BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker is criticizing President Donald Trump's plan to extend federal unemployment benefits, saying it would divert crucial disaster relief money away from cities and towns.
Trump signed an executive order Saturday that would use $44 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency money to maintain unemployment aid for the jobless and calls on states to kick in roughly $15 billion. The directive was one of several issued by Trump in response to a deadlock in Congress over a new relief package.
Baker said tapping the agency's accounts would divert funding that Massachusetts and other states are counting on to cover COVID-19 costs and related expenses.
”That FEMA money, as far as most states are concerned, is what’s there for us to apply to be reimbursed for the costs we incurred in March, April and May during the original emergency," Baker told reporters at a briefing Tuesday.
The state is counting on FEMA to help reimburse the cost of a $1.1 billion COVID-19 spending package signed by Baker last month that bought personal protective equipment, hired contact tracers and built field hospitals.
Trump's order extends federal unemployment payments of $400 a week until Dec. 3, when they would expire.
States would be required to chip in $100 a week, although the White House has since modified its plan so that states won’t have to comply if they are already issuing at least $100 worth in benefits. New benefits would be retroactive to Aug. 1.
The Trump administration says states can tap into federal coronavirus relief funds already distributed under the CARES Act to cover their 25% portion. But Baker said that money, too, is needed for the coronavirus response, especially amid the uncertainty over a federal bailout for state and local governments.
"It’s using most of a pot of money that’s already designated for a very particular purpose," he said.
Congress approved payments of $600 a week at the outset of the outbreak, but those benefits were last issued July 25.
Lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement on an extension amid partisan bickering.
Senate Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion package that would reduce the $600 unemployment supplement, possibly to $200 a week. House Democrats approved a $3 trillion bill in May that would extend the $600 benefit.
Baker said he hopes Congress can agree on another federal stimulus package that extends the benefits.
Massachusetts' 17.5% unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the nation, according to federal data. More than 1 million jobless workers are collecting regular state unemployment benefits, as well as federal pandemic-related benefits intended to help those who cannot draw traditional unemployment.
The demand has nearly tapped out the state's unemployment fund, which totaled $1.7 billion last year, forcing the Baker administration to take out a line of credit.
Massachusetts boasted some of the most generous unemployment benefits in the nation prior to the pandemic. The federal subsidy has boosted jobless payouts even higher. The state's average weekly unemployment benefit was $531 in April, the highest in the nation, according to Labor Department statistics.
While the added benefit has helped many recipients keep their heads above water financially, business leaders say it has created a disincentive for some employees to return to work because lower-paid workers are making more money being unemployed than they would have at work.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.