Provisions sending direct payments to individuals and boosting unemployment insurance payments and small business loans could disproportionately benefit Floridians.
The historic $2 trillion relief package passed by Congress Friday could be a big lifeline for Florida, a state hard hit by the coronavirus crisis.
The economic downturn brought on by the virus is expected to be even more pronounced in a state heavily dependent on tourism and other service sector industries that have been paralyzed.
Last week more than 74,000 Floridians filed for unemployment, the largest weekly total ever recorded.
That means many Floridians will face a difficult stretch in the coming months. There are a number of provisions in the relief bill that could disproportionately benefit the Sunshine State, from the direct payments to individuals and families to the increase in unemployment benefits and the loans for small businesses.
The legislation will boost unemployment benefits by $600 a week in every state. That provision is especially significant for Florida because the state has one of the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation, just $275 a week.
With a preponderance of low-paying service sector jobs, Florida also has a low median household income at $53,267. That’s lower than 36 states.
That means many Floridians are likely to get direct assistance from the government, which is sending checks of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child to all individuals making less than $99,000 and couples making less than $198,000.
Florida also is a state with relatively few large companies. Just 19 Fortune 500 firms are based in Florida, compared to 56 in New York, 54 in California, 49 in Texas and 36 in Illinois — the other four states that comprise the Top 5 states in terms of population.
The overwhelming majority — 99.8% — of Florida companies are considered small businesses with fewer than 500 employees. They employ 3.2 million Floridians.
The stimulus bill has a $377 billion fund for small businesses to help them retain employees. These small business loans will be forgiven if they are used for certain purposes, such as to pay employees, provide them with benefits or cover rent.
The small business portion of the bill was crafted by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship.
“Our bipartisan small business package … will provide emergency relief so that millions of American workers can keep their jobs and millions of small businesses can stay open,” Rubio said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, Florida’s junior Republican senator, also voted for the bill, despite expressing opposition to the $600 weekly increase in unemployment benefits. Scott said some laid off workers will get more from unemployment than they did while working, which he said would discourage people from going back to work. Scott said the benefit should be capped at the income someone was earning before being laid off.
The relief bill passed the Senate 96-0 and cleared the House on a voice vote Friday. President Donald Trump signed the bill Friday.
“I have significant reservations about many provisions in this bill that are antithetical to everything I believe in, but we’re facing a crisis and this is the only option to get immediate help to small businesses and unemployed workers,” Scott said in a statement.
Congress included a wide range of other spending provisions in the relief bill that will help Florida, including $130 billion for hospitals and medical facilities for coronavirus response efforts and $150 billion to help state and local governments.
Florida is expected to see a big decline in sales tax revenues, straining the budget at a time when the state is trying to ramp up emergency response efforts. The relief bill will help cover that budget deficit, with the state receiving roughly $8.3 billion.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, said he has heard from some in the business community who shared Scott’s concerns about the $600 weekly increase in unemployment benefits.
“A lot of the business people are worried about the disincentive” to find a job if the unemployment benefits are increased by that much, Buchanan said. “I would just say this is unprecedented.”
“The bottom line for me is, it does sunset in four months and I want to be a little more sensitive because there’s a lot of fear out there,” he added.
Critics on the left have lambasted parts of the bill, too, especially the $500 billion bailout for larger industries severely impacted by the crisis, such as airline and hotel operators.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders threatened to hold up the bill if Scott and other senators were successful in changing the unemployment benefits. He called the $500 billion a “corporate welfare fund.”
“Unless these Republican senators drop their objections, I am prepared to put a hold on this bill until stronger conditions are imposed on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund to make sure that any corporation receiving financial assistance under this legislation does not lay off workers, cut wages or benefits, ship jobs overseas, or pay workers poverty wages,” Sanders said.
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In the end both liberals and conservatives accepted provisions they did not like.
Buchanan said the bill was a “give and take.”
“I think it’s pretty balanced,” he said.
“I’m excited we did get a good bipartisan bill, not perfect but I’m excited we acted,” he added.
Buchanan’s support for this stimulus package contrasts with 2009, when he voted against an $800 billion stimulus pushed by then-President Barack Obama that was aimed at lifting the economy during the Great Recession.
“This is a bad deal for taxpayers because it explodes our national debt without providing any meaningful economic growth,” Buchanan said then.
The current stimulus bill also will grow the national debt, but Buchanan said the circumstances are much different than 2009.
“This is different … with a virus it’s completely different,” Buchanan said. “We had a pretty good economy with the stock market and employment very low and this came out of left field.”
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Buchanan did vote for a $700 billion bank bailout bill in 2008 that had similarities to the corporate assistance provisions in the current stimulus bill.
The most important pieces of the current bill are the aid for health care providers, workers and small businesses, Buchanan said.
“Saving lives is the priority but also helping the economy get going again,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, also singled out the assistance for unemployed workers and small businesses as key elements of the bill.
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“Although not perfect, and there are many pieces of this legislation I do not support, I think it’s important for unemployed workers and small businesses to get economic relief now so that we can quickly get our economy back on track,” Steube said.
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network – Florida.