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Oklahoma lawmakers still mulling coronavirus relief needs, including unemployment

Rep. Kendra Horn
Rep. Kendra Horn

As congressional leaders struggle to find common ground on the next coronavirus aid package, Oklahoma lawmakers also seem conflicted about what type of assistance is necessary and how best to target the money.

In statements this week, Oklahomans in the U.S. Senate and House said the next round of assistance needs to be as targeted as possible, and none endorsed the proposals on the table.

“We should deal with this economically like we’re dealing with the virus in some ways,” Sen. James Lankford, a Republican, said Thursday.

“The virus itself as it moves around — some people are not affected by it at all, they get it and literally don’t know they have it and other people end up in the hospital on a ventilator or a fatality.

“It’s the same thing happening in our economy. … We can’t treat this as if everybody is exactly the same in this.”

Lankford and Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican, opposed the $600-per-week federal benefit when Congress first approved it in March.

Lankford said Thursday that many people made more on unemployment than they did on their jobs with the federal benefit, which expires on Friday.

“It’s a disincentive to work,” he said. “And it’s not what the federal government should do. We shouldn’t pay people more not to work than they actually make working and I don’t understand why that’s controversial.”

Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City, voted against her party’s $3 trillion coronavirus package in May because it had too many extraneous provisions, and she is not a fan of the $1 trillion package offered by Senate Republicans.

In a virtual town hall on Wednesday, Horn said the Senate bill was “full of things that are unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic and full of pet political projects that don’t actually get help and resources where they are desperately needed.”

She said there was nearly $2 billion for an FBI building in Washington, D.C. and money for weapons systems already funded in the defense bills, but no money to prevent evictions, to help state and local governments or to extend expanded food stamp benefits.

Horn said she didn’t know whether there was a “magic number” for the federal supplement to unemployment payments.

“We have to find the right amount that helps families and individuals who lost jobs through no fault of their own but still incentivizes work,” she said.

“And that is so important. It's why we also have to discuss things like hazard pay for our front line workers.”

Inhofe said the Senate proposal was “just a starting point, but I’m pleased to see that it rightfully prioritizes support for our schools, small businesses, agricultural producers and health care providers, while making sure everyone has the liability protection they need to manage reopening when appropriate without the fear of frivolous lawsuits.”

Inhofe said he would keep an open mind about the package as negotiations continued, but he praised it for providing resources to health care workers and hospitals.

“It supports families with additional stimulus payments and allows parents to return to work by providing resources for childcare providers to support a safe environment for young children. Oklahomans need resources to continue to fight the virus and reopen safely,” he said.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, said during a virtual town hall this week that he would have to “think real hard about this.”

“We’ve spent well over $3 trillion so far on the COVID crisis,” he said. “It’s not like we have this money setting in the Treasury Department. We’re writing checks off the IOUs.”

Regarding the federal unemployment benefit, Mullin said, “If workers can make more money being at home than they can at work, there is no incentive for them to work. We’ve got to be very careful as a country that we don’t stagnate our own economy.”

At a press briefing on Thursday, President Donald Trump said he supported an extension of the federal unemployment benefit and additional stimulus payments. He has also expressed support for extending a moratorium on evictions.

House and Senate negotiators did not reach an agreement on Thursday about the details of a package, and the Senate adjourned until Monday.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said last week that Congress should approve another "robust package."

"I do think there will be additional unemployment and additional direct assistance similar to what we saw in April and May," he said.

Related Photos
<strong>Sen. James Lankford</strong>

Sen. James Lankford

<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Sen. James Lankford " title=" Sen. James Lankford "><figcaption> Sen. James Lankford </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Rep. Kendra Horn " title=" Rep. Kendra Horn "><figcaption> Rep. Kendra Horn </figcaption></figure>
Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›