By rejecting 20 weeks of extended unemployment insurance, state lawmakers have shown they care more about corporate tax cuts and hyperbole about socialists than the chronically unemployed.
State lawmakers wrapped up their special session Monday and went home without making the one-word change needed to continue funding unemployment for people out of work for at least 79 weeks.
Extending long-term unemployment insurance for another 20 weeks is a no-brainer. It would have extended a safety net to thousands of Arizonans on the brink. It would have continued to inject $3.2 million of federal money into the economy each week. And it should have been easy to do. All lawmakers had to do was change the number "two" to "three" in a formula used to grant the 20-week extension.
Most importantly, it would have been the right and moral thing to do.
These are extraordinary times. The unemployment rate has dropped to 9.3 percent, which is roughly double what it was 10 years ago. While extending unemployment benefits by another 20 weeks would have helped 15,000 people stay afloat, cutting them off will affect an additional 30,000 people who will hit the 79-week mark later this year. So in essence, state lawmakers have ripped away the safety net for 45,000 jobless Arizonans. That's roughly the size of the crowd at a UA football game.
Unemployed Arizonans can receive up to $240 a week while they look for new work, which is the second-lowest amount in the country (Thank you, Mississippi!). The first 26 weeks of benefits are funded by insurance premiums paid by employers. Congress has authorized 53 more weeks of insurance. And then comes an additional 20 weeks of benefits, which are also paid for by federal funds. These benefits are available to residents of states where unemployment is at least 10 percent higher than it was at the same time during the last two years.
In April the jobless rate in Arizona declined, taking it below the 10 percent threshold. But federal law allows the comparison to be three years instead of two. By changing the number from two to three, state lawmakers could have kept the benefits flowing.
So what stopped them?
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, has said he wanted the unemployment extension to include tax breaks for businesses - even though state lawmakers recently approved a $538 million tax-cut package for businesses, which includes a 30 percent reduction in corporate income taxes.
Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, has expressed concern about fraud, saying extending unemployment insurance to 99 weeks is tantamount to paying people to stay home. Does he have no concern about the people who are actually looking for jobs? While there is the potential for someone to abuse unemployment insurance, many are genuinely searching. The tradeoff of helping those people is worth the risk of fraud.
Sens. Al Melvin and Frank Antenori, our very own Republicans, said they are concerned about adding to the federal deficit by $3.2 million a week. But unlike programs such as Medicare, this extension is intended to be a temporary expense. This was an extraordinary recession, and the recovery remains slow. Besides, Gov. Jan Brewer has said the unused money will simply be spent in other states.
And Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, offered this doozie: "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 this country."
Extending unemployment insurance was the right thing to do. It should have been easy. But instead lawmakers showed they value hyperbole and political points more than the needs of struggling Arizonans.
Arizona Daily Star