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Senate OKs bills on unemployment, stimulus money

PHOENIX — Some Republicans held their noses and voted yes, but others dissented Wednesday as the Senate voted overwhelmingly to make a health care eligibility change demanded by Washington that will allow Arizona to get $1.6 billion of federal stimulus money.

The Senate also approved a separate bill to provide laid-off Arizonans with 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits.

The Senate action set the stage for House consideration that is scheduled Thursday. House approval would send the bills to Gov. Jan Brewer. The Senate approved both bills by margins large enough to allow them to take effect immediately if the House does also.

The unemployment benefits bill (SB1322) would use federal stimulus money to raise Arizona’s total benefits to 72 weeks. The vote on the unemployment bill was 27-1, with Republican Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City casting the only no vote.

In addition to the 13 additional weeks of benefits, seven more weeks would be added under the bill if Arizona’s unemployment rate exceeds 8 percent. The March rate was 7.8 percent, and the state Commerce Department has said further increases are anticipated.

Several other conservatives joined Gould in voting against the other bill (SB1002), which would reverse a procedural change the state made last year. That change required some childless adults to re-qualify every six months for free health care, instead of annually.

That change took effect after a cutoff included retroactively in the stimulus law enacted by Congress in February. Federal officials said the change put Arizona out of compliance with a condition required for states to obtain additional Medicaid money through the stimulus program.

The state is counting on the Medicaid money to help close budget shortfalls in the current and next two fiscal years.

“It would be irresponsible to not make this change and give up these dollars,” said Sen. Barbara Leff, R-Paradise Valley. “It makes no sense to give up $1.6 billion of our own money that we’ve sent to Washington.”

Not good enough, Gould and other critics said.

“It’s clearly giving welfare to people that no longer qualify. If you want to let the Obama administration run the great state of Arizona, do what you’re going to do,” Gould said during debate on the bill. “We’re allowing the federal government to run us as their subordinate.”

Though Gould said budget analysts scored the 2008 change as saving the state $7 million, Democratic Sen. Rebecca Rios of Apache Junction said returning to the annual eligibility determination saves the state money. That’s because most beneficiaries are eligible and caseworkers waste time processing them more frequently, she said.

Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, said he would have voted for the change if necessary to provide the deciding vote but voted no because President Barack Obama’s policies are damaging.

“At least I have my protest up there,” Huppenthal said, referring to the Senate’s electronic voting board. “The truth is what we’re doing here stinks.”

Republican Sen. Thayer Verschoor of Gilbert voted for the change because it helps avoid having to raise taxes to help balance the budget. Losing the $1.6 billion “would put us in one heck of a bind,” he said.

Besides Gould and Huppenthal, Republican Sens. Jack Harper of Surprise and Russell Pearce of Mesa voted against the Medicaid bill.

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