Fix for jobless benefits fizzles in special session at Arizona Capitol - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Fix for jobless benefits fizzles in special session at Arizona Capitol

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Posted: Friday, June 10, 2011 1:29 pm | Updated: 11:19 am, Sat Jun 11, 2011.

Republican legislators balked Friday at a proposal by Gov. Jan Brewer to keep extended jobless benefits flowing, leaving nearly 15,000 Arizonans unsure if the unemployment checks they get this coming week will be their last.

Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said a majority of his caucus could not support making the change necessary to have the federal government continue funding benefits for those who have been out of work for more than 79 weeks. Some lawmakers said the plan by the Republican governor was little better than the liberal policies they say got the country's economy where it is today.

Pearce said there still is a chance lawmakers could approve the plan on Monday - but only if the governor agrees to add provisions he said would prevent fraud. And House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, wants the package to also include tax breaks for business he said are needed to stimulate job growth.

Brewer, however, said she is unwilling to make changes to placate legislative foes.

"I hope they will do the right thing for the people of Arizona and do their job," she said.

But Pearce warned Brewer that what she has offered just won't sell.

"If she's not going to compromise, we don't have the votes," he said. And at that point, Pearce said, he will just call the special session to a close.

The stalemate leaves those affected wondering if the unemployment check they will get next week will be their last.

The federal government funds 20 weeks of what are called "extended benefits" for those unable to find work after 79 weeks. But that funding is linked to how the current jobless rate compares with the past two years.

Arizona's current 9.3 percent jobless rate, which has been dropping slowly, means the state no longer qualifies.

Congress has allowed states to use a three-year comparison, one that would continue the benefits through the end of the year. That would help not only those already getting the checks but another estimated 30,000 who will run through their first 79 weeks of payments and still be out of work.

Brewer's proposal makes that change, along with requirements that those getting extended benefits look for work at least four days a week, twice as often as now required.

She said this should be an easy move for lawmakers, what with the cost being picked up entirely by the federal government. And the Department of Economic Security said Friday the total payments to Arizonans amount to about $3.2 million a week, money that recipients would spend in the state and stimulate the economy.

But GOP lawmakers were unconvinced this is the solution to the state's economic woes.

"The real issue is we have destroyed thousands of jobs in Arizona and also in America because of progressive socialist principles that have been used in the last 20 years that has changed our country," said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. "The real root of the problem is this country's in desperate need of jobs."

Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, said taking the cash means increasing the federal deficit.

"We have to do everything we can to make sure that this Obama administration and this Democratic Party in all 50 states stop the generational theft that they have engaged in ever since the Obama administration came to power," he said. "We're dealing with an unacceptable situation and we have to put our people back to work."

Brewer scoffed at the idea that turning away the cash is the responsible thing to do.

"If we don't pass this legislation, it's not going to make a diddly-dink in the federal deficit," she said, figuring that approving the change in state law would net Arizonans about $80 million between now and the end of the year. But approving it, the governor continued, will mean a big difference to the state.

"And, Lord knows, we need the help also," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said there is some evidence that what the governor wants actually would hurt the economy.

"Studies have been done ... controlling all other variables found that when you do extend unemployment benefits you have an effect of increasing the overall unemployment rate," he said.

Brewer countered that there are just not enough jobs available, of any kind. She pointed to a recent report that 14,000 Arizonans turned out to apply for 1,300 jobs being offered at McDonalds.

Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, said those who have been out of work for more than 79 weeks need help now.

"Maybe in another year a legitimate argument could be made that these folks just really need to try harder at getting jobs," he said. But he said Arizonans are hurting now.

More to the point, Schapira said they are entitled to the benefits.

"People who qualify for unemployment are people who have worked for years, who have paid into a system for years, who have invested in a system for years," he said.

"This is not simply welfare, this is not a give-away, this is not a handout," Schapira continued. "This is a return on investment into a system that people have paid into throughout their careers."

But Schapira is wrong on two fronts.

The first 26 weeks of jobless benefits comes from a state trust fund which is financed by a tax paid not by workers but by their employers. Premiums are based on how often companies lay off workers and vary from as little as $2 a year to as much as $378.

And all benefits beyond 26 weeks, both one program which provides another 53 weeks and the extended benefits program at issue here which covers another 20 weeks, are financed totally from federal tax dollars.

Republicans and Democrats did agree on one thing: They blame the governor for insisting that lawmakers come back to the Capitol without having first lined up the votes for a package that could get the necessary votes.

Brewer said she did her homework.

"I would never have called them in to special session, I would not have had the bills drafted ... if we had not reached an agreement," the governor said.

Brewer also insisted she had a deal with Pearce and had the votes, at least in the Senate. But Pearce said he told gubernatorial staffers Thursday the support was not there.

"For her to try to throw me under the bus is B.S," he said.

Schapira said bringing lawmakers together without a firm deal is more than a waste of time.

He noted legislators get an allowance for each day they are in session that totals about $4,000. And that covers not just the Friday session but also Saturday and Sunday when they are not there.

Schapira has introduced legislation to deny the allowance for this special session.

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