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Bill to slash unemployment benefits clears committee

3:33 PM, Apr 2, 2013   |    comments
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By Nate Rau | The Tennessean


A bill that would slash dependent benefits for unemployed Tennesseans with children cleared a House committee today with little resistance.

Under current state law, unemployed workers receive $15 per week for each dependent, with a cap of $50 per week, in addition to their regular unemployment check. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and in the Senate by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, would end such dependent benefits.

The bill cleared the House Consumer and Human Resources committee this morning with a voice vote, though Democrats such as Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, expressed their opposition.

In a move to garner $141 million in federal dollars under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a previous state legislature had passed a bill to broaden unemployment benefits. Johnson said those federal funds have run out, and now Tennessee employers are picking up the bill by way of unemployment taxes.

Johnson said the reduction was a necessary move for the state's unemployment insurance fund, which he said is not healthy enough to endure another recession.

"This is the very definition of an unfunded mandate," Johnson said.

Unemployment checks for individuals are capped at $275 per week. A family with four or more dependents receives an additional $50 each week.

Turner criticized the bill as another effort to hurt Tennessee workers. Turner has been outspoken about Republican-backed bills related to workers' compensation.

"Obviously, I'm not supportive of this bill," he said.

This move comes in the wake of an audit report that found that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development's mismanagement of the program have "threatened the integrity" of the operation.

The audit report found that the program's administrator, the Department of Labor and Workforce, gave $73.4 million in unemployment benefits to ineligible claimants. The total includes overpayment resulting from fraud over the past six years and from the department's own errors over the past three years. Overpayments have "increased significantly" over the past three years, auditors found.

In addition to the benefit cuts, the bill would also increase the number of weekly computer audits of those receiving unemployment benefits from 1,000 per week to 1,500 per week. Additionally, it would deny benefits to anyone who loses their job as the result of being convicted or arrested for a crime committed in conjunction with a person's employment.

Finally, the bill would implement mandatory training for the Department of Labor hearing officers, who decide whether a laid off worker is due unemployment benefits.

The bill is being backed by the local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Contact Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 or nrau@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @tnnaterau.

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