NASHVILLE - The House voted 75-22 this afternoon to make it possible for thousands of Tennesseans who have exhausted their unemployment benefits to qualify for another 20 weeks of largely federally-funded aid.
The move came about, lawmakers said, after Republican Gov. Haslam and administration officials got involved in a bipartisan effort by House Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and his Democratic counterparts.
Lawmakers indicated Haslam, who has expressed reservations about the extension, wound up helping persuade Senate Republicans, who opposed the effort, to go along. The bill has yet to move in the Senate.
"Our governor stepped up to the plate and assisted us in this effort, particularly with some of our friends down the hall," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the sponsor of the bill.
McCormick warned colleagues that if the bill failed, it could delay attempts to finish up lawmakers' annual session either today or Saturday.
"Quite honestly, we going to be here a long time if we don't approve it," he said.
The bill aims at restoring the federal extended benefits program which ultimately could benefit more than 28,000 Tennesseans unable to find jobs in the worst economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Congress approved extending the program late last year. But it abruptly ended in Tennessee April 16 after the Haslam administration did not pursue legislation needed to put Tennessee in compliance with new requirements.
Fitzhugh attributed that to confusion between the departing administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen and Haslam, who took office Jan. 15.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is not about people who don't work. This is not about people who get benefits," Fitzhugh said, citing Tennessee's continued 9.6 percent unemployment rate. "This is about people who because of the economy can't find jobs."
But Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, the former House Republican Caucus chairman, spoke against acting, saying that although most of the money comes from the federal government, it affects all taxpayers.
"We cannot continue to borrow money to give to people who don't have a job after 79 weeks," Casada told the chamber. "I would contend the answer to that is it's up to individuals to help their family and their friends and neighbors who don't have a job."
Fitzhugh said the bill would draw down an estimated $50 million to $80 million in federal benefits between now and when the program ends in December. The money would help workers laid off in the private sector.
But there would be a cost of about $3.1 million for state and local governments that are self insured. The state has agreed to pick up that cost, he said.
Earlier in the day, Haslam's communications chief, Alexia Poe, said the issue was not a "top priority" for the governor and it would be up to lawmakers to find the money.
Haslam spokesman David Smith, later said via email that "if the legislature can find a way to fund it without using money from the Rainy Day Fund or for the governor's priorities, then he's ok with it."
The money will help families with food, rent and other necessities, Fitzhugh said.
But Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, complained that benefits for the unemployed keep getting extended.
"We got people who cant find jobs, but we got more people who don't look for jobs because we keep handing them money," he said.