State lawmakers refused Monday to change laws to extend jobless benefits, meaning the checks that about 15,000 Arizonans get this week are likely their last.
Republican legislators stood in virtual unison in opposing the proposal by Gov. Jan Brewer to make the necessary change. GOP leaders said they could not in good conscience vote for keeping the checks coming for those already out of work more than 79 weeks while doing absolutely nothing to actually create jobs.
But Brewer would not back away from her demand to immediately keep the jobless funds flowing, providing only a general promise to work with lawmakers on an economic stimulus plan later.
Most immediately affected at 14,697 Arizonans who have exhausted their 26 weeks of regular unemployment benefits and another 53 weeks of federally funded emergency aid. But Steve Meissner, spokesman for the state Department of Economic Security, said his agency predicts that perhaps another 30,000 Arizonans will find themselves in that position between now and the end of the year.
Meissner said, though, that anyone eligible for another 20 weeks of "extended benefits'' should continue to file the necessary paperwork in the chance that Brewer and members of her own party eventually reach a deal.
Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, and House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said they remain willing to try to work something out with Brewer. But both insisted that their Republican colleagues will give her what she wants only if they get tax cuts for business or other changes in law to stimulate the economy.
At this point the chances of that happening are dim. In fact, Rep. Nancy McLain, R-Bullhead City, was the lone member of her party to speak in favor of extending the benefits.
"The folks in my district understand the dire economic situation that the state of Arizona and particularly Mohave County is in,'' she said, saying there are just no jobs to be had. "They wanted me to vote for this extension of these benefits.''
But Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, said the state's high unemployment rate is precisely why lawmakers need to do more than simply keep the checks coming,
"The focus on this session needs to be about jobs and Arizonans and employment, not unemployment,'' he said.
"We need to be doing more in tax reforms,'' said Pierce, with Republicans pushing for immediate tax relief for business. "My moral obligation is to do what's right for all of Arizona, for everybody to have a job and for us to help them get that job, not continue the two years' of unemployment insurance.''
Even Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, whose county has a jobless rate exceeding 25 percent, said he could not support simply keeping the benefits coming.
Shooter said he personally met with the governor to try to convince her to agree to changes in tax policy. One option, Shooter said, would be to provide tax credits for companies that actually hire those now getting unemployment checks.
But Tobin said the governor made absolutely no concessions, insisting that lawmakers approve the extension by itself.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson defended Brewer's decision not to compromise or agree to changes in tax policy.
"You don't throw together legislation that complicated and complex on the fly,'' he said. "It's not responsible.''
He said Brewer is willing to look at things that can be done to stimulate the economy.
"But the proper time for that is the (regular) legislative session that begins in January,'' Benson said. He said the purpose of Brewer calling lawmakers back to the Capitol on Friday was to address "the problem right in front of us.''
The need for that action come because federal law funds extended benefits only when a state's unemployment numbers are at least 10 percent higher than the same time in either of the last two years. Arizona posted a 9.3 percent jobless rate for the most recent month reported, falling short.
But federal law permits states to use a three-year look-back. And in early 2008, the jobless rate was below 5 percent.
Brewer's proposal was to make that lone change in the law.
She also offered to include a requirement for those getting those extended benefits -- between 79 and 99 weeks -- to have to look for work at least four days a week, twice as often as now required. And she proposed requiring that those in that category be reminded that federal law requires them to take any job offered that pays at least minimum wage.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said that's not enough.
"What we're trying to deal with is just a Band-Aid on a very infected sore,'' she said.
"That sore is the terrible economy of the United States,'' Allen continued. "And we have got to start dealing with that because in 20 weeks we'd just be back here trying to deal with the Band-Aid again and not the infected sore.''
The refusal of Arizona lawmakers to make the change affects not only those who won't be getting the federally funded checks, which average about $212 a week, but also will mean less money coming in to the economy that people will spend. Tobin said someone could view that as another hit to Arizona's economy.
"Or you could look at it from the standpoint that we have continued to kick this bucket down the road for a long time, even here in Arizona,'' he said, saying state taxpayers are spending $300 million a year just to pay interest on the national debt.
"Are we saving ourselves by spending six more months of borrowing?'' Tobin continued. "No. I think the answer is let's go create the jobs.''
Several Republicans made it clear they were angry at Brewer for issuing her call last Thursday for them to return to the Capitol the next day.
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said governors rarely call special legislative session unless and until they have worked out an agreement and have lined up the votes. That, said Gould, did not happen this time. Instead, he said, Brewer figured she could just get her way -- or blame lawmakers for failing to go along.
"That's disingenuous,'' he said. "Frankly, I'm offended by that.''
"The reason that we were here today is so that the governor could throw us under the bus,'' he said.
"The governor had absolutely no business calling us down here on 24 hours' notice on a Friday without the details of this session worked out.
Benson said his boss was under the impression she had the votes lined up Thursday when she issued her special session call, at least in the Senate, `and was operating under the belief that once she had the Senate on board, the House would fall in line.''
Pearce, however, said he told gubernatorial staffers Thursday night that there were not the votes for what Brewer wanted, at least not without some other concessions.