JEFFERSON CITY — Concern about the national debt led the Missouri Senate to put off discussion Thursday on a bill that would continue the state's extended unemployment benefits.
That means Missouri will miss a deadline to renew an expiring state law that allows the federal government to reimburse the state for the cost of extended unemployment benefits. However, the expiring state law has a three-week grace period, so the state can keep sending checks until April 2 to people who are out of work.
People receive extended unemployment benefits if they have been jobless for more than 79 weeks. The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has said about 13,000 Missouri residents might lose their benefits if the renewal bill is not passed by April 2. The extended jobless benefits offer people an additional 20 weeks of aid.
If the bill is passed after April 2, the state could pay people their benefits retroactively, but that would make the process more complicated for the state.
Senators are scheduled to take their standard mid-session weeklong break starting March 21.
They debated the bill Tuesday and Wednesday, but critics said taking the federal money would increase the national debt.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey said Thursday that the Senate might consider the bill again before the April 2 deadline. Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said Republicans want to encourage the federal government to spend less, but because the federal money already has been designated to pay for unemployment benefits, there would be no savings if Missouri refused to accept the funds.
"It's not dead at this point," he said. "The disagreement we're having is if our not extending the unemployment benefits has any impact on actually cutting the budget."
Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, has led the opposition to the bill. At one point Wednesday to prevent a vote on the measure, he read from a book about how America might be in decline because of increased federal spending.
Lembke told reporters Thursday that he will oppose the bill every time it is debated to send a message that the federal government should cut spending.
"What I'm trying to do is lead an effort in the Missouri Senate for politicians, for once, to do the right thing and to live within their means," he said.
Lembke said it does not matter that the money already has been designated for unemployment benefits.
"I believe we should do the principled thing," he said. "Whatever those bozos in Washington, D.C., decide to do, they'll be responsible to the taxpayers that elected them."
Lembke has also argued that cutting off unemployment benefits after 79 weeks would motivate people to find work. Lembke said he had personally never been unemployed, but he said people who are out of work could get two or three low-paying jobs to pay their bills instead of receiving taxpayer-funded aid.
The Republican-controlled House voted overwhelmingly to approve the unemployment legislation early last month. Supporters said people who are unemployed desperately need the extended jobless benefits.