Extra jobless benefits up to Senate

On May 17, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Tom Humphrey, Knoxville News Sentinel
May 17, 2011

NASHVILLE – House leaders cleared the way Monday for consideration of a bill that would give an estimated 28,000 Tennesseans 20 more weeks of unemployment benefits that they lost in April.

But Senate leaders have yet to sign off on whether the bill in question, SB2114, will even be considered as the General Assembly pushes to wind up the 2011 legislative session this week.

The bill was introduced this month, far past the regular deadline for introduction of legislation. Under legislative rules, the “delayed bills committees” of the House and Senate must grant unanimous permission for a late bill to proceed.

In the House, Speaker Beth Harwell, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh – who make up the panel – did agree to let the bill proceed on Monday. But the comparable Senate committee – composed of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Majority Leader Mark Norris and Minority Leader Jim Kyle – took no action on the measure when it came up last week.

Norris said Monday that was in part because a spokesman for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which oversees the benefits program, told the committee that Gov. Bill Haslam opposes the extension.

Don Ingram, administrator of the benefits program, told reporters Monday he was not authorized to speak for the administration, but the department now “defers to the Legislature” on the matter, meaning it is taking no position one way or the other.

People who had already received their allotted 79 weeks of unemployment benefits at a maximum of $275 per week became eligible, under a federal law enacted in December, to receive another 20 weeks of benefits. But the extension requires each state to adopt a change in state law to make its residents eligible.

Tennessee did not do so, for reasons that were somewhat unclear. Tennesseans who had received the maximum number of weeks were shut off on April 16.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as dropping the ball, but nobody’s picked the ball up,” said Fitzhugh, sponsor of the bill. “I’m not going to talk about fault. I certainly think this should have bipartisan support.”

Norris said that former Gov. Phil Bredesen had decided against seeking the benefits extension and Haslam “followed Bredesen’s lead.” The Republican leader said Ingram, who addressed the Senate-delayed bill committee Thursday, “made it very clear” at the time that the Haslam administration was opposed.

Haslam spokeswoman Yvette Martinez said the administration has “concerns with the issue” and the governor will review the legislation today.

Norris said a major concern was the cost to state and local governments for administratively handling the benefits extension, estimated at $1.8 million by one account. If approved, the bill would mean about $60 million in benefits – paid by federal funds – distributed to jobless workers statewide.

Norris said he was uncertain when the Senate delayed bills committee would meet to consider the measure again. The senator said he wanted to hear more from the governor before proceeding.

Also, Kyle may be unable to attend legislative sessions for a day or two while dealing with the death of a partner in his law firm, he said.

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