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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks following ceremonial signing of a permitless gun-carry bill at the Beretta USA plant in Gallatin, Tenn., on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press).

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Democratic lawmakers are blasting Gov. Bill Lee's plan to end the federal government's $300-a-week unemployment benefits paid to thousands of jobless workers early as "immoral" in light of the Republican governor's new proposal to use $44.6 million in other federal funds to boost payments to 1,125 small businesses that have suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

"In Gov. Lee's mind, $300 a week of federal assistance for a parent who lost their job is bad, but millions worth of federal assistance for business owners is good," charged Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, who went on to call it "an immoral double standard."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said that despite Tennesseans "still hurting," Lee "has lost sight of who he represents. Tennessee is not strapped for money. We have money oozing, with the federal monies coming in, oozing all over the place. There's no reason that both [jobless Tennesseans and businesses] cannot be taken care of."

The governor is defending ending the additional federal benefit for tens of thousands of jobless workers and self-employed Tennesseans on July 3, even as he advocates for his newest proposal, arguing among other things that "work is good for the soul, it's good for families, it's good for Tennessee."

"One of the things that we have worked really hard to do during the pandemic is to make sure that livelihoods are maintained, and the best way to do that is to make sure that the companies that Tennesseans work for are able to continue to operate," Lee said.

The additional $300 weekly payments come courtesy of President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan, approved by Congress earlier this year. But 25 Republican-led states, including Tennessee, have announced plans to end the program, which also attempted to extend pandemic unemployment aid for self-employed Americans, including gig economy workers, before it is set to expire formally on Sept. 6.

Lee in March criticized the American Rescue Plan, saying the country "didn't need it," while at the same time criticizing a new distribution formula that would result in what he said was $160 million in less aid for Tennessee than the model used in previously approved federal coronavirus and economic relief packages.

Republicans argue low-wage workers are encouraged to remain at home because they can make more money with the $300-per-week payments. A survey of small business owners released last month by the National Federation of Independent Business in Tennessee stated that 85% of respondents said they have job openings and 94% of them said they were having problems getting people to apply.

Biden disputed that last month at the White House, saying, "I think the people claiming Americans won't work even if they find a good and fair opportunity underestimate the American people."

"If you're receiving unemployment benefits and you're offered a suitable job, you can't refuse that job and just keep getting the unemployment benefits," Biden emphasized.

Latest figures released last week by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development show the state paid claims to 113,807 jobless Tennesseans for the week ending May 29. The amount paid was $66.08 million. The federal government picked up $57.51 million of the cost, while state government's share of the tab was $8.57 million.

Tennessee's high-water mark for unemployment was 325,095 claims during the week of May 9, 2020.

Lee administration officials announced the proposed additional $44.6 million in aid for businesses during last week's meeting of the state's Financial Stimulus Accountability Group, comprised of Lee administration officials and Republican and Democratic legislators.

Officials said the state had already approved $73 million in such aid through then-President Donald Trump's 2020 Coronavirus Relief Fund, helping more than 3,200 smaller businesses with an average payout of about $22,500.

Relying on the same pot of money, Lee's proposal calls for boosting the cap on payments per business from $30,000 to $100,000. The administration said that is justified based on data showing 1,125 businesses have lost more than $30,000 during the pandemic. But state officials first plan to contact the businesses to verify the losses before making any payments.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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