EDITORIAL: Legislators need to help the unemployed, not point fingers

EDITORIAL: Legislators need to help the unemployed, not point fingers

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There are many people in Wisconsin who were put out of work through no fault of their own by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we’ve reported, there are also many people who haven’t received the unemployment benefits for which they are qualified and they need those benefits to buy groceries and pay the bills.

Members of the Legislature, regardless of party, should keep such people in mind when the next round of federal assistance comes, so that the state doesn’t again miss out on $25 million because of slow movement in Madison. Or because of unclear guidance from Washington.

The federal CARES Act included provisions that would reimburse states for unemployment benefits as long as the state did not require the jobless to wait one week before they could receive aid. Wisconsin lost out on $25 million in federal funding to help pay for unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic because Republicans who control the Legislature didn’t act quickly enough, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported May 7.

Gov. Tony Evers proposed a $700 million package to GOP legislative leaders on March 21, which included suspension of the one-week waiting period. But GOP legislative leaders didn’t schedule floor sessions to pass the legislation until the week of April 13, 17 days after President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act into law.

“Within those (three) weeks, the federal government will not reimburse us,” DWD spokesman Ben Jedd said May 7.

It was initially unclear whether the federal legislation would honor a retroactive provision in state legislation and provide reimbursement for benefits paid before lawmakers acted, but GOP legislative leaders were warned of the possibility it wouldn’t be by Democratic members in the state’s federal delegation in a letter dated April 3, seven days after President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act into law.

The letter, sent to state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both Republicans, from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore, Ron Kind and Marc Pocan, states that “it is not clear that Wisconsin will be allowed to receive a full federal reimbursement for a payment that is not made during the beneficiary’s first week of unemployment.”

Why was it unclear if the bill had already been signed into law? And how seriously would Fitzgerald and Vos be expected to take a letter saying it was unclear if something would be allowed in a piece of legislation already signed into law?

Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Vos, said lawmakers drafted the state relief package to apply retroactively because it was their understanding that the federal government would provide the reimbursement if the state eliminated the one-week waiting period and entered into an agreement with the federal government, which DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman signed on March 28. Beyer said the Evers administration through DWD “got the federal parameters on reimbursement on April 30 but has made no move to pursue the federal reimbursement we believe we’re entitled to.”

We presume the congressional Democrats acted in good faith in sending the letter to the state-legislative Republicans. But this lack of clarity is something that should have been resolved by leaders of both parties in Congress before President Trump signed the bill into law.

News of the missed funding came amid DWD projections showing the state fund that will cover that $25 million and billions more in unemployment payments could be depleted as early as October, the Journal Sentinel reported.

If there should be another prolonged lockdown period in the fall, the need for unemployment assistance will rise again.

Democrats and Republicans might engage in finger-pointing on this matter. We hope not.

Because the virus doesn’t care about your political affiliation.

And if you were put out of work by a pandemic-related quarantine order, you need that unemployment check a whole lot more than you need elected officials telling you to blame the other side.

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