Missouri legislators appear to have veto-proof support to pass a law that would further limit the number of unemployment benefit weeks available in the state.
Missouri and Kansas already are among nine states that limit regular jobless benefits to fewer than the 26-week standard around the country.
Legislators previously set the Missouri cap at 20 weeks and now seek to lower it to 13 weeks, based on the state’s unemployment rate of less than 6 percent.
Republican legislative leaders believe that bills before the House and Senate — similar to ones passed last year but vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon — are likely to have enough support this year to become law.
HB 150 is working its way through committees this week and could reach a House vote next week. A Senate version also has been filed.
The bills propose a sliding scale allowing up to 20 weeks of benefits if Missouri’s jobless rate is 9 percent or higher. For each half percentage point decline in unemployment, the benefits cap would drop by one week.
Missouri’s jobless rate in December was estimated at 5.4 percent, which would put the maximum benefit weeks at 13.
Kansas legislators already have adopted a similar sliding scale that caps jobless benefits at 16 weeks as of this month based on the state’s jobless rate, which fell below 4.5 percent.
Missouri Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a bill sponsor, said backers want to reduce the burden on employers that have to pay unemployment taxes. Those taxes have grown higher than expected after the state repeatedly has had to shore up its unemployment trust fund by borrowing from the federal government.
“Employers get stuck with this bill,” Fitzpatrick said. “What we’re trying to do is set up the unemployment system so the state won’t be in a position to have to borrow again next time we have a recession.”
Worker advocacy organizations say the Missouri and Kansas legislatures have acted in favor of business and against the interest of unemployed workers.
“The Missouri unemployment insurance program is not broken because jobless workers are being treated generously,” said Rick McHugh, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “And it is wrong to expect today’s jobless workers to sacrifice to pay for the failure of past Missouri legislatures to finance the unemployment insurance program.”
McHugh’s comment reflects the state practice of cutting employers’ taxes paid into the unemployment insurance trust fund during good economies rather than building a balance that could be drawn from when jobless claims rise during recessions.
Fitzpatrick said Missouri had depleted its fund five times, resulting in expensive borrowing from the federal government to be able to pay unemployment benefits.
Bill opponents say lower caps on benefit weeks fail to account for employment variations in industries and locations. Even as overall state economies improve, they note that re-employment within 13 weeks may be unrealistic for some workers in hard-hit occupations.