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House committee advances part of bill on jobless benefits

March 23, 2009, 10:07 a.m. Updated March 23, 2009, 12:45 p.m.

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— A House committee Monday recommended approval of part of a proposal to draw down federal stimulus funds for unemployment benefits.

The action means the full House will consider a portion of House Bill 2374, which would enable the state to receive approximately $23 million for jobless benefits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

State Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, said the remaining portion of the bill — worth some $46 million in stimulus funds — will be considered during the Legislature’s wrap-up session in late April.

Democrats have been pushing hard for what they say are minor changes in the state’s unemployment compensation law to get a total of $69 million in federal stimulus funds for Kansas’ unemployed.

“This is the right thing to do in this time of crisis,” said Rep. Raj Goyle, D-Wichita.

He noted that Kansas’ current unemployment rate of 6.4 percent is a 25-year high.

But to get these funds, Kansas needs to make a few changes to its unemployment laws, according to state officials.

One change would alter the base period by one calendar quarter to determine whether an applicant has earned sufficient wages to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. That is the change that was approved by the House committee.

Another change would provide that individuals are not disqualified from applying for unemployment benefits when they return to the labor market after having left work to care for a sick or disabled immediate family member. Brunk said that proposal needs more study and will be considered toward the end of the legislative session.

Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Jim Garner said the bill will result in more people becoming eligible for unemployment insurance, but that it wouldn’t be that many.

The department has estimated that the $69 million in federal funds would be exhausted in about 17 years.

Some businesses that pay taxes into the unemployment insurance trust fund are opposed to the changes.

Rachelle Colombo, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, told the House committee that some of the proposed changes place “undue pressure on the solvency of the trust fund during a time when the economy is already unstable.”

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