State lawmakers have reached a compromise on an unemployment compensation reform bill, setting the stage for legislation to reach Governor Tom Corbett’s desk in the nick of time.
Federal guidelines – and the fact Pennsylvania has borrowed more than $3 billion from Washington since 2009, to pay out benefits -- require a change to state laws by Saturday. Otherwise extended benefits would disappear for 45,000 people. (The deadline actually passed last weekend, but legislators realized they had an extra week to pass the bill, due to a lag in paperwork processing at the Department of Labor and Industry.)
The House had been expected to vote on a measure saving $147 million in annual costs earlier this week. But when Monday and Tuesday went by without a vote, it was clear the Republican caucus had splintered on the measure, and GOP leaders didn’t have enough votes to pass it.
The new language, crafted with the support of Democrats, would save about $114 million a year by freezing and delaying maximum weekly benefits, among other changes. That’s substantially less than the $630 million dollar decrease House Republicans had pushed for earlier this month, and about $25 million below last week’s first compromise, which was amended into a Senate unemployment bill. Majority Leader Mike Turzai still tried to frame the deal as a win, though, saying, “It is the most extensive unemployment compensation reform package that we have seen – it’s the only unemployment compensation reform package that we’ve seen in ten years. And there are significant reforms that are being brought to the table. “
The new language requires unemployment recipients to actively look for a job, and would offset benefits for people earning more than $17,000. (That’s a higher ceiling than the amended Senate bill, which would have begun offsetting benefits at $11,000.) The legislation drops language restricting benefits for people who are fired, which had become a point of contention for Senate Republicans, Democrats and labor interests.
“Well, look. We’re happy that we were able to work a compromise,” said Democratic Minority Leader Frank Dermody, reflecting on the fact the House has gone from considering a $630 million cut to the current $114 million savings measure. “We’re happy we were able to stick together with 91 Democrats and almost 30 – at the time of 2nd consideration – Republicans,” he added, referencing the broader Republican bill’s failure on a preliminary vote. “But it was the right thing to do. That money was not coming from businesses or any place else. It was coming from unemployed workers.”