Ducey: Feds need to increase unemployment aid, but Arizona won’t

Gov. Doug Ducey responds to a question from reporter Howie Fischer on the topic of unemployment insurance during press conference update on COVID-19 on July 30, 2020. Photo by Cheryl Evans/The Arizona Republic | Pool photo

Gov. Doug Ducey implored Congress to act quickly to help workers who will soon lose their expiring federal unemployment benefits, while balking at suggestions that Arizona should increase its own benefits, which are among the lowest in the United States and haven’t changed in nearly 20 years.

The CARES Act, a massive federal COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress in March, provided $600 in unemployment benefits per week to help people who had lost their jobs as the coronavirus and subsequent government-mandated lockdowns sent the economy into a tailspin. Those benefits will expire on Friday if Congress doesn’t renew them. In Arizona, the final payments have already been made to the jobless.

Congressional leaders are negotiating a new, wide-ranging COVID relief package that is expected to include some extension of unemployment benefits. But so far the package has stalled amid disputes between the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Ducey urged Congress to act swiftly to ensure people don’t lose out on the expiring unemployment benefits.

“Congress needs to act. This is on Congress. Arizona is doing its part. The federal government has to do their part. In Arizona, we live by a balanced budget. We have made difficult decisions at the state level. And we don’t have the ability to print money,” Ducey said at a press conference on Thursday. “If I had any advice for Congress, it would be to turn around, order sandwiches in, stay the weekend and figure this out.”

The governor was less eager to see the state take action to improve its own meager unemployment benefits.

If the one million Arizonans who are now out of work lose that $600 weekly check, they’ll be left with nothing but the $240 that Arizona offers per week for the unemployed. That total is the second-lowest amount any state provides in unemployment benefits, behind only Mississippi, and hasn’t changed since 2004.

Ducey said the state has taken steps to help those who are out of work due to the COVID-ravaged economy, such as imposing a moratorium on evictions, which he recently extended through the end of October. But he suggested that Arizona isn’t in a financial position to offer more benefits itself.

“We don’t print money at the state level. We’re not in a position today, especially during a pandemic, to be borrowing money,” he said. 

Arizona faces a projected budget deficit of around $700 million, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated in June. Though the numbers are grim, they’re an improvement over the committee’s earlier projections in April, when it expected a deficit of about $1.1 billion. Arizona also has $1 billion in its rainy day fund, a point of pride for Ducey after he fought to increase the amount last year.

If Congress extends federal unemployment benefits as expected, out-of-work Arizonans might not get as much help as they’ve been receiving thus far. The HEALS Act, a Republican proposal in the U.S. Senate, would reduce the $600 weekly payment to $200. A Democratic proposal in the House, known as the HEROES Act, would maintain the $600 payments. 

Ducey was hopeful that negotiations will increase the $200 payments in the Republican plan.

“I’m hearing that they’re looking for some type of baseline. They’re looking at this nationally. Of course, my concern is 100% focused on Arizona. They have their challenges in front of them,” Ducey said. “The supplemental part to Arizona is what’s critical, and again, it’s a way to provide a social safety net that’s strong and stable as people transition and navigate through this.”

The governor’s weekly press conference came as Arizona’s COVID-19 numbers, which for weeks had been among the worst in the country, continued their decline. 

New infections plateaued and have steadily declined, though they’re still at a level that is universally considered to be unacceptably high. The number of Arizonans who are hospitalized with COVID, which peaked on July 13 at 3,517, has fallen for 11 of the past 12 days, and is now at 2,348, the lowest since June 24. 

“The surge capacity has not been necessary to date,” Ducey said, referring to the excess beds that hospitals across the state were preparing to put into use as hospitals saw the number of spare in-patient and intensive care unit beds dwindle to a dangerously low level.

Ducey also pointed to Arizona’s R-naught number, a figure that represents that average number of people that each person who is infected with COVID is likely to transmit the virus to. A month ago, that figure was 1.18. Now, it has dropped to .90, tied with Maine for the lowest in the U.S. 

Not all the numbers are improving. The state also notched its highest daily death total on Thursday since the start of the COVID crisis, with the Arizona Department of Health Services reporting 172 deaths from the virus. Many of those deaths are from previous days and will be reassigned to the appropriate day. Arizona’s highest daily death total so far is 80, set twice over the past month. 

Many of Arizona’s key COVID-19 indicators began falling two to three weeks after Ducey allowed cities and counties to enact ordinances requiring people to wear face masks in public, a measure that he had previously prohibited local governments from enacting. Shortly afterward, he ordered bars, gyms and several other types of businesses to close their doors to prevent the spread of the disease.

Ducey was tentatively optimistic on Thursday as he discussed the COVID-19 situation in Arizona, touting positive developments while warning people not to stop taking precautionary measures such as wearing masks, socially distancing, washing their hands frequently and staying home when possible.

“Where we are today is dramatically different than where we were just a few short weeks ago,” Ducey said. “We have more to do. But if we keep doing the simple things that we’ve been doing … you can see what a dramatic difference it’s meant in our state and how it’s protected lives and protected livelihoods.”