State officials: U.S. Senate jobless benefits bill is flawed

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan Senate legislation to renew benefits for the long-term unemployed is unworkable, House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday as aides circulated a letter from state officials envisioning a series of difficulties they would encounter in administering the measure.

The speaker did not say flatly that the House would shelve the bill if it clears the Senate, leaving open the possibility of a future compromise. But a blog posting by his aides quoted the Ohio Republican as saying there was “no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by (Majority) Leader (Harry) Reid” would help create more private sector jobs.

In response, a spokesman for Reid, Adam Jentleson, said the legislation is bipartisan and the concerns expressed by state officials can be resolved.

“We look forward to Speaker Boehner coming to the table to find solutions,” Jentleson said, adding it is “hard to imagine Speaker Boehner simply walking away from the thousands of people in Ohio who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and need this lifeline to make ends meet while they continue to look for work.”

Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican who helped put together the compromise, said he was disappointed.

“Since December, Senator Reedcq and I have been working to get these vital benefits to the millions of unemployed Americans who need them,” he said, referring to Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who led negotiations along with Heller.

“It is extremely disappointing that, no matter what solution is reached, there is some excuse to deny these much-needed benefits. I look forward to passing this proposal out of the Senate next week, and stand ready to help the Speaker, as well as any organization or any individual necessary, in order to make this extension a reality.”

In their letter, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, which administers unemployment benefit programs, said it has “significant concerns about the implementation of the legislation.”

The letter added that “some states have indicated they might decide such changes are not feasible in the short time available, and therefore would consider not signing the U.S. Department of Labor’s agreement to operate the program.”

Among other issues, the letter said most states have outdated computer systems that make it hard to implement any changes to the program quickly, and it’s not clear how states would pay for administrative costs if federal funds cannot be spent to determine eligibility.

One of the provisions in the Senate compromise is a prohibition on individuals with million-dollar earnings from earning unemployment benefits.

The letter also cited the potential for a large number of overpayments as a result of the bill’s requirement for benefits dating back to the end of last year.

A spokesman for Gov. Brian Sandoval stressed the need for the benefits extension.

“Governor Sandoval supports the extension of unemployment insurance and hopes Congress can resolve its differences,” said spokesman Stewart Bybee. “There are far too many unemployed Nevadans who are struggling to make ends meet. These benefits are a life line to many who are still seeking work.”

The Senate is expected to debate the measure shortly after it returns on Monday from a weeklong break. Under a compromise announced earlier in the month, a program of benefits would be renewed for five months, effective when it expired on Dec. 28.

The program generally benefited workers laid off more than six months, an estimated 2 million of whom have lost payments since it expired.

The Senate proposal has the support of at least five Republicans, meaning that unless there are Democratic defections, it will have enough support to achieve a 60-vote majority and overcome any GOP stalling tactics. It resulted from lengthy negotiations led by Reed and Dean Heller, whose states have among the highest joblessness in the country.

Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault and Review-Journal Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley contributed to this report.