Gov. Jan Brewer will ask state lawmakers to extend financial help for Arizonans who have been unable to find work before their unemployment benefits run out.
Gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman told Capitol Media Services that Brewer will accept free federal funds that will add an extra 13 weeks to the payments available. Benefits now are generally limited to 26 weeks.
The state Department of Commerce reports that in February, the most recent figures available, nearly 5,600 people who were unemployed exhausted their benefits without finding a new job.
Brewer's move comes as the number of Arizonans getting unemployment benefits has hit a record of more than 104,000. It was fewer than 70,000 at the beginning of the year - and just 37,000 a year ago.
A provision in the federal stimulus law signed by President Barack Obama in February made individuals in states with high unemployment like Arizona eligible for the extra help. And the law, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has the entire cost paid by the federal government.
All that is required is for states to modify their laws to participate.
But until Tuesday, Brewer had balked, fearing a future financial hit to the state - and, specifically, to Arizona employers. Senseman said those concerns are now gone.
"It appears as though there are no negative impacts on the state budget to accept these federal funds," he said. "The governor is going to communicate with legislative leaders about her desire to receive these funds from the federal government and put them to good use."
Senseman also said Brewer believes the Legislature has a "necessity to move promptly" to make the necessary statutory changes. He said the governor recognizes there are individuals whose benefits continue to expire each day Arizona does not have the required law in place.
Lawmakers seem interested in pursuing the move.
"It's a no-brainer," said Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler. "We should utilize that money to help that vulnerable population."
House Minority Leader David Lujan, D-Phoenix, agreed.
"Experience shows that when people get these benefits they tend to put them right back into the economy fairly quick," he said. "These are dollars that can help stimulate the economy in pretty immediate terms."
Federal law already allowed states that meet certain unemployment numbers to extend benefits. But that law splits the cost 50-50 between the states and federal government, which is why Arizona has not participated.
The stimulus law has the federal government picking up the entire cost through the end of this year.
Senseman said Brewer had feared there was a catch in the federal offer.
That is not an uncalled-for assumption: Two other pots of federal money for jobless benefit increases do have requirements for states to continue the programs long after the cash from Washington dries up. This one, however, does not.
In fact, Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor, said Arizona is free to structure its law accepting the extended benefits so that it self-destructs once the federal dollars disappear.
That, however, is not true of another $150 million Arizona could get to pay in jobless benefits. Senseman said Brewer has not moved to participate in either program because of concerns of the long-term cost.
One program would give Arizona an extra $100 million this year if it adopts at least two of four provisions into state unemployment laws:
Allow part-time workers to collect benefits.
Give benefits to those enrolled in job training programs.
Provide an additional allowance to care for dependent family members.
Permit benefits to be paid to those who quit a job because of some compelling reason, like domestic violence.
Arizona law already covers the fourth situation, meaning legislators would need to make only one other change to get the extra cash.
But Louviere said that, unlike the extended benefits, Arizona would have to make the changes permanent, continuing even after the federal dollars are gone.
The other change that Brewer has so far refused to accept would alter how Arizona computes the amount of benefits for each applicant. While that would qualify the state for an extra $50 million this year, Arizona would have to make that change permanent, too, and absorb future costs.
Those costs would not come directly from tax revenue but a tax that each employer pays on the first $7,000 of a worker's salary into a special trust fund. That tax is self-adjusting: If the fund dips below certain levels, whether because of more people getting benefits or higher payments, the tax rate is automatically increased on employers.
Senseman said Brewer is concerned about anything that would increase costs on businesses.
This is the second time Brewer has moved to boost jobless benefits following approval of the stimulus law. The governor last month agreed to increase payments by $25 per month, something the federal stimulus law allowed Brewer to decide on her own without legislative action.