JEFFERSON CITY — Thousands of people in Missouri who have been unemployed for more than a year soon will lose their jobless benefits, marking a significant victory for Republican fiscal hawks who are crusading against government spending.
When eligibility ends Saturday, Missouri will become the only state to voluntarily quit a federal stimulus program that offers extended benefits. Michigan, Arkansas and Florida also recently took steps to cut back on money going to the unemployed, although they targeted state benefits instead.
"We have to take a stand and say 'When is enough enough?' and send a message to the federal government, and hopefully shame them into doing the right thing and quit spending money that they don't have," said state Sen. Jim Lembke, a Republican from St. Louis.
Lembke has led a coalition of four filibustering senators who have blocked legislation necessary to reauthorize Missouri's participation in a federal program offering long-term unemployment benefits. It's been a stunning setback for a bill that had passed the Republican-led House 123-14 two months ago and had the support of GOP Senate leaders and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
As a result, more than 34,000 unemployed residents in Missouri could miss out on $105 million in benefits over the next nine months. Unlike some other stimulus programs, Missouri's unclaimed money would not be redistributed by the federal government to other states. It simply would remain unspent.
At issue is a provision in the 2009 federal stimulus act that allowed residents in states with high unemployment rates to receive up to 20 additional weeks of federally funded jobless benefits after exhausting the 79 weeks authorized under other federal laws. At least three dozen states, including Missouri, enacted laws to participate.
Although their unemployment rates were high enough to qualify, seven other states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah — never passed laws to join in, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Maryland is now pursuing participation, but many of the other states seem content to remain out of the program. Much like his Missouri counterparts, Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups said the states need to set an example of self-sufficiency.
"Somebody has to start pulling back from the federal government somewhere," said Waddoups, a Republican from Taylorsville, Utah.
That federal backlash is particularly strong in Missouri, where voters were the first in the nation to pass a measure challenging the new federal health care mandate and where Republican senators are holding up federal stimulus money for education.
Missouri's unemployment rate has remained above 9 percent for nearly two years. Yet, it is poised to become the first state to take the additional federal unemployment money, then later voluntarily stop doing so, according to officials at the federal Labor Department and the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy group for employment rights that has been urging Missouri to remain in the program.
Several other states could have been in the same situation. But the governors of Massachusetts, Michigan and Oregon all signed laws within the past week continuing participation. Michigan's action came with a catch, also cutting state jobless benefits from 26 to 20 weeks starting in 2012. The Florida House has passed a similar state benefits reduction. Arkansas' legislature this week gave final approval to a bill shaving off one week of eligibility for state jobless benefits.
In Missouri, about 10,000 people would immediately be cut off from additional jobless payments, according to the state Department of Labor. And extended unemployment benefits would be denied to about 24,000 additional residents who otherwise are projected to become eligible.
St. Louis resident Peter Gordon, who has been unemployed for a little more than a year, is among those who could miss out. A former patient care coordinator at a hearing aid company, Gordon has been searching for jobs over the Internet but said he can't travel far because he can't afford to license his car. He fears he could eventually be evicted from his apartment.
"They can provide money for government programs to take care of the elite and rich," Gordon said. "But when it comes to a small person like me — people who are just trying to make ends meet — it seems like the rights are being taken away."
Kimberly Clark, a laid-off union organizer, says her post-tax unemployment benefit of $275 a week already is consumed by her rent, utility and phone bills. She's been searching for work since November 2009, and she's only a couple of months away from needing the extended benefits that Missouri is poised to reject.
"The mentality is we're just creating a bunch of lazy people, and that is not true," said Clark, 48, of St. Louis.
The National Employment Law Project says its supporters sent 15,000 e-mails in a roughly 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday urging Missouri senators to allow a vote on the legislation reauthorizing the extended jobless benefits.
But Sen. Brian Nieves, a Republican from Washington, Mo., who is popular among tea party activists, said he has no intention of compromising his position.
"The people have been crystal clear for about the last two years in saying that they expect us to at least start the process of weaning ourselves off of the federal government," Nieves said.