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Should federal unemployment benefits be extended? Ron DeSantis won’t weigh in.

Both Florida residents and businesses rely on the aid.

TALLAHASSEE — For hundreds of thousands of Floridians, federal unemployment payments have been a lifeline during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those payments are set to expire Saturday. Yet when asked whether Congress should extend them, Gov. Ron DeSantis avoided answering the question during a Tuesday news conference.

“I haven’t been following what they’re doing,” he told a reporter.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond when asked the same question by the Times/Herald on Monday.

Whether to extend the federal $600-per-week benefits is one of the most pressing issues facing Congress, which reconvened this week with a focus on debating another coronavirus relief package.

If Congress doesn’t extend the benefits, more than 20 million Americans could lose a crucial benefit without a job to return to. Over the last four months, up to 1.7 million Floridians have received more than $8 billion in those federal payments.

Republicans have been on the fence about whether to continue the benefits. President Donald Trump’s administration has advocated a potential “return-to-work” bonus instead.

DeSantis, a close Trump ally and a former Congressman, mentioned that bonus on Tuesday, saying it “may be something that would be positive and could potentially make a difference.”

He said he recognized the plight of Floridians, who have experienced historic numbers of unemployment. DeSantis suggested some job positions will be lost permanently.

“I think people should understand that it’s not necessarily just a question of whether you want to work or not, it’s a question of whether all the jobs are going to be there,” he said. “Some of those folks who were laid off, they may not have the ability to go back to some of these jobs.”

Unemployment insurance is critical to both Floridians and businesses. The nation’s current system was created in 1935 to prevent the “death spiral” caused by widespread unemployment: People who are out of work have no money to spend. Because people have no money to spend, businesses earn less revenue, causing them to lay people off, accelerating the cycle by further reducing the number of dollars in circulation.

Getting money into the hands of out-of-work Americans is as much of an insurance policy for businesses as they are for employees. The first unemployment systems were voluntary and actually created by businesses, not the government, in the 1920s and 30s.

DeSantis’ lack of response prompted some Democratic lawmakers to accuse him of being out of touch.

“You don’t have to ‘follow what Congress is doing’ to know unemployment benefits are expiring & people need help,” state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, tweeted.

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