Monday, February 7, 2011

Extended unemployment benefits? Not in Wyoming

Out of work? Too bad, pal

House flushes $38 million in federal funds, turns back on Wyoming unemployed

Wyomingites who lost their jobs in the Great Recession were told by a majority of Wyoming House members today to find work. The House rejected House Bill 244 – Unemployment insurance amendments on a 25-34 vote.

The House majority sent this message despite seven straight quarters of decline in new business formation in Wyoming. Moreover, from June 2008 to June 2010, Wyoming lost 15,200 jobs, according to Wyoming Department of Employment statistics.

The defeat of HB 244 means Wyoming will not see close to $38 million in available federal funds circulate through our economy. Instead, workers who fall into poverty when their benefits run out will be forced to turn to programs such as Medicaid and food stamps to take care of their families – programs whose growth disturbs many of the same legislators who voted against HB 244.

The bill would have brought about $24 million in extended unemployment insurance benefits for 13 weeks to workers who exhaust their ordinary unemployment benefits between March 15, 2011 and Jan. 1, 2012. Sponsor Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-HD13, Laramie) said the measure, funded fully by the federal government following Congress’ December decision to again fund extended benefits, would help 7,500 workers survive the recession after losing their jobs through no fault of their own.

Take a look at the arithmetic: $24 million divided by 7,500 workers divided by 13 weeks of extended benefits means the average check for a worker getting these benefits would be less than $250 per week, hardly a gravy train. It’s difficult to provide food and housing for a single person on that income; supporting a family of four would not be possible in Wyoming.

The bill also would have changed state unemployment insurance law to enable the state to tap another $14.2 million in American Restoration and Recovery Act funds. About $5 million of that money would have financed the expansion of the base period used to calculate eligibility for the insurance. More workers would have been eligible.

Another $9.2 million would have been available to pay for benefits to unemployed workers who enrolled in state-approved training programs that would give them the skills needed to move into other occupations where the state has projected jobs will be available in the future.

A legislator who owns a coffee shop admitted she formerly was a critic of people receiving unemployment benefits, but she now gets 100 applicants when she advertises a single position, showing that there are a lot of people out there looking for work.

But the argument that the program is “a hand up, not a hand out” for people who want to work carried no weight.

Instead, the House resounded with tales of fraud and little sympathy for the unemployed, saying that unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to look for work.

Private contractors and construction union lobbyists joined forces to advocate for the bill as a way to address unemployment in the construction sector, which is hovering near 20%, but to no avail.

Here’s the roll call vote in today’s House vote on HB 244. Take a close look:

Ayes: Representative(s) Barbuto, Berger, Blake, Blikre, Botten, Burkhart, Byrd, Campbell, Connolly, Craft, Esquibel, K., Freeman, Goggles, Greear, Greene, Harshman, Krone, McOmie, Patton, Petroff, Roscoe, Steward, Throne, Vranish and Zwonitzer, Dn..

Nays: Representative(s) Bonner, Brechtel, Brown, Buchanan, Cannady, Childers, Davison, Edmonds, Eklund, Gay, Gingery, Harvey, Hunt, Illoway, Jaggi, Kasperik, Kroeker, Lockhart, Loucks, Lubnau, Madden, McKim, Miller, Moniz, Nicholas B, Peasley, Pederson, Petersen, Quarberg, Semlek, Stubson, Teeters, Wallis and Zwonitzer, Dv..

Excused: Representative(s) Shepperson
Ayes 25 Nays 34 Excused 1 Absent 0 Conflicts 0