JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri’s social safety net will shrink in January as new laws force an end to welfare payments for some families and reduce how long the unemployed can receive benefits to one of the shortest periods nationally.
Additional tax breaks also will take effect Friday for military retirees and some businesses. Cities will be subject to stricter limits on how much money they can reap from traffic tickets. And dogs will get more spacious living quarters at commercial breeding facilities.
The new year marks the effective date for a variety of laws, some of which were hotly contested. The cuts to unemployment and welfare benefits, for example, both came about after the Republican-led Legislature overrode vetoes by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
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People who apply for unemployment benefits after Friday will have less time with help while they look for new jobs. A new Missouri law links the duration of jobless benefits to the state’s unemployment rate, providing less when fewer people are out of work.
The effect will be to reduce the maximum benefits from the current 20 weeks – which already is among the shorter periods nationally – to 13 weeks. That will make Missouri’s benefits shorter than all states except North Carolina, which caps benefits at 12 weeks under a similar sliding scale.
Republican supporters hope the new law will help shore up a state trust fund so that Missouri doesn’t have to borrow from the federal government to pay jobless benefits during the next economic downturn.
“I realize that sometimes it’s hard to find the perfect job in a period of three months, but I think most people, if they put their mind to it, could find some gainful employment,” said Republican Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, of Shell Knob, the law’s sponsor.
More than 19,000 people filed initial claims for unemployment benefits from Missouri last month.
Saint Louis University law school professor John Ammann, who supervises a legal clinic helping the unemployed, criticized the new law as lacking compassion.
“They’re treating this as a cold, hard budgetary matter,” he said. “But when somebody loses their job, loses their health insurance, loses other benefits, that’s a devastating event. To expect people to find work within 13 weeks is not realistic.”
Missouri’s lifetime limit on cash payments under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program also will be shortened, from 60 to 45 months. That means 2,766 Missouri families who already have exceeded that threshold will lose benefits on Friday, according to the Department of Social Services.
The new law “is very likely to increase hunger and poverty in our state,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the advocacy group Empower Missouri.
But Republican supporters said the money saved in cash welfare payments will be put back into other services, such as child-care, transportation or educational assistance for low-income parents.
The new law – dubbed the “Strengthening Missouri Families Act” – requires parents to work, go to school, receive job-skills training or be searching for a job to receive TANF benefits.
It also ends the waiver of work requirements for certain able-bodied adults to receive food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The amount of general operating revenue that cities can get from fines and court costs for minor traffic violations will be reduced to 20 percent from the current 30 percent of their annual revenue starting Friday. Cities in St. Louis County will face an even lower threshold of 12.5 percent.
The law is part of the Legislature’s response to protests in Ferguson after the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. A U.S. Justice Department report cited racial bias in Ferguson’s policing and a profit-driven municipal court system that frequently targeted blacks.
Two phased-in tax cuts approved years ago will fully take effect Friday.
The repeal of the corporate franchise tax, passed in 2011, is expected to waive more than $87 million annually in state taxes.
An income tax exemption for military retirement benefits, approved in 2009, is expected to waive about $21 million in annual state revenues.
Some dog homes will need to be bigger starting Friday.
As a result of a law passed in 2011, pens used by commercial dog breeders will have to be three times larger than before, and wire-strand flooring no longer will be allowed. A pen holding two, 2-foot-long dogs will have to be at least 37.5 square feet. A pen for six similarly sized dogs will need to have 112.5 square feet.
Since tougher standards were passed, the number of licensed commercial breeders in Missouri has fallen from 1,414 in 2011 to 813 in 2015.