Calif. GOP Rejects Extending Unemployment Benefits

By Judy Lin
|  Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009  |  Updated 1:10 PM PDT
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Calif. GOP Rejects Extending Unemployment Benefits

Getty Images/David Paul Morris

Republican lawmakers reject the state's first federal stimulus-related bill to extend unemployment benefits by 20 weeks.

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Republican lawmakers on Monday rejected the state's first federal stimulus-related bill to extend unemployment benefits by 20 weeks.

The bill, which fell short by one vote in the Assembly, would have pulled as much as $3 billion from the federal government. Lawmakers are expected to take up the bill again soon.

A second bill to ease eligibility was passed on a simple majority and will move along a slower legislative track.

Democrats accused Republicans of hampering California's economic recovery efforts by refusing to support a no-brainer bill to draw billions of dollars from the federal government.

"Talk about job killing," said Assemblywoman Mary Salas, D-Chula Vista. "Say no to this and you're really hurting the business community."

California has to make certain changes to its unemployment program in order to qualify for as much as $3.8 billion in federal stimulus money. Democrats said that unless changes are passed soon, nearly 300,000 Californians will start losing their unemployment benefits beginning April 12.

Republicans, however, said they could not vote on bills that contained language they had not read. Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, accused Democrats of jamming through legislation late in the day to "score political points."

"Republicans appreciate that there is great urgency to this issue, but we felt it was vital to ensure this was done right -- to protect taxpayers, safeguard our economy and help hardworking Californians in need," Villines said in a statement after the vote.

Like governors and state legislatures across the nation, California lawmakers are under pressure to decide whether they want to accept federal aid, which comes with strings attached. Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry has said he will turn down $555 million that would expand state unemployment benefits because it would increase the tax burden on Texas businesses.

And Nevada Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons has said he would reject part of the federal stimulus funds that would commit Nevada to increased spending or expanded programs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office has not taken an official position on California's bills.

During a two-hour floor debate Monday, Republicans refused to support an urgency bill, ABX3 23, which would have temporarily extended unemployment benefits by 20 weeks using $3 billion in federal money. The extension would mean unemployed Californians could receive a maximum of 79 weeks of benefits, rather than 59 weeks.

The bill required GOP support to reach the two-thirds threshold in the 80-member body. It failed, 53-9, with many Republicans choosing to abstain.

Republicans initially had no objection to extending benefits because it would be paid entirely by the federal government. However, they remained concerned over a provision in the bill that would have to permanently ease qualifications intended to exclude seasonal workers.

GOP members said they didn't support creating new spending when the state continues to struggle with a structural deficit. Assemblyman Kevin Jefferies, R-Lake Elsinore, said expanding qualifications would also force businesses to pay higher taxes, which would continue to chase jobs out of the state.

"We don't support stimulus dollars that are going to support new programs and new entitlements," Villines said before the first round of voting Monday.

Democrats argued the federal money was too good to pass up at a time when Californians are facing double-digit unemployment.

"It's urgent for the lives of people in our communities who do not know where their rent money is coming from next week," said Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Monterey.

Democrats responded by pulling out that portion of the bill. They created a separate bill, SBX3 3, which would allow an estimated 30,000 more people a year to qualify for benefits and pull down an additional $839 million from the federal government.

That bill passed on a simple majority vote and will move to the Senate.

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