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Friday, February 24, 2012 - 11:20am

Senate Votes to Cut Jobless Benefits

Georgians who lose their jobs next year could see fewer unemployment checks under a bill passed by the state Senate. Supporters say it will help re-pay $700 million Georgia borrowed from the federal government to cover unemployment reserves.

The bill would cut the amount of benefits jobless workers receive by as much as half. And it would mandate a one-week waiting period before workers start collecting benefits.

Sen. Charlie Bethel, a Dalton Republican, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

He says the state was foolish to cut employers' contributions to the unemployment trust fund. But he says the cuts are necessary because the state still needs to pay down the debt.

“It will hurt but it is responsible," he said during floor debate. "It is what adults do. It is what we were sent here to do. We have a debt. It must be re-paid.”

The debt is already forcing Georgia companies to pay more in federal jobless benefits. They will continue to pay higher federal benefits as long as the state owes Washington money for the loan.

The bill’s opponents say the state borrowed money from Washington because it gave employers too many tax holidays during the boom times. And they say jobless workers shouldn’t have to pay for that mistake.

Clare Richie is with the non-partisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. She says the state keeps letting employers off the hook.

“For more than a decade, Georgia basically cut unemployment insurance taxes that employers were paying, even when times were good,” Richie said in an interview in December. “And in fact in the period from 2000 to 2003 virtually all employers paid no unemployment insurance tax.”

As a result, she says the state depleted more than half of a $2 billion reserve. The fund would have had more money if the state had then followed through with planned increases in the unemployment insurance taxes companies pay.

“It’s just important to understand we don’t have a spending problem in the state when it comes to unemployment insurance,” she said. “We have a revenue problem.”

Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, said the bill is particularly problematic because Georgia trails the nation in job growth, and already has some of the lowest unemployment benefits among states.

"Do you really want to do this in a state with such a high unemployment rate and such low job growth?" she said during the floor debate.

She said the bill's supporters want to shield businesses from having to pay for the state's errors.

The bill wouldn’t affect anyone who’s already unemployed.

Before the vote, the Senate’s attorney warned the bill could be invalid because revenue measures always originate in the House.