By John Haughey
The Center Square
December 23, 2020
As many as 650,000 Floridians, including an estimated 500,000 whose state unemployment benefits have expired, could receive federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) payments between Christmas and the new year.
Congress passed a $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill Monday night, with only six “no” votes in the Senate, including Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
Highlights of the stimulus include $120 billion for PUA unemployment benefits through March 14; $166 billion in payments of $600 to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and $600 per dependent child; and $284 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides forgivable loans businesses can use to meet payroll and not lay off workers.
The renewed PUA benefits – 11 weeks of an additional $300 – should kick in for Floridians by Sunday.
According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO), an estimated 651,000 Floridians are unemployed but only about 135,000 were claiming state benefits through last week.
As many as a half-million Floridians have seen their 12 weeks of $275 state unemployment payouts expire. The 12 weeks of eligibility is the nation’s shortest, and the $275 weekly payout is the fifth-lowest in the U.S.
With no federal assistance for state and local governments in the package, Florida lawmakers may be forced to ponder significant cuts to the state’s current budget and its fiscal year 2022 budget when they convene March 2.
The state received $5.8 billion from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March to address budget concerns.
State economists projected in August a $5.4 billion shortfall for the next two fiscal years, but on Monday, they trimmed an estimated $2.7 billion shortfall in fiscal 2022 shortfall by $2.1 billion after documenting better-than-expected sales and corporate income taxes through year’s end.
According to the updated projections, Florida’s general revenue fund, the state’s primary source of discretionary spending, will accrue $32.5 billion this fiscal year and $34.3 billion in fiscal 2022, which still is a combined $3.3 billion less than pre-pandemic estimates.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, who is recovering from COVID-19, said the revised projections are good news, but there’s still plenty of bad news awaiting lawmakers in 2021
“By any measure, the significant gains reflected in [Monday’s] estimate do not negate the many difficult challenges we will face as we craft a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, or that families and businesses across our state are facing as we all continue to battle COVID-19,” said Simpson, R-Trilby. “We know all too well that these estimates can change in a heartbeat; therefore, the Senate will continue to proceed with caution.”
Florida’s senior U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who chairs the Senate Small Business Committee and was pivotal in crafting the renewed $284 billion PPP, praised the new stimulus package.
“Restaurants, live venues and small local chambers should finally be on the way,” Rubio said.
Scott said he voted against the bill because “Washington is broken” and it “is almost 5,600 pages long.”
“This crisis has devastated American small businesses and American workers, and I support many of the COVID-related provisions to boost small businesses, prevent further layoffs and enhance unemployment assistance – provisions necessary because of the recklessness of the Chinese Communist Party and the overzealous shutdowns by politicians here in America who do not know what it is like to struggle for money or for work,” Scott said.
Scott spearheaded opposition to state and local government aid in the package.
“States do not need bailouts; they want bailouts so they can use the money – intended to address the fallout from COVID – to plug the long-standing holes in their budgets and pension systems,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”