Ron DeSantis seeks alternative to Trump’s plan for $400 weekly unemployment benefits

DeSantis says he has a plan that would be more viable than President Donald Trump’s idea to allow the state to spend emergency pandemic and natural disaster funds to increase benefits by $400 per month.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ JOE BURBANK | AP ]
Published Aug. 11, 2020|Updated Aug. 12, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis dismissed President Donald Trump’s proposal to spend emergency pandemic dollars to boost the state’s paltry unemployment benefits, he said during a news conference Tuesday.

“That’s not an option for us in Florida, because those CARES Act dollars are obligated already,” DeSantis told reporters.

Instead, DeSantis said he’s considering taking a loan from the U.S. Department of Labor to increase benefits, which, at a maximum of just $275 per week, are one of the stingiest in the nation. He didn’t say how much he was looking to increase benefits.

“We’re looking to see what that would entail,” DeSantis said. “I think if we can do the Department of Labor enhanced benefit through that loan, we would want to do it to give people some more relief.”

Until last month, unemployed Americans were getting $600 per week on top of their state benefits, thanks to a bill Congress passed at the beginning of the pandemic in March. To replace it, Trump’s idea is to allow states to spend emergency pandemic and natural disaster funds to offer benefits of $400 per week. But the emergency CARES Act dollars that Trump said would pay for the unemployment relief in his plan have already been assigned to pandemic-related expenses, DeSantis said.

The state has more than $5 billion in CARES Act dollars that haven’t been spent, but DeSantis said the money would not be used on unemployment benefits.

“They haven’t been quote, ‘spent,’ but it’s $4 plus billion that’s been obligated, so we’ve got to do that,” DeSantis said.

While other governors balked at Trump’s plan or dismissed it as a political stunt, Florida lawmakers from both parties were receptive to it Monday. With nearly 800,000 jobless Floridians relying on such meager benefits, the state doesn’t have a choice but to find a way to increase how much they receive each week, they said.

By looking to the Department of Labor for help, DeSantis is adopting a strategy that helped Florida through the Great Recession more than 10 years ago. When the state’s unemployment trust fund, which is used to pay benefits, went dry, the state borrowed more than $3 billion from the Department of Labor to keep making payments.

Borrowing the money also had a side effect that’s now being felt by unemployed Floridians. To replenish the trust fund and pay the federal government back, Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature could have required businesses pay more in unemployment insurance.

Instead, they took the opposite route: Just make it harder for Floridians to get unemployment so the state wouldn’t have to pay out so much.

With that reasoning, Scott and lawmakers in 2011 passed sweeping reforms to the unemployment system that made it much harder for Floridians to qualify for unemployment and reduced the length of time Floridians could receive benefits to just 12 weeks — the same time span currently in place.

Florida likely can’t boost its meager benefits without a federal loan. The state’s unemployment trust fund has dwindled to $1.8 billion, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity. That’s down from about $5 billion when the pandemic hit in March, lawmakers testified at the time.

Times/Herald staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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