Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Panels OK bills on jobless benefits, stimulus cash

PHOENIX — Legislators took steps on Tuesday to use federal stimulus money to provide laid-off Arizonans with 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits, but other steps to make the state’s jobless program more generous remain sidelined.

In other legislative action related to the stimulus program, lawmakers moved to restore Arizona’s eligibility to receive $1.6 billion of federal stimulus money.

House and Senate committees endorsed versions of both bills Tuesday. The full chambers and Gov. Jan Brewer would still need to approve for them to become law.

One of the two bills would reverse a change the state made last year requiring Medicaid recipients to requalify more often for free health care. The federal government said that put Arizona out of compliance for stimulus money that the state wants to help close a big budget shortfall.

The other bill would use federal stimulus money to raise Arizona’s unemployment benefits to total 72 weeks.

Lawmakers noted that the 13-week change costs the state nothing and said it’s reasonable to extend the benefits because of the difficulty of finding work during the current recession.

“It would be very unfortunate to have anybody have to go without a check when the money is available to them because we hadn’t acted, and that’s why we want to act this week,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Barbara Leff, R-Paradise Valley.”

The 13-week change enjoys bipartisan backing even as Republicans decline to consider other changes allowed under the stimulus program despite urgings by minority Democrats.

Those so-called “modernization” changes include providing longer eligibility for laid-off workers receiving education or training for new vocations and making people eligible for benefits even if their former jobs were only part-time.

Unlike the 13-week extension that will go away when federal funding runs out, the other changes are not being considered now because they would have to be permanent and could put new costs on the state and its employers who play unemployment taxes.

“We don’t want to burden the business community any more than we have to,” Leff said.

The House and Senate committees endorsed both bills unanimously but one senator complained that a federal mandate for the stimulus program was forcing the state to change the frequency for eligibility redeterminations.

“My concern is what’s the next thing that’s going to come down and we have to do to get that money,” said Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert. “It’d be nice if we knew what was instead of what will be.”

Leff responded that it’s already clear that Arizona must conform its Medicaid requalification requirement to the federal mandate. “We lose money if we do not get this done soon,” she said. “It is certainly worth $1.6 billion to make that change.”

Besides, said Republican Sen. Carolyn Allen of Scottsdale, “if they’re going to give it out, then I think we should take it because our taxpayers’ money is going to be spent someplace. It’d be foolish to let some other state have it.”

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