Missouri senators add money for unemployed to budget

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 | 9:46 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri Senate panel wants to seek federal stimulus money to help unemployed workers finish their college education.

The Senate Appropriations Committee inserted an item Wednesday evening into the state's proposed budget that would seek a $9.5 million federal grant to provide tuition assistance and job training to unemployed workers who already have some college education.

Committee Chairman Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said the educational courses could help people "make themselves much more marketable in the workforce."

The stimulus funding is also backed by members of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's administration, who said they only recently became aware that the money was available.

Larry Rebman, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said participants in the education program would receive a temporary exemption from the requirement that they be looking for work in order to receive jobless benefits. He said the program likely would focus on community and technical colleges, though it also would be available for people enrolling at universities.

"This will give people an opportunity to find a better job, so they are less likely to come back on unemployment," Rebman said.

But Rebman was taken by surprise by another decision by the Senate committee. The panel decided to drain a $37 million fund that had been intended to update the computer system used by the state's unemployment division. Instead, the Senate committee decided to use the money to help pay down Missouri's debt to the federal government for jobless benefits. According to the state labor department website, Missouri owed $790 million to the federal government as of the end of March.

Rebman said businesses had paid a special assessment over several years to build up a fund balance to replace the department's roughly 40-year-old computer system. He said the computer project had already been put out to bid and that officials currently are in the process of reviewing those bids.

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