Simones’ Hot Dog Stand owner Jimmy Simones talks with Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins while she has lunch Tuesday afternoon at the eatery on Chestnut Street in Lewiston. Simones said customers have started to come back since pandemic restrictions were eased, but not in the numbers he had hoped. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — A new pandemic relief bill is likely to gain congressional approval this summer, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday.

Maine’s senior senator said she is optimistic senators will approve a package this month that she hopes will include more money for towns and cities, a new round of aid for small businesses and hospitals, and cash to assist schools as they try to reopen for a new academic year in the face of an ongoing pandemic.

Collins said she would like to see special federal unemployment payments extended but only to the point where they make up for workers’ lost wages, eliminating the problem some employers face in convincing employees to return to the job for less money than they have been able to collect on unemployment. The $600-a-week extra allocation many have received is set to expire in late July unless Congress takes action.

It isn’t clear how much the new relief bill will cost, but the House version passed in May tallied more than $3 trillion. House and Senate negotiators will have to reconcile the competing proposals, which officials have said they’d like to do in August.

During a lunchtime stop at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston, Collins said the relief packages already approved in the spring, as well as the one that’s in the works, require “an inconceivable amount of money.”

But, she said, without them “we would be so much further into a depression” that suffering would be widespread and tax revenues would be down sharply in any case.

“We would be at the level of the Great Depression,” Collins said.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, adjusts her face mask while talking to Jimmy Simones at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand on Chestnut Street in Lewiston, where she had lunch Tuesday afternoon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The senator, who is seeking a fifth term in this year’s election, said she still believes in trying to balance the budget, but recognizes that in times like the one the world is experiencing, there is no choice except to spend what’s necessary to keep the economy afloat.

“Now is not the time” to fret about the soaring national debt, now at $26 trillion, Collins said. That’s an issue lawmakers will need to address down the road, she said.

Collins said that as senators negotiate what to include in the next relief bill, she has a few priorities.

One of them, she said, is making sure there is aid for small cities such as Lewiston and Auburn and also for towns such as Livermore Falls. All of them were left out of earlier municipal aid that only went to places that have more than 500,000 residents, a level that left out every city and county in Maine.

Collins said Auburn “gave me a list of what they have to do” if they don’t get more aid that’s similar to what she’s heard elsewhere in the state. Officials are telling her, she said, that without federal help they’ll need to lay people off, including police and other first responders, and cease all public works projects, a move the senator fears would have a cascading effect that hurts contractors and suppliers as well.

Already, she said, paving is on hold in many localities.

Collins said she is also concerned about what will happen when schools try to reopen. She said she’d like to see cash targeted directly for schools to cover COVID-19-related expenses that include everything from personal protective equipment to coping with additional demands on buses.

Keeping educators, staff and students safe, she said, is critical.

Collins said she’s impressed with the detailed thinking that education officials are putting into what they need, including more testing. Paying for it, though, is going to be a challenge, she said.

The senator said she wants to see aid for the U.S. Postal Service included in the relief bill as well. It has “frontline workers” who are needed, she said, and may run out of money to pay them by year’s end since the volume of marketing mail is down sharply.

Collins said she also wants another round of Paycheck Protection Program funding. She said she’s working closely with three other senators who helped draft the original PPP measure with her in March.

This time, she said, she would like to offer forgivable loans to businesses with 300 or fewer employees that have seen their revenue plummet “40% or 50%” compared to a year ago. Publicly traded companies would not be included, she said, because they can raise money elsewhere.

Collins said she also wants businesses to be able to tap some of the money to make renovations that would help them cope with the pandemic, from adding more seating at a restaurant to installing Plexiglas to protect employees. “All of that is expensive,” the senator said.

Details of the plan may change as the lawmakers discuss the issues involved, she said.

“We would take what we’ve learned and what changed” from the initial program, Collins said, and try to make it operate better in a changed business environment.

Collins said PPP has proven a valuable program for Maine, where it pumped $2.2 billion into the economy and helped 27,000 small businesses, keeping perhaps 240,000 Mainers employed in the process.

The senator said she would like to see more funding for hospitals and health care facilities that are “still hurting” financially from having to postpone so many elective procedures and from preparing for the pandemic.

Collins said the bill won’t pass unanimously as earlier ones did. There is more controversy in the Senate about its terms and costs.

But, she said, she thinks the Senate will approve something after it returns to session next week.

“This clearly is not over,” Collins said. “This is an extraordinary time.”

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