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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
Politics

Unemployment extension issue illustrates party divide

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TAMPA ญญ— The Tampa area’s representatives in Congress break along party lines on the issue of extending unemployment compensation benefits to the long-term unemployed -- Democrats favoring the extension and Republicans rejecting the idea unless accompanied by cuts in other spending.

Meanwhile, a new report by economic researchers at Florida International University says Florida, for the third straight year, has the nation’s worst long-term unemployment problem. About 73,000 Florida lost their unemployment compensation benefits immediately when the federal benefits expired Dec. 28, and their numbers will grow to 260,000 by the end of the year if there’s no extension, according to the report.

Many of those still eligible have been unable to apply because of problems on the state website where the unemployed are required to sign up for benefits.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, voted for the extension as it narrowly passed a procedural hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday; Republican Sen. Marco Rubio voted against it.

The Republican-controlled House hasn’t yet voted, but Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa favors the extension passed by the Senate. Area Republicans -- Reps. Tom Rooney of Okeechobee and Dennis Ross of Lakeland -- said they oppose the extension without a provision that the cost of the extension is made up through cuts elsewhere.

 

The average unemployed person in Florida has been unemployed for 44 weeks, the longest in the nation, and a third have been out of work for a year or more, said labor studies specialist Ali Bustamante of FIU’s Center for Labor Research and Studies and author of the report on the Florida unemployed and the benefits expiration.

Florida has led the nation in that statistic since 2011, he said; the U.S. average is 34 weeks.

The hardest hit, Bustamante said, include people over age 45 and those with a high school education or less. Most-affected trades include the category of professional and business services, including high-end administrators, accountants and other business services workers; and the trade, transportation and utilities category, which includes warehousemen and drivers.

Bustamante said construction workers “initially absorbed the hit from the Great Recession, but over time since then it has spread to other industries.”

Most states provide 26 weeks worth of unemployment compensation benefits, but Florida is one of seven that provide less -- a maximum of 19 weeks, or less as the unemployment rate goes down. Currently, it’s at 16 weeks.

Since 2008, in a program begun under former President George W. Bush, the federal government has provided a 14-week extension of those benefits, with additional weeks available for those living in states with high unemployment. That program expired Dec. 28.

The Democratic-controlled Senate voted Tuesday to advance a three-month extension measure by 60 votes to 37, the minimum amount necessary to avert a Republican filibuster.

“Florida has a lot of folks who’ve had trouble finding a job and they absolutely need that economic cushion,” Nelson said.

Castor said the extension should have been included in the recent budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray. Since it wasn’t, she said, it should be passed now even without offsetting cuts.

“I’d like to pay for it,” Castor said. “But we’re going to have a big package come up soon that will include negotiating spending cuts on a lot of issues, including Medicare reimbursement, so they shouldn’t use that as an excuse.”

House Speaker John Boehner has said he won’t bring the issue up unless it includes offsetting cuts, and area Republicans agreed.

Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon said the senator believes the cost should be offset with spending cuts and measures to help create jobs.

Ross said he has “supported dozens of bills (that are waiting in the Senate) this past year that would get at the root of the issue and help create jobs,” and “would strongly consider supporting extending (unemployment benefits) in a responsible manner given that these benefits are off-set by reductions in other areas.”

Rooney “is willing to work with the Senate to reach an agreement on extending unemployment benefits that is paid for,” said spokesman Michael Mahaffey.

Democrats view the issue as a potent one to use against Republicans and have been blasting them over it -- one possible reason why six Republicans joined the Democrats in the Senate vote.

Tuesday, the national Democratic Party released a video, “Whose Side Are They On?” singling out Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for opposing a benefits extension.

Republican opposition “has already drained over $400 million from state economies and could cost our economy 240,000 jobs this year ... yet another example of the GOP failing to support policies that grow the middle class,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Weston, who’s also the national Democratic chairman, said in a news release.

The six Republicans were swing-state moderates, or from states with high unemployment -- Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid noted to reporters Tuesday that unemployment benefits had been extended several times when George W. Bush was president, and Congress did not insist on offsetting cuts, the Associated Press reported.

But he and White House officials also suggested they would be receptive to cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to offset the cost of a yearlong renewal of the program, if Republicans would first agree to turn the benefits back on for three months without preconditions.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

813-259-7761

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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