Thousands of Arizonans are on the verge of losing their jobless benefits because of a single word in state law.
But Gov. Jan Brewer, who could call lawmakers into special session to make the fix, would not commit to doing that. And Republican legislative leaders are decidedly cool to the idea.
Without the change, the federal government will stop funding “extended benefits’’ for the state’s long-term unemployed next month. These are people who have been out of work and collecting unemployment insurance for more than 79 weeks.
That loss of federal funds will come when the state’s jobless rate drops below 110 percent of what it was in the corresponding period in either of the last two years. Predictions are that will happen when the April unemployment numbers are announced this coming Thursday.
At that point, the federal government will declare Arizona no longer qualifies and the extended benefits, which cover everything from 79 through 99 weeks, would end four weeks later. That means anyone now getting those benefits — about 15,000 at last count — will stop getting checks. And those who run through 79 weeks without finding work will find no more money coming in.
Last December, though, Congress agreed to allow states to qualify based on a comparison going back three years, to when the state’s jobless rate was much lower than now. Officials from the state Department of Economic Security say that, under that standard, Arizona’s jobless would continue to qualify for extended benefits.
But that requires a change in state law which now defines the “look back’’ period to say three years instead of two. And the Legislature adjourned last month without making that one-word change.
“The governor empathizes with the long-term unemployed,’’ said Matthew Benson. He said Brewer also is aware that the benefits bring about $3.4 million a week into the state economy.
“At the same time, the governor knows that there’s no such thing as free money,’’ he continued, pointing to the federal budget deficit.
Benson said Brewer will be discussing the idea of a special session with legislative leaders in the next few days.
At this point, though, there is little enthusiasm for the idea.
“I’m certainly willing to look at it,’’ said Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa. “But I would make it very clear I think it’s bad policy to let someone get unemployment (benefits) for two years.’’
The unemployment rate represents those who are unemployed and looking for work. It does not count those who have given up.
And Pearce acknowledged the current jobless rate of 9.5 percent in March essentially means that one person out of every 11 who wants work in Arizona cannot get a job. The rate also is more than double what it was a decade ago.
“My heart goes out to them,’’ he said.
But Pearce said with benefits extending for 99 weeks “you’re almost enabling unemployment.’’
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said lawmakers became aware of the possible end of extended benefits toward the end of the session last month. But he said it was not a major concern.
“Our priority was the creation of jobs,’’ Tobin said. He said the package of tax cuts and incentives are designed to eventually decrease the state’s jobless rate which, in turn, would eliminate the need for extended benefits.
Tobin also said while the change would not affect the state budget, the cash has to come from somewhere.
And he said that, at this point, the federal government is borrowing money to pay its obligations.
Pearce, like Tobin, said that focus on other issues may ultimately do more to help Arizonans than providing extended benefits.
“Maybe if we could chase off the rest of the illegal aliens, we could put more people to work,’’ he said. “Those are jobs taken from Americans.’’
Unemployment benefits in Arizona are computed based on prior earnings, with those who lose work through no fault of their own entitled to one-half of what they were earning. But the cap on payments, set by state lawmakers, is $240 a week. Only Mississippi pays less.
The first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits are paid by the state though a tax on the first $7,000 of each worker’s salary. The actual amount of each company’s tax depends on the number of workers laid off.
Congress has separately authorized “emergency unemployment compensation,’’ which is federally funded and last an additional 53 weeks. That program remains unaffected.