Local news

Bill raises jobless benefits

House votes to boost check $45 a week

OLYMPIA – With unemployment levels nationwide at the highest rates in 16 years, Washington’s House of Representatives on Friday voted to temporarily boost benefits for jobless workers by $45 a week.

“An extra 45 bucks can mean a meal’s on the table for the kids,” said Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla.

The House overwhelmingly approved the plan, 91 to 2. All local lawmakers voted for it, except Rep. John Driscoll, one of four House members excused from the Friday session.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she expects the Senate to approve the same plan next week. Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to quickly sign it into law.

“Our understanding is that if we’re able to get this to the governor’s desk by Feb. 16, that the benefit increase could start in May for unemployed workers,” Brown said. It would last through Jan. 3, 2010.

Washington’s jobless rate last month was 7.1 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Spokane, it was 7.4 percent.

“Behind all these numbers are real people, and they need help,” House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, told reporters Friday at the Capitol.

Current unemployment insurance benefits in Washington range from $129 to $541 a week. The state pays those benefits for up to 26 weeks; federal emergency aid can extend payments for up to 33 weeks more. Chopp said the federal government is also considering boosting benefits by $25 a week.

“But we don’t want to wait for them,” he said. “We’ve got to help people right now.”

Proponents are confident that jobless workers will spend the money quickly in the community, helping businesses.

“They don’t put it into stocks and bonds, that’s for sure,” Chopp said.

House Bill 1906 also allows up to a year of state unemployment benefits for some workers who are re-training for high-demand jobs. And it expands and extends a program under which companies can temporarily reduce workers’ hours while they get partial unemployment benefits.

Unlike in many other states, Washington’s $4.2 billion unemployment insurance trust fund is healthy, with enough money to pay benefits for more than 21 months during a recession. The cash comes from payments by employers. The changes approved by the House Friday would pull about $200 million out of the fund.

Lawmakers said a second unemployment insurance bill is also on the way to help businesses: a reduction in the rates that businesses pay, saving them hundreds of millions of dollars over five years.

Even tapping the fund for rate relief and slightly larger benefits, Brown said, Washington will still have one of the healthiest unemployment funds in the nation.

Some business leaders and Republican lawmakers worry about what will happen if the recession and joblessness sharply worsen or last for years. Shrinking the trust fund too fast, they say, could trigger automatic rate increases if things are still bad a year from now. And they worry about the long-term costs of such economic stimulus efforts.

“Do we want to keep encumbering the future, the longer-term future, because we don’t know what to do about the next quarter?” said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, one of only two lawmakers to vote against the plan Friday.

Other Republicans say the reason the trust fund is so healthy is that employers have been overpaying for years.

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at richr@spokesman.com.

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