Unless the state Legislature reverses course quickly, 22,000 Georgia households are going to be stripped of badly needed long-term unemployment benefits by the end of June.
The money may not seem like much — an average of $244 a week per household. But for Georgia families that already have had to survive months without a regular paycheck in the worst economic environment in 80 years, it’s at least something. It helps put food on the table.
But with only four days left in the 2011 session, state leaders are oddly reluctant to take action that would save those benefits.
It ought to be a no-brainer. The money at stake — Georgia’s share would come to an estimated $175 million — has already been appropriated by Congress. Other states with high unemployment rates have already taken steps to accept their share. Georgia leaders have to demonstrate their own willingness to accept it by passing a small, technical change in state law, but so far, they’ve balked.
The question is why.
Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, notes that as a member of Congress, Deal voted against extended unemployment benefits and is philosophically opposed to them. As governor, Robinson says, Deal is “studying the issue very closely” but hasn’t decided yet whether he would sign the necessary bill into law.
“We’re fine with the Legislature moving forward on it” while the governor makes up his mind, Robinson said. But Deal will neither champion nor oppose the move.
As head of the state Department of Labor, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler is responsible for administering unemployment benefits and looking out for Georgia workers. But through spokesman Sam Hall, Butler is also taking an oddly passive position.
“The commissioner would support whatever the governor and the Legislature decide to do on the matter,” Hall told me Wednesday.
Of course, it’s not just the long-term unemployed who would benefit from the program. The $175 million at stake would be used to buy groceries at local stores. It would be used to pay rent to landlords, or perhaps fend off foreclosures that in turn would help keep neighorhood property values from plummeting. It would also generate millions of dollars in state income tax revenue.
If the money is rejected, none of that happens.
Despite all that, neither the governor nor the labor commissioner want to be seen as supportive of the idea. They don’t want to be perceived as opposing it; that would make them look heartless and cruel. But given the ideology that dominates their party, they also can’t be seen as advocating assistance for the long-term unemployed.
So they choose to “study the issue” or pretend they have no role. They dump the responsibility on legislators, many of whom are no doubt making the same sort of political calculation as their leaders have. They too don’t want to be seen as killing the program, but many may be perfectly willing to let it die.
Choosing to do nothing is still a choice, however. And it will still have consequences, both for those who can’t find jobs and for the politicians who lacked enough courage and spine to take action.
If legislators follow the example set by the governor and labor commissioner and no action is taken before the session ends, 22,000 hard-up Georgia families in communities across the state will lose their financial lifeline come June 30. They and their extended families and friends will have every right to feel betrayed by state leaders who were elected to serve them, but who chose to serve themselves instead by doing nothing.
– Jay Bookman