NASHVILLE - Efforts by legislative Democrats to restore 20 weeks of federal jobless benefits for thousands of long-term unemployed Tennesseans cleared their first hurdle Monday with House Republican leaders giving a green light for the bill to proceed for now.
But passage is by no means certain for the measure, which would help more than 28,000 Tennesseans who lost their unemployment benefits in April or stand to lose them in coming weeks.
For starters, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has concerns about the attempt to resurrect state participation in the program, which is largely funded with federal dollars, according to an administration official. Some Senate Republican leaders are voicing opposition as well.
"We've had some concerns with this issue but typically don't comment on bills until we've thoroughly analyzed them," said Haslam spokeswoman Yvette Martinez in an email. "The bill just came out of [committee], and the governor will review the analysis [today]."
Earlier Monday, the House Delayed Bills Committee, comprised of Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville; Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, unanimously gave the go-ahead for Fitzhugh to bring the late-filed bill before the House Finance Subcommittee this week.
"I certainly think there's bipartisan support for this," Fitzhugh later said.
But Harwell made no guarantees anything would pass, simply noting, "I intend to let the legislative process run its course."
Prior to the committee's action, Harwell said, "I don't think it's unanimous Republican support, but I do believe there are some Republicans that are supportive, and I think some Democrats are supportive."
The bill would affect people who already have received their 26 weeks of state unemployment and 53 weeks of emergency federal aid, giving them 20 more weeks for a total of 99 weeks of help during the aftermath of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression.
Tennesseans are paid up to $275 a week in benefits.
Congress approved the 20-week extension late last year. One part of the new law increased the "look-back period" for proof of high state unemployment from two years to three years. To keep the benefits flowing, legislators needed to change state law to conform to the new look-back period.
That didn't happen.
Larry Lawrence, of Chattanooga, is hoping state lawmakers take action. He said he was laid off in 2008 from a company his family had once owned. He said the state booted him from the extended benefits program along with thousands of others on April 16.
"We were really depending on this unemployment until we could get ourselves straightened out," said Lawrence, 72. "I'm just one little fish in the big pond, and what I say and think is not going to make much difference. We're hanging in there, and we just want our people [legislators] to know."
Meanwhile, a blame game is in full swing over why Tennessee officials took no action.
State Labor and Workforce Development Administrator Don Ingram says the agency's federal counterparts at the U.S. Labor Department assured officials there was no need to change anything but informed the state March 28 that Tennessee no longer would meet the standards because it did not change the law.
A U.S. Labor Department official in Atlanta did not respond to requests Monday on exactly what federal officials told the state and when.
Harwell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, meanwhile, sought to blame former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Fitzhugh said problems appear to have developed in the transition from the Bredesen to the Haslam administration.
"I characterize it as the ball not being dropped, but maybe nobody picked the ball up quite quickly enough," he said. "But we got it now ... the important thing is to get the benefit."
The bill would bring an additional $57.7 million to help workers laid off in the private sector. Both Haslam spokesman Smith and Ingram have raised concerns about costs to the state and local governments, which are self-insured. At this point, the combined cost to state and local governments appears to be $2.8 million, according to state officials.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said "somebody's going to have to show me a lot more evidence why we need to do it [approve extension]. Right now, I don't see the expenditure of that amount of money as the best thing. ... Many of these benefits have been extended in the past."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.