Senate vote on unemployment cuts likely in veto session

From the Columbia Daily Tribune

Two things hold Alex Schmidt back from finding a job that pays enough to support himself and his wife.

A lack of a high school diploma disqualifies him from many jobs, the 26-year-old Fulton resident said. And without certification as a small-engine mechanic, a job that paid him $16 an hour until he lost it in March, most shops won’t talk with him.

The certification would require at least one class, Schmidt said, and he’s $500 behind on rent. His wife’s wages are being garnished by a previous landlord, and the clock is ticking on his 20 weeks of unemployment payments.

His immediate goal, Schmidt said Thursday outside the Columbia Job Center at 1500 Vandiver Drive, “is pretty much finding a job that would support my bills. I am trying to get enough money to get rent caught up.”

In 2011, when unemployment in Missouri was almost 9 percent, lawmakers cut the maximum time people could collect unemployment payments from 26 to 20 weeks for those newly laid off. The cut helped break a filibuster by Senate conservatives against accepting another extension of federal unemployment payments for people who lost their jobs in the recession, when state unemployment peaked at about 10 percent.

When lawmakers gather for their annual veto session Sept. 16, the Senate might consider a bill rejected by Gov. Jay Nixon that would impose further cuts on the newly unemployed. The duration would depend on the unemployment rate, with 13 weeks when it is below 6 percent and the current 20 when the rate is above 9 percent. Each 0.5-percent shift between 6 and 9 percent would adjust the benefit duration accordingly by one week.

The state unemployment rate in July was 5.8 percent. Boone County’s unemployment rate in July was 4.3 percent, lower than any county except tiny Worth County. The highest rate in July was 11.6 percent in Pemiscot County, with five other counties reporting unemployment rates of more than 9 percent.

The House voted to override the veto on May 12 during the regular legislative session. The potential vote in the Senate highlights how a program intended to provide income as a bridge between jobs is designed.

Schmidt, who is receiving slightly less than the maximum of $320 per week, said lawmakers should make fairness their chief concern.

“If I had more time with unemployment, I would definitely be furthering my education,” he said. “It is almost degrading for me to go to work in a fast food joint. That is what I did when I was 16.”

Nixon vetoed the bill May 5. Under the constitution, the annual veto session is not automatic and is convened when the governor vetoes bills with five or fewer days remaining in the regular session or afterward. In practice, the veto session has been convened each year it has been allowed.

Because the House already voted, the possible September vote raises a technical issue of whether the Senate can vote on the bill. The sponsor, Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and the minority leader, Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, disagree on whether a vote is proper but agree that the decision might not be theirs.

“This is probably going to be decided by the courts someday,” Keaveny said.

Kehoe said he intends to seek a vote and will test support in the 24-member Republican caucus. An override requires 23 votes. “The attorneys that advise the Senate believe we have the law on our side,” Kehoe said.

Nixon believes the Senate cannot vote on the bill, spokesman Scott Holste said in an email. Only bills that trigger a veto session may be considered, he wrote.

“The House of Representatives understood this limitation when they took up this veto during the regular session,” Holste wrote. “The Senate’s window to take action closed at 6:00 p.m. on May 15.”

Unemployment compensation was created in Missouri in 1951. “Economic insecurity due to unemployment is a serious menace to health, morals, and welfare of the people of this state resulting in a public calamity,” legislators wrote in the preamble to the law.

Employers pay a tax on as much as $13,000 paid to each employee. The tax rate varies by industry, the cash balance in the fund and the individual experience of each employer for workers drawing on the fund. The portion of wages taxed varies based on the balance in the fund and can be as low as $7,000.

The basic tax rate for not-for-profits is 1.3 percent and is 3.51 percent for most other employers. The basic rate for construction has fallen from about 5.12 percent in 2011 to about 4.36 percent for 2016 as the economy has improved.

To qualify, a worker must have at least minimal employment in two of the previous four calendar quarters. A worker seeking payments must actively seek work and be available to work. The payment is based on earnings and can be as low as $45 per week.

A worker is allowed to use the time on unemployment to seek “suitable work,” generally defined as a job in their field or at a comparable pay rate.

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