State jobless could get stimulus help after all

Published 9:10 pm Wednesday, March 4, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Alabama could get $100 million in federal stimulus funding that Republican Gov. Bob Riley has declined, under a bill state Sen. Rodger Smitherman has introduced to expand the number of Alabamians getting unemployment benefits.

Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said Alabama’s unemployment rate of 6.7 percent in December is expected to get higher, and people need help.

“It is time for the state Senate to take action and expand unemployment benefits to Alabama workers,” he said Wednesday.

Alabama is in line for $3 billion from the federal stimulus package for a variety of programs and construction projects. Riley doesn’t want to take about $100 million that would require an expansion of Alabama’s unemployment compensation program because accepting the money would require a tax increase on businesses and possibly workers to fund the expansion when the $100 million runs out in about four years. He estimates the new tax liability at $28 million annually.

“It’s illogical for anyone to think government can expand benefits and no one has to pay for it,” Riley said Wednesday.

Smitherman introduced his unemployment legislation Tuesday with a majority of the state Senate serving as co-sponsors, and he is optimistic about gaining Senate approval. But Smitherman said he would like craft something Riley could support.

Smitherman said Riley’s estimate of the expanded unemployment benefits cost is inflated.

“There is no reason to believe our record unemployment will be this high four years from now when stimulus money ends, so our benefit costs should decrease, not increase,” he said.

Riley said Wednesday the Legislature has the authority to expand Alabama’s program, but it should be cautious because 10 states have run into financial problems with unemployment compensation programs paying out benefits faster than revenues came in.

“We’re trying to protect Alabama’s trust fund so it won’t become insolvent,” he said.

Smitherman’s bill would base eligibility on more recent employment data than is used now. That would help make benefits available to seasonal workers and people who have been in the work force a short time. The National Unemployment Law Project estimates that would add about 12,700 Alabamians.

Smitherman’s bill would also provide benefits to people seeking part-time jobs rather than just full-time jobs; people who left their jobs due to domestic violence; and people who have run out of unemployment benefits but are enrolled in job training programs. That could add up to 7,000 more to the rolls.

As of last week, about 72,000 Alabamians were drawing unemployment benefits.

Riley’s decision to turn down the $100 million in unemployment aid has drawn criticism from the Alabama AFL-CIO and support from some business groups.

“It’s hard to turn down that kind of money, especially when other states are taking it, but Gov. Riley is correct when he says the money comes with too many strings attached,” Rosemary Elebash, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement.