investments.
States, which are expected to share $220 billion worth of stimulus funds, are anxiously awaiting guidance about whether the restrictions apply to the use of federal dollars to offset new tax cuts, or if it blocks them from cutting taxes for any reason, even if the cuts were in the works before the law passed.
In a court filing on Wednesday, Dave Yost, Ohio’s attorney general, sought a preliminary injunction that would bar the federal government’s ability to enforce what he described as the “tax mandate.”
“The federal government should be encouraging states to innovate and grow business, not holding vital relief funding hostage to its preferred pro-tax policies,” Mr. Yost, a Republican, said in a statement.
Ohio is expected to receive $5.5 billion in federal relief funds. Mr. Yost said that states should not have to choose between accepting the money and maintaining their rights to cut taxes.
But the Treasury Department said on Wednesday that if a state that took relief money cuts taxes, that state must repay the amount of lost revenue from those cuts to the federal government.
“It is well established that Congress may establish reasonable conditions on how states should use federal funding that the states are provided,” said Alexandra LaManna, a Treasury spokeswoman. “Those sorts of reasonable funding conditions are used all the time — and they are constitutional.”
She added that the new law “provided funds to help states manage the economic consequences of Covid-19, and gave states flexibility to use that money for pandemic relief and infrastructure investments.”
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
The Treasury Department rejected the idea that the provision, which was added to the relief legislation at the last minute, was prohibiting states from cutting taxes. States are free to decline the federal funds, or they can repay the money if they are in fiscal shape to cut taxes.
“The law does not say that states cannot cut taxes at all, and it does not say that if a state cut taxes, it must pay back all of the federal funding it received,” Ms. LaManna said. “It simply instructed them not to use that money to offset net revenues lost if the state chooses to cut taxes. So if a state does cut taxes without replacing that revenue in some other way, then the state must pay back to the federal government pandemic relief funds up to the amount of the lost revenue.”
The amount of aid that a state will receive is tied to its jobless rate, and there are strict requirements to ensure that the money is used for purposes related to the coronavirus or to offset revenues that have been lost because of the health crisis. The Treasury Department plans to closely scrutinize how the money is spent.
In their letter to Ms. Yellen, the attorneys general said that if they did not receive a formal response by March 23, they would take “appropriate additional action.”
More lawsuits could soon follow. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia said such action would include seeking a court ruling “that the unprecedented and micromanaging provision violates the U.S. Constitution.”
At a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Mr. Morrisey said he had been working on a draft of a complaint. He has been talking to other states about the mechanics of the legal challenge and where it should be filed.
“There are huge legal and constitutional problems with this provision,” Mr. Morrisey said. “This may be one of the greatest attempted invasions of state sovereignty by Congress in the history of our Republic.”