Baker knocks Trump plan to deliver jobless aid

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Out-of-work Massachusetts residents have received more than $200 million in enhanced unemployment benefits over the past week with more checks going in the mail, but Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday that the new program created by President Donald Trump last month isn’t a sustainable long-term solution.

The unemployment rate in Massachusetts in July was 16.1 percent, the highest in the nation. The loss of jobs has been felt throughout the economy, and has taxed the state’s system, paid for by employers, to support workers during down periods.

Baker called on Democrats and Republicans in Washington to step up to help states support workers and pay for other government services.

“People in both parties need to come together to make this happen, sometime soon,” Baker said at an afternoon press conference. “It’s the right thing to do for workers who lost their jobs because of the measures many of us took to stop the spread of COVID-19 and it’s critically important to ensuring that state and local governments can continue to support their communities as they work their way through the rest of this pandemic.”

The governor said without more certainty on the availability of federal funds he could not commit to supporting a freeze in unemployment insurance rates, which has been suggested by the co-chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

Rate freezes are not uncommon during economic down times, and rates are set to spike on employers by nearly 60 percent next year, largely to help pay for the large outflow of benefits to jobless workers.

“I think our goal here is going to be to continue to do everything we possibly can to provide services and support for people who need it … ,” Baker said. “There are so many moving parts on this that I would not commit to any particular answer to any of that at this point in time other than to speak to what we’re going to try to do.”

Trump signed an executive order in August making $300 a week in enhanced UI benefits available to unemployed workers, paying for the benefit from a $44 billion fund set aside for disaster relief. The enhanced benefit program replaced the $600 in additional weekly benefits that had been available through the Cares Act when Congress couldn’t come together to extend the program.

The distribution of the new funds started last week for anyone eligible for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, with $200 million sent out to 235,000 claimants in Massachusetts, retroactive to Aug. 1

Next week, Baker said, those eligible will automatically get two more weeks of the enhanced benefits deposited into their accounts, while unemployed workers eligible under the more traditional unemployment benefits system will be begin to receive their retroactive enhanced benefits in the next few days.

“As I’ve said before, this program is a diversion from the FEMA program, which was appropriated funds for the so-called disaster attached to COVID-19. And it should not be considered and isn’t a permanent or sustainable solution,” Baker said.

Congress has been deadlocked over how to move forward on the next coronavirus relief package.

The Democrat-led House has passed more than $3 trillion in stimulus spending that includes $500 billion for state and local governments, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday introduced a slimmed down version that proposed to spend $500 billion in total on small businesses, enhanced unemployment insurance, child care, the post office, coronavirus testing and schools.

Asked about the Republican package on Wednesday, Baker said, “I’m not sure what’s in that thing.”

“But I certainly think to do something and not include states and local governments as part of the picture just doesn’t make a lot of sense, because the one thing I do hear from Washington a lot is they want to see the economy advance, they want to see the economy improve, they want to see people back to work. It’s awful hard to do that if you’re not offering support to the two entities of government, us and the locals, who have been investing an enormous amount of money in fighting our way through this pandemic,” he said.

The Baker administration and legislative leaders have delayed annual state budget decisions, hoping to obtain more clarity on what to expect from the federal government. The state is operating on a three-month interim budget that expires on Oct. 31, and Baker said he’s hopeful that officials will have enough information and data by that time to make a prediction about how the rest of the year will play out financially.

That task, however, has been complicated by more than just the inaction in Washington.

Baker pointed out that efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 such as mask-wearing and social distancing have led to dramatically decreased instances of ear infections, sore throats, and more common respiratory infections.

“As a result, health care expenses, which the Commonwealth has a ton of, right, are continually coming in below where we thought they’d be coming in, and there’s just a lot of other elements to this that make it very hard … to say that this is an easy one to answer,” Baker said.

MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, typically accounts for around 40 percent of the state budget any given year, but reduced expenses in a program that large could dramatically change budget dynamics, months after some economists predicted a revenue shortfall of $6 million or more in fiscal 2021.

August revenues reported this month by the Department of Revenue showed 3.1 percent growth over the same period last year.

“When you’re working through an unprecedented time that no one’s ever worked through before, predictions and projections are predictions and projections, which is why we’re doing a lot of scenario planning, as opposed to trying to figure out exactly what we think is going to happen in the fall,” Baker said, referring to the coronavirus and fears of a second wave.

“The same is true with the revenue stuff,” he said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

State Police Overtime Scandal

More State Police Overtime Investigation

Trending Stories

Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases

Coronavirus News

More Coronavirus

Donate Today