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POLITICS: Jobless bill dead; revival effort in motion

By Jack Katzanek, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 13--The bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for thousands of Inland residents -- and more than 3 million people across the country -- has been pronounced dead in Congress, but the efforts to get something passed are not.

A spokesman for a senior House Democrat said that a Senate bill passed more than two months ago is now considered obsolete and that the bipartisan measure would never go to President Barack Obama for signature. That measure never came to a vote on the House floor.

"But it's also accurate to say there's urgency and support among Democrats that's going to continue and that's very much alive," said Josh Drobnyk, communications director for Rep. Sander Levin, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. "We're not going away."

Dan Curran, deputy press secretary to Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said that the bill Reed and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., authored was worded to give unemployment recipients a five-month benefit extension. But those five months ended at the end of May, which rendered it obsolete after Republican leadership in the House never considered it.

"It collected dust on Speaker (John) Boehner's desk," Curran said.

Instead, Reed and Heller intend to go back to the drawing board and draft a new measure, Curran said. The two senators represent the states with the highest levels of unemployment.

State-funded benefits usually offer the unemployed about six months of benefits, but a series of extensions triggered by the 2008 recession allowed people to receive extended payments, usually for an additional year.

The extensions expired three days after Christmas when Congress did not renew them. An estimated 1.3 million people lost their benefits at that time, including more than 27,000 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Those numbers have continued to grow as 26-week periods expired for additional people every day. On Wednesday, Levin's office said the number has hit 3 million.

The state Employment Development Department has not updated its estimates for California's cities and counties since the agency' initial notices went out in advance of the December expiration. Given that the nation's total has more than doubled, the Inland region's count could well be above 50,000 now.

There were more than 150,000 residents of the Inland counties officially listed as unemployed in April, the most recent month for which the state has data. Not all of them are receiving benefits.

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Los Angeles County has the biggest block of affected residents in the state. Initially almost 54,000 residents saw their extended benefits end on Dec. 28.

When the state announced the extension's sunset late last year, it said that 14,171 Orange County residents would be affected.

Orange County's unemployment is at 5 percent, tied for the fourth lowest in California and the lowest of any county not in the San Francisco Bay area. Currently 80,300 Orange County residents officially are listed as unemployed.

Unemployment usually is more pronounced farther from major coastal commercial centers. In Inland cities, the jobless rates of cities such as Murrieta, Temecula, Corona, Norco, Chino and Rancho Cucamonga are relatively low.

But unemployment is in double figures in Hemet, San Jacinto and Perris, among other cities, as well as the unincorporated community of Bloomington.

Keeping that benefits lifeline alive makes economic sense, said Esmael Adibi, chief economist at Chapman University, although he said it does add to the federal deficit and could be a disincentive for some low-income workers to pursue jobs.

"For these people, a good chunk of their benefits gets spent on food and gas and other necessities," Adibi said. Consumer spending creates a multiplier effect when money is circulated and actually accounts for more than two-thirds of all economic activity. "They're not going to be in a position to put it into savings."

The Reed-Heller bill passed the Senate on April 7 by a 59-38 vote. It included several offsets to pay for the benefits, including altering the way some pensions are funded and higher customs fees.

Curran said he's hopeful that senators and their staffs can draft a new extension measure that will gain some traction.

"We're not throwing in the towel," he said.

Boehner has insisted any bill to extend the benefits would have to include some Republican-sponsored action that would create jobs. The House passed a bill a month ago that reauthorizes numerous business incentives, including a tax credit for research and development and one for users of renewable energy.

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Proponents of the benefits extension have hoped that those incentives, which cost about $85 billion, could be packaged with the unemployment bill. The business incentives have yet to be passed by the Senate.

In an op-ed piece published this week, Levin, D-Mich., also proposed tying extended jobless benefits to the reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund. That measure needs to pass this summer to avoid delaying some 100,000 transportation projects, Levin wrote.

That delay could cost as many as 700,000 construction jobs.

"We should include a six-month extension of unemployment insurance alongside either of these legislative packages," Levin wrote.

Contact the writer: 951-368-9553 or at jkatzanek@pe.com

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(c)2014 The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.)

Visit The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.) at www.PE.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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