Jun 152011

By Teri Walker–

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer called for a special session of the legislature on Friday, June 10, in a bid to extend jobless benefits for unemployed Arizonans, but lawmakers left for the weekend without reaching an agreement.

In a statement issued following the brief session, Brewer said, “I didn’t act lightly this week when I called the legislature into an emergency special session. The minor statutory change that I’ve proposed would extend federally funded unemployment aid for as many as 45,000 Arizona families in need, while keeping nearly $3.5 million a week flowing into the local economy. There is no state cost, and no future state obligation.”

The statutory change Brewer has proposed would extend unemployment aid for an additional 20 weeks in states like Arizona with persistently high jobless rates. The change would take advantage of a federal decision making the extra money available, and would be funded with federal dollars through the federal extended unemployment benefits program. The requested law change would allow the state to measure its jobless rate over three years rather than two.

If the state legislature allows the jobless benefits to lapse, nearly 15,000 Arizonans will receive their last unemployment check this week.

Arizona’s unemployment rate is 9.3 percent, which is higher than the national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, according to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Navajo County, the unemployment rate is 14.9 percent, with 6,013 unemployed workers, according to the Arizona Department of Administration.

In a letter to Senator Sylvia Allen, R-District 5, urging her to vote in favor of the extended benefits, Dana Naimark, president of Children’s Action Alliance, said, “For those 15,000 workers across the state who are still job hunting, losing their benefits could catapult them into crisis when they are unable to pay their rent and utilities or keep their families together.”

Allen is opposed to the benefits extension.

“The real issue here is we need jobs, especially jobs in rural Arizona,” said Allen.

“Twenty weeks is going to pass in no time and we’ll be right back here again, wondering how to extend benefits. My focus right now is on how to create more jobs in rural Arizona.”

She continued, “As soon as this (Wallow) fire is contained, I’m pushing for salvage timber sales to fuel this economy. Those are jobs that can be up and running in a few months.”

State lawmakers opposed to the benefits extension have cited concerns about accepting federal dollars, even those without strings attached, at a time when the country is experiencing record budget deficits.

“The problem is, we think this is free money somehow and it doesn’t harm Arizona. It’s not free money, it’s our money. We keep recycling and printing new money, and pushing our economy into a downward spiral,” said Allen.

Brewer said of those speaking against the measure, “They worry about the federal deficit. So do I. But you don’t balance the federal budget by turning your back on Arizonans in their time of need. That’s not principled fiscal conservatism. It’s just cruel. And we are better than this.”

Brewer characterizes the benefits extension as temporary assistance to the unemployed with safeguards to prevent abuse. The amendment would require that aid recipients must search for job prospects at least four days a week and document their efforts, and accept any job offer that pays at least minimum wage.

The legislature was scheduled to reconvene on the measure Monday afternoon.

Prior to the session, Brewer said, “Long-term, I’m happy to consider additional actions to boost our state economy. But thousands of Arizonans will lose their federal unemployment assistance if we don’t take action immediately. Throwing them a lifeline is the priority.”