St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Sustain Missouri Governor’s Veto of Harmful Unemployment Insurance Cuts

A majority of state legislators in Missouri seem to have it in for unemployed workers. Last month they passed HB 150, dramatically cutting unemployment benefits far beyond the reductions enacted in 2011. Gov. Jay Nixon has rightly vetoed the bill, and the Legislature should sustain that veto.

Missouri’s unemployment insurance program is hardly generous. The state is already one of only seven states that provide 20 or fewer weeks of jobless aid. At just $320, Missouri’s maximum weekly benefit is less than that in 43 states and the District of Columbia. And previous cuts have already driven down the share of unemployed workers receiving benefits — only slightly more than one in five jobless workers received unemployment insurance in 2014.

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The bill passed last month by the Legislature would further reduce weeks of available benefits, creating a sliding-scale scheme that ties the number of weeks to the state’s unemployment rate. The measure is so similar to those previously enacted in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, you’d suspect some lobbyists of peddling the scheme from state to state like snake-oil salesmen.

Under the sliding scale the Legislature approved, maximum weeks of benefits would vary between 13 and 20 weeks, with 20 weeks available only when the unemployment rate is 9 percent or higher, and 13 weeks when the rate is less than 6 percent. Each one-half-percentage-point decline in the rate below 9 percent would trigger one less week of benefits. At the current three-month average unemployment rate of about 5.5 percent, a maximum of only 13 weeks of benefits would be available, giving Missouri the dubious distinction of offering the fewest weeks of benefits in the country.

The average length of an unemployed worker’s job search in Missouri was about 31 weeks in 2014, more than twice the maximum duration of benefits had the Legislature’s new scheme been in place. More than 44 percent of unemployed workers in Missouri were jobless for 15 weeks or longer last year, and nearly 42 percent of those receiving benefits exhausted their available weeks before finding work.

Echoing a rationale offered for cuts in six other states, proponents of Missouri’s benefit cuts in 2011 (from 26 weeks to 20) said reductions were necessary to help repay federal loans the state borrowed to pay benefits during and after the Great Recession. But Missouri repaid its federal loans a year ago, so outstanding debt cannot explain these new cuts.

Proponents of previous cuts also argued that people running out of state benefits sooner would still receive additional benefits provided by federal extensions. That is no longer the case: The federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation  program expired at the end of 2013, and there have been no federal unemployment benefits since. But that hasn’t kept leading proponents of HB 150 from asserting that federal extensions are still available.

In February, when Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, the chief Senate sponsor, was asked on public radio what would happen under his plan when people ran out of benefits and couldn’t afford their bills or groceries, he responded, “You understand you still qualify for federal unemployment.” More recently, after the Senate passed the benefit cuts, Senate President Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, told reporters, “Remember, the state benefits are on top of the federal benefits for unemployment.”

Leaving aside this misinformation, the bill is bad, mean-spirited and exceedingly harmful — and the governor has justifiably vetoed it. The Legislature should sustain that veto to protect Missouri’s unemployment insurance program from being further dismantled. Life is tough enough for unemployed workers and their families; it’s time to stop piling on.

Mitchell Hirsch is a campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.

Read the original article at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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