Lawmaker: Employment agency talks end with deal

By Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press

JACKSON – A key Democratic lawmaker announced a compromise with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour on Monday over proposed changes to the Mississippi Department of Employment Security to make the state eligible for more stimulus money.
A bill to reauthorize the Mississippi Department of Employment Security stalled during this year’s session when some Democrats wanted to force Barbour to accept $56 million in federal stimulus for the jobless.
The department handles unemployment claims and pays out benefits. Businesses pay a tax to help cover the cost.
House Labor Committee Chairman Rufus Straughter of Belzoni said Barbour won’t fight an eligibility change in a bill passed by the House.
The bill would allow the state to begin considering the most recently completed quarters when determining eligibility for unemployment benefits.
Under the current system, up to six months of a worker’s earnings are not considered because employers and the unemployment agency are given that much time to process paperwork.
The department has been given stimulus money that could be used to upgrade to an electronic system, Straughter said.
The eligibility change would allow Mississippi to receive $18.7 million of the $56.1 million.
The language adjusting the eligibility period is in a bill approved by the House before lawmakers recessed this past weekend. The House also passed a bill to reauthorize the agency.
“While I still strongly believe the state should receive all federal funds available for unemployed workers during this time of fierce economic hardship, I am satisfied with the compromise to give close to 7,000 Mississippians $18.7 million in assistance,” he said in a news release.
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Kirby said he won’t hold a committee meeting until April 20 when the legislative session resumes.
The governor remains opposed to changing state law to provide unemployment benefits to those seeking part-time jobs, another stimulus requirement.
Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said the governor wouldn’t actively oppose the revised eligibility period, but “Barbour has been consistent in his opposition to expanding unemployment benefits to those who are not willing to accept full-time employment.”
Barbour has said changing benefits for part-time workers could lead to a tax increase on the businesses that pay into a fund to cover the benefits after the stimulus money is gone. The bill approved by the House doesn’t deal with part-time worker benefits.
The eligibility change is part of the stimulus’ modernization option, which involves quicker data collection so the most recent quarter can be used to determine if jobless people had sufficient wages to qualify for unemployment benefits.
Kirby, R-Pearl, said he had not seen the legislation passed by the House. “If the bills are worthy of bringing out, we’ll bring them out” during the April 20 committee meeting, he said.
Regardless, Kirby said, lawmakers intend to keep the unemployment agency funded and operational.
“We have too many people who depend on that,” he said.

Click video to hear audio