JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — The Missouri House voted Tuesday to revive proposed limits on jobless benefits in an effort to encourage people to search for work, a measure that fell one vote short of overriding Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto last year when Republicans had a smaller majority.
The bill, which won initial approval Tuesday in the House, would link the weeks of benefits that unemployed workers can receive to the statewide unemployment rate and could limit the time available to as few as 13 weeks.
"When the time is ticking, people will get out there and get after it," said bill sponsor Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob.
Four other states — Florida, Georgia, Kansas and North Carolina — already link the duration of jobless benefits to their unemployment rate. At the lowest level, the Missouri bill allows laid-off workers to collect a maximum 13 weeks when the state's unemployment rate falls below 6 percent. The current maximum is 20 weeks.
Missouri's unemployment rate in December was 5.4 percent, according to the state's Department of Labor. In 2014, when the Missouri unemployment rate was 6.4 percent, more than 40 percent of workers were unemployed for more than 15 weeks, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
House Speaker John Diehl would not say whether he thought the party had enough votes to secure an override if the bill is vetoed again this year.
Opponents of the bill said limiting the weeks would make things harder for recently unemployed workers and their families. They also noted that the unemployment rate varies widely across industries and geographic locations.
Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, said the unemployment rate overall has no effect on individuals like a single mother with two children who loses her job or an older worker who has trouble finding a job after being laid off in favor of younger, cheaper workers.
"Unemployment insurance is not welfare. It is insurance, it provides help to people who've lost their job while they're finding another job," Solon said.
She said the cost of taking care of laid-off workers would be shifted from employers, who pay for the unemployment program, to taxpayers through other welfare programs.
Business groups support the measure, saying it eases the burden on businesses and would ensure the state's unemployment trust fund does not have to go into debt to the federal government in the future.
The bill also includes provisions that raise the amount the state would have to hold in the insurance fund, paid into by a per-employee tax on businesses. It also encourages the state to seek alternatives to borrowing from the federal government when the fund runs out of the money in the future.
When a state's unemployment fund is in debt to the federal government for multiple years, employers lose out on a federal tax credit they would otherwise receive. Missouri, like many other states, borrowed money to pay for benefits during and after the recent economic recession. The state paid off that debt last year.
The unemployment bill is HB 150.
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