Friday, April 17, 2020

Florida pays on only 5 percent of jobless claims as DeSantis rejects calls for generosity. (Politico)

Penurious payouts for workers, massive tax cuts and subsidies for multinational corporations.  That's the Republican way.  From Politico:

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at a drive-through coronavirus testing site. | AP Photo
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at a drive-through coronavirus testing site. | AP Photo

Florida pays on only 5 percent of jobless claims as DeSantis rejects calls for generosity

TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Ron DeSantis rejects pleas to increase unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of workers hit by coronavirus closings, the state is sending only a small number of jobless residents any aid at all.
The coronavirus pandemic has delivered a knockout punch to the state’s economy, prompting labor groups and Democratic politicians to call on Florida to raise its $275 cap on weekly unemployment benefits, which is one of the lowest amounts in the country, and extend the number of weeks that people can collect aid. 
DeSantis has said he lacks the legal authority to make such moves, standing firm even as he has used his emergency power to shut down non-essential surgeries, push back tax collection deadlines and make other sweeping moves. 
“I waived pretty much everything I could waive,” DeSantis said Thursday.
As DeSantis has refused to make the benefit more generous, only about 5 percent of applicants for aid in the past month have actually received payments from the state. Of the 650,000 people who applied for unemployment benefits since March 15, about 33,600 have received payments, the Department of Economic Opportunity said Thursday.
The agency said it has made some 121,100 benefits payments totaling more than $47 million over the past four weeks. But the state on Thursday also acknowledged that more than 800,000 total claims — some of which might be duplicate applications — are waiting to be processed.
DeSantis’ predecessors have used their authority to make changes to the unemployment system in mid-stream. Former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010 used his emergency powers to extend temporary unemployment benefits without the Legislature’s approval.

Last week Crist, who is now a Democrat but was elected as a Republican, said the legal interpretation that DeSantis can’t increase the benefits cap was “dead wrong.”
“It is legal in this case to do precisely what I did,” Crist said last week. “I can emphasize with where the governor is right now. These decisions are not easy. But it’s crystal clear to me what is right and what is just. And what is right and what is just in this situation is to extend greater benefits to people in a time of need.”
When asked about raising the benefit cap, DeSantis on Tuesday said “I don’t think I can.” 
He said he was “thinking about what else we can do to be helpful.”
DeSantis spokesperson Helen Aguirre Ferré on Wednesday confirmed that the administration would not raise the weekly benefit amount. 
DeSantis administration officials have said they have the power to waive regulations, but not alter specific monetary limits. They also say they can’t extend the benefit payout beyond the current 12 weeks, although the CARES Act also includes funding for extended benefits.
“Under Chapter 252 Florida Statutes, the Governor may suspend any regulatory statute prescribing procedures for state business in order to cope with the emergency,” Ferré said in an email. “Completely waiving the $275 per week unemployment cap exceeds this authority as the Legislature has set this specific amount in law.”
DeSantis raised a similar point Wednesday, although he misstated the extent of his emergency powers.
“I don’t think emergency powers mean that you can appropriate new money beyond what the Legislature has set out,” DeSantis told reporters at the Capitol. “I could just start spending money on whatever I wanted regardless of what the Legislature has done.”
In fact, the governor does have the power to tap state reserves to deal with an emergency, be it a pandemic or a hurricane. Florida already has spent hundreds of millions of dollars responding to the coronavirus crisis, far beyond what the Legislature authorized before wrapping its annual session in March.
In the last month more than 650,000 Floridians have applied for unemployment benefits, but many more have been unsuccessful as they wrestled with an overloaded website and spent hours on hold with overwhelmed call centers. 
Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter, who DeSantis put in charge of the system on Wednesday, said Thursday that more than 800,000 applications for benefits are waiting to be processed.
The state also is working with JPMorgan Chase to maximize check-writing with the aim of pushing out up to 100,000 paper checks a day for applicants who can’t receive electronic deposits.
The $275 weekly benefit paid by the state is separate from a $600 federal payment authorized in the federal CARES Act, which is temporary. Some 23,000 Floridians so far have received a $600 check.
Satter said the state is building a separate portal for gig workers and independent contractors to apply for that federal aid, a site he said should be functioning in a week to 10 days.
State Sen. Javier Jose Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, said DeSantis has waived other parts of state unemployment law, including a requirement that those seeking benefits submit proof that they’re looking for work.
“There’s no logical or legal consistency to the argument,” Rodriguez said of DeSantis’ comments. “I think they are really just trying to dodge this because of the corporate taxpayers. If it’s a political decision, or a budget decision, they should not hide behind a lack of legal authority.”
Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy with the AFL-CIO, also was critical, asking how DeSantis could declare professional wrestling an essential business but couldn’t act to help unemployed Floridians.
“Big business has worked hard to protect the current unemployment system they created in 2011, a system pays relatively nothing out in benefits so business premiums never increase,” Templin said. “The governor needs to tell these special interests to back off and do what’s right for Florida during this health and economic catastrophe.”
Edie Ousley, a spokesperson for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has not made “specific recommendations” to the DeSantis administration about unemployment benefits, but said that could change. 
The Chamber was a powerful advocate of changes pushed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott nine years ago, which included a time limit on payouts and led to substantial tax reductions for employers that pay into the unemployment benefits trust fund.

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