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GOP Fights Kaine on Jobless Benefits

By Chris Jenkins

The fight over extending jobless benefits to more of Virginia's unemployed workers is coming down to the wire.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) dug a deeper line in the sand today, reaffirming House leadership's opposition to Gov. Tim Kaine's effort to offer unemployment insurance to workers looking for part time work and those who are in certain kinds of job training programs.

The General Assembly will vote on the expansion, which is funded through $125 million in federal stimulus money, during the legislature's one-day reconvene session Wednesday.

House Republicans try to cast their opposition in terms of what they are for: "pro growth environment" and "job creation,"as opposed to explicitly saying that more money for those facing unemployment is a bad thing. (Undoubtedly trying to stay away from the whole "Party of No" moniker Democrats keep slapping on them).

"Virginia Republicans understand that while working Virginians are struggling because of the current economic recession, our citizens rightfully expect their elected officials to make the tough decisions that will free business and entrepreneurs to invest in job creation and more opportunities," Howell said in a statement. "We must continue to foster a positive, pro-growth environment and resist misguided policies that restrict Virginia's economic potential and impede its ability to create new jobs in the future."

But Republicans do have some dissention in their caucus, especially from a few members in regions with high unemployment such as southwest and Southside Virginia. One, Del. Danny Marshall (R-Danville) has already publicly said he's supporting Kaine's proposal, citing his region's 12.3 percent jobless rate as a reason for his interest. ("From what I've seen...I don't have a problem with it," Marshall told the Martinsville Bulletin last week. "To me, it looks like we don't have a choice.")

Such sentiments mean there will likely be a lot of vote counting and a tense floor debate Wednesday, as Democratic supporters try to pick up votes from Republican lawmakers who are concerned about the economic health of their districts.

One issue that divides supporters and opponents is whether Virginia employers will be permanently saddled with higher insurance taxes after the federal stimulus money runs out. In today's press release Republican opponents say: "The remaining $125 million in one-time funds is subject to Virginia making at least two out of four permanent expansions to the state unemployment insurance program."

Federal guidance appears to be vague about this. According to an explanation from the Department of Labor released by the Virginia Employment Commission, states are indeed allowed to repeal the unemployment insurance changes if they see fit: "If a state eventually decided to repeal or modify any of these provisions, it may do so, and it will not be required to return any incentive payments," the guidance says.

But later in its policy briefing the feds say: "However, in providing the incentive payments...Congress also made clear its intention that the benefit expansions not be transitory." So where does that leave Virginia?

Supporters of the measure said that either way, future lawmakers can always repeal laws they find distasteful. The state constitution guarantees this. But Howell's chief aide, G. Paul Nardo pointed out that while in theory this is true, very often the General Assembly does not take such benefits away, once they've been enacted.

Anybody who says that it's easy to repeal a measure like this, he said in an interview, "misses how politics works around here."

By Matt Mosk  |  April 7, 2009; 7:04 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2009  
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