‘We desperately need it': Florida lawmakers say Ron DeSantis should take Trump deal

Florida's unemployment benefits are so pitiful that DeSantis doesn't have a choice, lawmakers said.
President Donald Trump listens as Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., talks about the coronavirus response during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump listens as Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., talks about the coronavirus response during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]
Published Aug. 10, 2020|Updated Aug. 11, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Governors across the nation were underwhelmed by President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order extending unemployment benefits by $400 per week.

But in Florida, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are encouraging Gov. Ron DeSantis to become the first governor to sign the deal.

The state’s unemployment benefits are so low, topping out at just $275 per week, that DeSantis doesn’t have a choice, lawmakers said.

“We’ve boxed ourselves into a corner,” said state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach. “I don’t see how he doesn’t sign on to it.”

Trump’s executive order comes with a sizable match, requiring Florida to pay $100 per week for nearly 800,000 claimants. Some congressional estimates say the benefits would last just four to five weeks, costing Florida more than $400 million.

Florida lawmakers are required by state law to approve budget expenditures such as this, but since the pandemic started in March, they have ceded their budget-making authority. They have refused to call a special session, despite plummeting state revenue, and DeSantis has filled the void, making broad spending decisions derived from his emergency powers.

A spokesman for DeSantis did not say whether the governor would agree to the deal, but DeSantis’ public schedule was updated to show a late afternoon meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, an indication that he was exploring the arrangement.

Trump’s order would extend the $600-per-week federal benefits that expired last month, but at $400 per week. The $400 would be on top of Florida’s maximum weekly benefit of $275 per week, one of the worst in the nation, bringing the maximum weekly amount to $675 per week.

Even more critically, gig workers and independent contractors would be eligible for the weekly $400. Those people aren’t eligible for Florida’s state benefits, although many are getting $125 per week through a different federal program. (After taxes, the amount is just $113 for some.)

Trump’s plan has caveats that have given other governors pause.

Unlike the $600, which came with no strings attached, states would be on the hook for $100 of each $400 payment. The states could pay it with CARES Act dollars Congress has already allocated them — money that’s supposed to spent on pandemic costs. (Of the $5.8 billion the state was given, officials have spent less than 10 percent as of July 23, according to the Treasury Department.)

The remaining $300 has its own catch. It’s coming from a Department of Homeland Security Disaster Relief Fund meant to cover the costs of hurricanes and other disasters.

And then there’s another catch: The $44 billion in disaster relief dollars would run out in a matter of weeks, according to some estimates.

On Monday, no governor had apparently agreed to the plan, with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, calling it “political games” and Republicans balking at the cost.

“This scheme should give Floridians, who are in the middle of hurricane season, pause,” wrote Cindy Huddleston, a senior policy analyst and at Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, wrote in an email.

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But the situation for hundreds of thousands of Floridians is so financially dire that DeSantis should go ahead and approvie it, lawmakers said.

“I don’t think Florida has a choice but to agree,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “We desperately need it.”

The two incoming leaders of the Florida Legislature, both Republicans, also said the state should join.

“I don’t know why Florida would not participate in this program,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who is set to become Senate President in November.

The future House Speaker, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, also supports it.

“However, we still need additional details and guidance from the federal government before we can identify the best funding mechanism,” Sprowls wrote in a text message.

Mnuchin said Monday that the $300 federal unemployment benefit would kick in “within the next week or two” for most of the states that accept.

The situation for hundreds of thousands of Floridians became even more desperate last month when the $600 benefits ran out. Nearly 800,000 Floridians filed or received benefits during the most recent period. Nearly 600,000 are behind on their power bills, and many are hanging on to their homes only because of DeSantis’ executive order temporarily halting evictions.

Related: DeSantis’ changes to moratorium mean fewer families protected from eviction, foreclosure

Trump also issued an executive order on Saturday related to the evictions and foreclosures, in which he bashes Congress for sitting “idly” by while vulnerable Americans are at risk. The CARES Act contained a moratorium that prevented tenants from being evicted from properties that have accepted federal subsidies or have federally backed mortgages, but that expired in late July.

Trump’s order, however, doesn’t reinstate that freeze on its own. It simply states that federal officials “shall consider” whether an additional halt to evictions is “reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19” from one state to another. It also says that officials “shall identify any and all available federal funds” which could be used for assistance for struggling renters and homeowners, but it doesn’t guarantee money will be disbursed.

While Florida’s maximum benefit is $275 per week, the average payment has been just $230, or $920 per month — more than $200 less than the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the state.

Eskamani said that if DeSantis doesn’t agree to Trump’s order, he should use his executive powers to increase the state’s weekly benefit amounts, something he’s resisted.

“I think that’s the most shameful part of this,” Eskamani said. “You’re OK with the president and his overreach for creating this program, but you have totally resisted calls to do something that’s within your purview.”

Times staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.

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