Sen. Mike Lee says continued federal COVID-19 aid is ‘throwing gasoline on the fire’ of inflation

The Utah senator applauded Gov. Spencer Cox for stopping extra $300-per-week jobless benefits.

(AP File Photo | J. Scott Applewhite) Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, walks on Capitol Hill as the Senate works to complete the Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, in Washington, Saturday, March 6, 2021. Lee said Thursday that federal coronavirus relief dollars are now damaging the economy, rather than helping it. Lee was speaking at an event hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee on Thursday lauded the state’s recent decision to stop paying higher jobless benefits, arguing that federal coronavirus relief dollars are now damaging the economy rather than helping it.

“With this latest round of government spending coming in right now, it’s kind of like throwing — not just water on an oil fire — but it’s a little bit like throwing gasoline on a fire,” the Republican senator said during an event hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Dumping government money into the economy has sent inflation soaring and driven the cost of gasoline and food upwards, he contends. And the $300-a-week unemployment bonus, supported by federal funding, also has backfired by making it more profitable for people to stay home than reenter the workforce, Lee continued.

He said he’s heard from employers across the state who can’t fill positions, including one Logan restaurant that can’t find people to work for $18 an hour in entry-level jobs.

That was the rationale Gov. Spencer Cox used this week to justify ending Utah’s pandemic-related unemployment benefits on June 26, as he argued the government shouldn’t be “competing against the private sector” by effectively discouraging people from finding jobs.

These disincentives, Lee said, could be especially harmful to lower-income Americans who are missing opportunities to build job skills, rise through the ranks of a workplace and expand their professional networks.

“You’ll never have opportunities for promotion and advancement under a government program that’s temporary and designed to make to make poverty tolerable for the moment,” he said.

Though many Utah employers are looking to hire, some residents with underlying health conditions are still struggling to find jobs that wouldn’t put them at risk of catching COVID-19. Two Utahns told The Salt Lake Tribune this week that the extra federal unemployment benefit has been sustaining them financially through the pandemic and said ending it will sever a lifeline for them.

The Utah Democratic Party also criticized the move to end the enhanced unemployment benefit and said Cox was “failing Utah and our neighbors” with the decision.

Lee, on the other hand, called it a “bold and courageous move.”

The senator’s broader concern about inflation is shared by state lawmakers, who are poised to accept roughly $1.5 billion in stimulus funding during next week’s special session and are searching for ways of spending the money without overwhelming an already-robust Utah economy.

During Thursday’s question-and-answer session, Lee also acknowledged it “probably was not a wise thing” for him to hug people last year without a mask at a White House Rose Garden ceremony, which was later deemed a probable COVID-19 superspreader event.

The senator noted in his defense that he and other attendees had passed coronavirus tests before the ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We walk in there, and sometimes muscle memory kicks in,” he said. “You haven’t seen somebody in a while, and you’ve all just been tested. ... So yeah, that’s probably one I would do differently.”

More than 10 of the ceremony attendees tested positive for COVID-19 shortly thereafter, with Lee and President Donald Trump among those who contracted the disease.

Speaking more broadly about any pandemic-related regrets, Lee questioned the need for widespread school closures — although he said it’s too soon to reach a firm conclusion on whether they were necessary.

“I don’t purport to have to answer to that, but I know that there are a lot of people who feel strongly about that,” he said.

Federal coronavirus relief might also have emboldened state and local governments to enact tighter public health restrictions and business lockdowns than they would’ve without that cash buffer, he continued.

“I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a doctor. And so I don’t feel qualified to weigh in definitively on this. And I don’t think we as a society know enough right now,” he said. “But those are some of the things that I think, looking back, people might question.”

Utah leaders never imposed a statewide shutdown but did place some restrictions on businesses and at one point ordered bars and restaurants to close their dining rooms.