JEFFERSON CITY — A bill passed by the Special Committee on Government Oversight on Wednesday would allow Missourians to keep the portion of overpaid unemployment benefits that came from federal stimulus package money.
About $150 million in unemployment benefits have been overpaid in Missouri since the start of the pandemic, according to Missouri Department of Labor Director Anna Hui. Lawmakers cited reports indicating that 75-80% of the overpaid benefits used federal funds.
The average overpayment was $4,500, according to Hui. Recipients of overpayments got letters starting in the fall stating they owed that money back.
The bill has bipartisan support and has been a major point of discussion over the past few weeks.
In Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, shared how one of her friends had considered killing himself in the hopes that someone in the community would be able to raise the funds for his wife to pay the money back and support her and the child they are expecting.
“We have citizens in the state who are deciding whether or not (to end) their life, for the sake of us sending money back to the federal government for no benefit,” Proudie said in tears.
Her friend had been dissuaded from taking any actions by the words of Rep. Scott Cupps, R-Shell Knob, who spoke last week during a hearing about the bill to people who were struggling financially. Proudie was grateful that Cupps, a rural Republican, could help her urban friend.
“Tell your friend that help is on the way, to hang in there,” said Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville. Eggleston noted that several similar bills were being combined into one effort to block government action to go after the federal money.
“This committee — your bill, the chair’s bill — a number of us, we are going to put them all together and do the best that we can to get him help as quickly as we can,” said Eggleston.
The bill specifies that recipients of overpayment from federal aid do not have to pay back the amount if they did not commit fraud. Two Republicans in the hearing voiced concern over a lack of clear definition of fraud when collecting unemployment benefits.
“Fraud does require intent, so I don’t know how we would really be able to in a reasonable fashion actually make those determinations in a real time basis in a way that’s likely going to get us results that are going to be better than what we had here,” said Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon.
Lovasco acknowledged that there is confusion surrounding the process of registering for unemployment and expressed interest in an amendment that would work to define fraud in the context of the bill.
Committee members expressed interest in now working on a bill that would also allow people to keep overpayments from the state. Gov. Mike Parson has said he believes the money should be returned.
The bill will now go before the House.