The increase, which was to take effect when the state has paid back a 2010 federal unemployment insurance loan, was an amendment offered by Reps. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, and John Moran, D-Wardsboro. Moran co-chairs the Working Vermonters Legislative caucus and Pearson leads the Progressive caucus.
They told the Democratic House caucus Friday afternoon that the increase amounts to $9 per week increase for unemployed Vermonters. The two legislators argued that, because the economy and the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund fared better than forecast, the unemployed should share in that economic bounty, too.
But the House Commerce and Economic Development committee stood firmly against the change, voting it down 11-0. Committee chair Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, told the caucus that the fund still owes some $50 million to the feds from a loan and is too fragile to tinker with at this point.
“Share the pain, share the gain” rhetoric, referring to the higher payments and benefit cuts imposed on businesses and the unemployed, respectively, in 2010 rang false in this case, said Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury.
Benefits are set to increase again in July 2014, so Pearson’s and Moran’s amendment moved that date six months forward, under current projections. Their amendment would have also tied benefit payment levels to inflation.
The state is projected to pay back the $50 million still outstanding from its federal loan by the end of this year. If it pays that back on time, businesses will avoid an additional federal penalty, which they suffered once already this year, known as a FUTA (Federal Unemployment Tax Act) penalty.
“This amendment is misguided in that it’s actually anti-labor,” Ralston told the caucus. “You have to help us rebuild the trust fund. That is the insurance policy that pays for people when they are out of work.”
Pearson countered by pointing out that almost all of the state’s major unions left a letter in legislators’ mailboxes, backing the amendment.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, who backed similar benefit increases earlier, voted against the amendment Friday.
“Would I like to spend more money today? Absolutely,” Sharpe said on the House floor. “Do we have more money to spend? Not yet. In the coming years, when we hope that the coffers will be fuller, we will be able to do something for unemployed workers.”