Florida: We can’t afford Trump’s jobless aid anymore – POLITICO

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Residents drive up to pick up unemployment paperwork in Tampa, Fla.

Residents drive up to pick up unemployment paperwork in Tampa. | AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

TALLAHASSEE — Florida‘s Republican governor will end a Trump program to boost unemployment benefits to out-of-work Americans because the state’s bare-bones jobless program is too poor to continue qualifying for the federal boost.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Donald Trump, is scrapping the extra $300 in weekly benefits because the state pays its unemployed workers too little to meet a 25 percent matching requirement. Florida appears to be the first state in the nation to halt the program because of its cost.

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The move comes eight weeks before Election Day, as Trump is counting on his adopted home state to win a second term. If Trump loses Florida, his pathway to reelection could be difficult or impossible.

Republican and Democratic state legislators were surprised by the DeSantis decision, which was revealed without fanfare late Monday. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed residents remain in desperate need of financial help due to the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown, and more than 3 million people in Florida have applied for some form of state or federal unemployment help since mid-March.

“It’s baffling,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat. “You are leaving on the money on the table. For people who claim we’ve got to get the economy going, guess what? One way to get the economy going is to make sure that people have food on the table and can pay their rent.”

Fred Piccolo, a spokesperson for DeSantis, did not provide an explanation for why Florida was shutting down the program, but an administration official acknowledged that cost was behind the decision. Department of Economic Opportunity spokesperson Tiffany Vause did not respond to detailed questions about the program.

DeSantis last week foreshadowed the announcement, saying that Florida lacked the “capacity” to accept the $300 payments from the federal government. The Trump program requires states to spend at least $100 per person a week on its own jobless benefits in order to receive the $300. But Florida, which has one of the weakest unemployment programs in the country, spends too little to meet that threshold.

Florida’s weekly payments max out at $275, among the lowest in the nation, but some people collect far less. The state would have to increase its benefit payments to meet the federal matching requirements.

The cost to make another two weeks of payments could cost Florida as much as $200 million, according to one state senator.

Congress, as part of the CARES Act passed earlier this year, provided an extra $600 a week for unemployment benefits to help people put out of work by the pandemic. When that aid expired and Congress failed to extend it, Trump in August allowed states to tap disaster relief funds to temporarily boost unemployment benefits.

DeSantis last month announced that Florida would offer the extra $300 a week that was made possible by Trump’s executive order.

Floridians have collected their first three weeks of the aid — known as “lost wages assistance” — and a fourth round of payments went out this week.

But in a brief statement on Monday night, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity announced that this week’s payment would be the last under the program.

Trump initially suggested that states could use unspent CARES Act money to meet the $100 match. But DeSantis plans to use the nearly $6 billion sent to Florida by Congress to pay for the state’s coronavirus response and patch holes in the budget.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who encouraged DeSantis to accept the extra federal unemployment aid, said the governor should tap the state’s emergency reserves to come up with Florida’s matching share.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Brandes said. “We should be sharpening our pencil.”

Florida has an estimated $1.34 billion left in its unemployment trust fund, which is used to pay state benefits, and the number of jobless workers receiving aid is shrinking because the state caps payments at 12 weeks. Only about 368,000 people currently are collecting state-backed unemployment benefits, down from 2.15 million people at the peak.

Democrats this year called on DeSantis to increase the size of weekly jobless payments and extend the number of weeks people could collect them, but the governor has said he lacks the authority to alter the program. Republican legislative leaders have rebuffed calls by Democrats to hold a special session to deal with Florida’s looming budget problems.

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, said other states would get federal tax dollars because Florida is “so unbelievably cheap.”

“The idea we can’t identify a pot of money to draw down a three-to-one margin is just obscene,” Rodriguez said.

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