Out of work Wisconsinites could face a harder time claiming unemployment benefits, under a plan added to the state budget Wednesday by the Legislature’s Finance Committee.
The sweeping list of changes includes limits on workers collecting benefits after quitting a job, higher tax payments for some employers, and allowing the state to use general funds to payback money borrowed from the federal government. Republicans argue the measures are designed to help wipe out a deficit built up during the height of the recession, while Democrats contend the changes are meant to deny benefits to people who need them. State Representative Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) accused Republicans of “kicking people when they’re down,” instead of giving them the hand up they need.
Provisions included in the plan are a drastic drop in the exceptions under which someone can quit a job and still claim unemployment benefits, changes that allow an employer to fire someone for committing a crime, and diverting state funds to pay off debts owed to the federal government. Overall, the changes are expected to reduce benefits paid out to workers by $37 million over the next budget biennium.
State Representative Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) was among Republicans who billed the changes as a “common sense” approach to help reduce fraud in the UI program and reduce $900 million in debt built up by borrowing from the federal government. Democrats described them as a “shameful attack” on the unemployed.
Changes to benefits are typically endorsed by the state’s Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, a panel made up of business and labor leaders. The Council rejected many of the provisions included in the plan adopted Wednesday, leading state Representative Cory Mason (D-Racine) to accuse the GOP of cramming into the budget “a wish list of everything you couldn’t get through the regular process.” Republicans countered that the changes are needed because the board has failed to take the action to keep the fund from building up debt and to stop fraud.
The measure passed on a 12-4 party line vote and will be included in the budget package the full Legislature takes up next month.