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Va. governor pushes extended unemployment benefits

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Monday asked lawmakers to approve enhanced and extended benefits for jobless Virginians, longer health insurance coverage for laid-off workers and beefed up food stamps benefits, all tied to federal stimulus cash.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Monday asked lawmakers to approve enhanced and extended benefits for jobless Virginians, longer health insurance coverage for laid-off workers and beefed up food stamps benefits, all tied to federal stimulus cash.

But the Democratic governor faces a challenge persuading a Republican House of Delegates to accept changes to unemployment laws that will eventually increase unemployment insurance rates employers pay by about $4.50 per employee per year.

The General Assembly will take up the amendments during a one-day session when it reconvenes on April 8.

Kaine made no amendments to the state's $77 billion budget and vetoed only three line items to it. The Democratic National Committee chairman also signed a bill authorizing the sale of anti-abortion specialty license plates bearing the words "Choose Life."

Two amendments necessary to qualify Virginia for $125 million in federal stimulus program enhancements to unemployment benefits were made to Sen. Mamie E. Locke's bill extending jobless benefits to the spouses of military personnel forced to leave jobs because of required military transfers.

The $787 billion stimulus package Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed last month gave Virginia a menu of four options to change its unemployment compensation laws to be eligible for the stimulus-backed enhanced benefits. The state could choose any two of the four, and those Kaine chose were those that would eventually cost employers the least.

His amendments to Locke's bill:

_Extend benefits for part time work. The state currently does not provide benefits to displaced workers seeking only part-time work. Changing that would cost the state about $10 million more per year and would increase unemployment taxes that employers pay by $2.36 per employee annually.

_Double the period for receiving benefits for people who lost jobs in declining industries and are making progress in job retraining programs. About 943 Virginians would qualify for that at an annual cost to the state of about $8.1 million, additional employer tax of $2.20 per year per employee.

Business lobbies do not support the increased benefits because of the added costs to employers, but Kaine argued that Virginia's unemployment insurance rates, now at $98 per worker per year, are among the nation's lowest. The national average is $258, and Virginia's rates are far lower than neighbors North Carolina ($342), West Virginia ($220), the District of Columbia ($183) and Maryland and South Carolina ($148 each).

Kaine also amended a bill by Del. Samuel Nixon that would extend unemployment benefits by 13 additional weeks. The full costs are paid by the federal stimulus package. Virginia became eligible for the extension on Friday when its jobless rate for February jumped to 6.6 percent, passing the 6.5 percent mark required to qualify.

Other benefits for Virginians take effect automatically on Wednesday include a 13.6 percent increase in federal food stamp benefits, and income tax relief that will for households earning less than $150,000 annually.