NM lawmakers criticize GOP plans for unemployment benefit

The $600 weekly unemployment benefit from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act officially expired Friday without Congress passing an extension.

And Republican and Democratic lawmakers still seemed far apart on one heading into the weekend, with members of the New Mexico delegation critical of Republican coronavirus aid proposals rolled out last week.

The proposals included cutting the benefit to $200 a week, or 70% of a person’s past wages. That brought rebukes from U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, all Democrats.

“The $600 dollar enhanced unemployment benefit has been a lifeline for millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Luján said in a news release. “It has allowed families to keep a roof over their heads, feed their children, and pay their bills.”

Udall said the Republicans released a plan “that is both baffling and dangerously out of touch.”

“Hundreds of people are calling my office in fear about how they will keep a roof over their heads and feed their families when the current $600 expires,” the senator said earlier in the week.

The governor said as many as 175,000 state residents were helped by the benefit.

“It represents an unconscionable step backward in our fight to both provide help to affected workers and to help sustain our economy,” Lujan Grisham said.

Republicans have countered that many people made more on unemployment than they did at their jobs with the benefit at $600, creating an incentive not to seek work.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told the Journal in an earlier interview that he understood those concerns. He favored tying the amount of the benefit to the unemployment rate. As it dropped, he felt, payments should drop.

He opposed having payments cut off at an arbitrary date.

Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utan and Susan Collins of Maine unveiled an alternative Thursday that would provide extra payments of $500 a week in August, $400 a week in September and $300 a week in October – or total benefits that replace 80% of wages.

And Luján still pushed for the Senate to pass the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act that would extend the $600 benefit. The House passed the bill in May.

“We have to get to a compromise quickly,” U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., told the Journal. “Folks who lost their jobs are in danger of or have lost their unemployment insurance. It’s crucial that we have their backs.”

She has proposed back-to-work pay of $3,600 to provide for workers’ basic needs until they receive their first paycheck. And Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is proposing a back-to-work bonus of $450 a week.

While she didn’t vote for the HEROES Act, Torres Small said she favored the financial support the legislation would have provided for state and local governments in municipalities with populations under 500,000, which could not apply for direct funding through the CARES Act.

“There is support in both chambers to provide additional funding for services provided by local governments such as our fire departments,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s not included in the Republican Senate package.”

There are provisions in the Republicans’ $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, liability Protection and Schools Act that have bipartisan support.

That includes a second round of stimulus payments of $1,200 for people making less than $75,000 a year.

Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com


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