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Arizona lawmakers push to protect stimulus money

PHOENIX – Legislators on Monday began pushing for fast-track legislation to restore Arizona’s eligibility for $1.6 billion in federal stimulus money and to use money from the recovery program to extend Arizonans’ unemployment benefits.

House and Senate leaders said they plan formal action on separate emergency bills for both aspects of the stimulus program.

“We think we can have both of these done this week,” said House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa.

One of the bills would restore Arizona’s eligibility for $1.6 billion of additional Medicaid money by reversing a procedural change that Arizona made last year. Federal officials have deemed Arizona out of compliance because of that change, which made recipients of free health care requalify every six months instead of every 12 months.

Receipt of the additional Medicaid money would free up state dollars now allocated to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Lawmakers could then use the state money to keep the current state budget balanced and to help close a projected $3 billion shortfall in the next state budget based on $11 billion of spending.

The second bill would use federal money to add 13 weeks to workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits, extending the total duration to 72 weeks.

Legislative Democrats had been pressing for earlier action on the unemployment change, but majority Republicans had been reluctant to act until it was clear there were no strings attached.

Adams said the decision was made to pursue the federal funding for the 13 additional weeks of benefits because the state is allowed to eliminate the extension once the federal funding runs out.

But because the state couldn’t make a similar retreat from a separate stimulus provision to grant unemployment benefits to people who held part-time jobs, lawmakers won’t pursue that change, Adams said.

That would have left the state on the hook for added costs once the federal money for part-timers’ benefits runs out, Adams said.

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