Wolf: Senate GOP COVID-19 relief could strain state

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

U.S. Senate Republicans' most recent COVID-19 relief proposal could deepen the state's economic woes and fails to sufficiently support unemployment aid, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday.

Wolf's remarks came as he visited the CareerLink PA location in York City to talk about job training opportunities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The day prior, Senate Republicans introduced their proposal for the fourth wave of relief aid since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Gov. Tom Wolf, right, talks with Department of Labor & Industry Deputy Secretary of Workforce Development Sheila Ireland and South Central PA Works CEO Jesse McCree during the governor's press conference at PA CareerLink in York Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Among other things, the $1 trillion proposal would slash supplemental unemployment benefits from $600 per week to $200 per week through September, with plans that states could then take over and pay 70% of a person's lost wages.

"Right now, I don't think any state knows exactly whether they can afford it or not," Wolf said. "We don't. That's why we had a five-month budget that ends November 30."

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The financial status of Pennsylvania is already in bad shape, as massive revenue shortfalls threaten future budgets and unemployment stands at 13%.

As a result, state and local governments have been hungry for aid, something that is not in the Senate's proposal. It had been included in the version drafted in May by House Democrats but failed to move in the upper chamber.

But in addition to inter-party disagreements, chasms within the Republican Party have  arisen over how much the government should spend in the new aid package.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said the $1 trillion price tag for the Senate version is troubling, as Congress has already spent more than $3 trillion on relief aid since March.

"If Congress is going to move forward with additional legislation, it should be narrowly focused and support economic reopening efforts," Toomey said. “With a price tag exceeding $1 trillion, the HEALS Act is not a narrow measure – and this is before Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi insists on her pound of flesh."

A second sticking point for Democrats is maintaining the $600 in supplemental weekly unemployment benefits, which they would like to extend through year's end.

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during his press conference at PA CareerLink in York Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Wolf was highlighting the importance of job-finding resources in light of the unemployment cause by the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Bill Kalina photo

In Pennsylvania, the state has struggled just to keep up with unemployment claims. The Department of Labor and Industry still hasn't processed 8%, or more than 150,000, of the 1.9 million applications since mid-March, according to state data.

After Wolf on Tuesday said $200 "is not enough," U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said cutting the supplemental unemployment benefits is an "outrageous" proposal.

“Republicans want to offer struggling workers who have lost their job through no fault of their own two-thirds less additional unemployment insurance than Democrats,” he said. “It is outrageous that Republicans do not seem to understand that we cannot address the economic crisis without effectively addressing the public health crisis."

Republicans, though, have argued that the $600 figure incentivizes Americans to stay unemployed rather than seek jobs because the income exceeds their normal wages.

That argument was also taken up by U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, who did not respond to requests for comment but discussed the issue during a Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce webinar in April.

"I'm now hearing from Pennsylvania employers that can't get their employees back to work because unemployment compensation with the federal inclusion of the $600 is too lucrative," Perry said. "These are the policy provisions that aren't helpful to the circumstance."

Democrats, though, have capitalized on similar remarks, questioning how much Republicans care for struggling families.

That includes state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who will face off with Perry in the 10th Congressional District election in November.

"Congressman Perry has had no issue adding trillions to the national debt in order to give tax breaks to the corporations and special interests that bankroll his campaign," DePasquale campaign spokesperson Kunal Atit said. "But when it comes to families in this community, he is quick with excuses. The residents of PA-10 deserve a representative who will put them first."

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with PA CareerLink peronnel after a press conference at the York facility Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Wolf was highlighting the importance of job-finding resources in light of the unemployment cause by the COVID-19 outbreak in the state during the visit. Bill Kalina photo

The Senate GOP proposal contains several other provisions. It would provide another $1,200 stimulus check to most Americans and another  round of $500 payments for dependents of any age.

It also calls for an unrelated $1.75 billion to construct a new headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigations in Washington, a demand of President Donald Trump's administration.

As of noon Tuesday, there were 2,196 cases of COVID-19 and 84 deaths linked to the virus in York County. Statewide, there were 109,384 cases and 7,146 deaths.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.