Republican Sen. Lembke to allow jobless benefits

Wednesday, April 6, 2011 | 1:51 p.m. CDT; updated 5:21 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 6, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY  — A Missouri state senator said Wednesday that he would stop blocking a vote on whether to extend federally-funded jobless benefits that expired for thousands of Missouri residents, vowing instead to try to stop hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus money.

Republican Sen. Jim Lembke told The Associated Press that after talking to Senate leaders, he agreed to end his filibuster of a vote that would reauthorize the benefits that expired for about 10,000 Missouri residents Saturday. Lembke said he instead will try to block the state from spending as much as $400 million of federal stimulus act money on such things as home energy efficiency programs for low-income residents and a study about high-speed rail service.

"My priority in this whole thing was certainly not an attack on the unemployed in Missouri but on the federal government and their overspending and their continuing to put us into ever-spiraling debt that is going to crush our nation," said Lembke, of St. Louis.

Lembke has led a coalition of four Republican senators that has come under increased pressure from Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to renew Missouri's participation in a federal program that provides 20 additional weeks of jobless benefits to people who have been out of work for a year and a half. Until Missouri's eligibility for the program recently ended, no state that joined the federal program had later voluntarily quit it.

Lembke said the unemployment legislation, which already has passed the House, could come to a vote this week in the Senate. That could allow Missouri to retroactively issue unemployment benefits to the people cut off from the program. It also could allow benefits to flow to an additional 24,000 people who are projected to become eligible for the extended jobless benefits during the next nine months.

The state labor department has estimated that Missouri stands to receive $105 million for extended unemployment benefits from April until the program is scheduled to end nationwide next January.

About three dozen states participate in the program. Although their unemployment rates were high enough to qualify, seven other states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah — had not passed laws to join it, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Missouri's unemployment rate has remained above 9 percent for nearly two years. During the course of their filibuster, some Republican senators suggested that some people receiving long-term jobless benefits may not be looking hard enough for jobs. But the senators' primary beef was with the federal government, which they contend should not continue to run up debt to fund various programs through states.

Lembke's new target is a 2012 budget bill reauthorizing the expenditure of federal stimulus money that had been included in Missouri's current budget but is not expected to be spent before the state fiscal year expires June 30. He showed the AP a highlighted spreadsheet of programs he wants to defund, including a $100,000 allotment for fish food, a nearly $23 million study on high-speed rail, a $170 million allotment for home "weatherization" projects and other programs.

"That bill is full of pet projects — some of the most egregious examples of federal overspending and lavishing on the states money they don't have," Lembke said.

Lembke said he agreed to stand down on the jobless benefits after negotiations with Senate leaders. When the Senate adjourned last week without reauthorizing the benefits, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer summoned Lembke to his office to try to work out a compromise that would allow the jobless benefits to continue while still allowing Lembke to take a stand against federal spending. Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey also had pledged to make another attempt at passing the bill, saying he and a majority of senators supported it.

Nixon added to the public pressure by holding a news conference last Friday calling on the Senate to pass the unemployment legislation.

Because Lembke and two of the other senators who had been filibustering the jobless benefits also are members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, they are in a prime position to block the reauthorization of state spending on federal stimulus act programs.

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