MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Thousands of out-of-work Wisconsin residents could collect another three months of federal unemployment benefits under a bill the state Senate approved Monday.
The Senate vote sends the measure to Republican Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. It also wraps up a brief but intense squabble within GOP ranks over whether the extension should hinge on a one-week waiting period before the jobless can collect their first government checks. The maneuvering comes as half a dozen Republican senators position themselves for recall elections next week.
The measure clears the way for an additional 13 weeks of federal unemployment benefits worth about $88 million. The benefits would kick in after people have been out of work for 73 weeks. They would be available retroactively to April, when they ended.
State labor officials estimate the extension could help as many as 40,000 unemployed people in the state collect about $360 a week in federal dollars. The extension wouldn’t cost the state a dime. Walker’s spokesman has said he will sign the bill.
Democrats have tried to shift debate on the bill from the extensions to the waiting period. The state budget Walker signed in June prohibits anyone from collecting unemployment until they’ve been out of work for a week. State labor officials estimate the delay will save the state about $50 million. Democrats say the waiting period will only make life that much harder for the unemployed.
Minority Democrats in the Senate proposed an amendment last month that would erase the delay, and in a surprise move majority Republicans added it in a voice vote. The body ultimately passed the measure 30-3 and sent it on to the state Assembly.
Assembly Republicans, though, re-inserted the waiting period into the bill the next day. That move threw the measure into limbo, since both houses must pass an identical bill before it can go to the governor.
With pressure mounting to approve the benefits, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called a rare Monday floor session to approve the Assembly’s changes. Democrats spent an hour accusing Republicans of setting up a sham vote to help GOP senators facing recall look as if they’re fighting for the unemployed.
“We’ll pretend we’re for it because we’re on the hot seat and let the Assembly do your dirty work,” Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said. “When will you be honest with the people of Wisconsin? Whose side are you really on?”
The bill’s author, Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, insisted Republicans wanted to help the unemployed or they wouldn’t be on the floor, but no other Republicans offered any response. The body ultimately voted 19-14 along party lines to approve the bill with the waiting period.
Fitzgerald said at a brief news conference after the Senate adjourned that none of the Republicans’ votes had anything to do with the recalls.
His caucus surprised him when it approved doing away with the waiting period, he said. He didn’t know where his members stood on the delay, in part because he was preoccupied with other bills that day. He could have asked for a recess when the amendment surfaced to gauge his caucus, but felt it wasn’t worth holding up that day’s session, he said.
After the Assembly reinstated the waiting period, he spoke with his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, and the governor’s office about crafting some kind of hybrid measure. But any changes the Senate made to the bill would delay the benefits because the Assembly wouldn’t address them until it to the floor in September, he said, and the governor clearly wanted the waiting period.
Six Republican senators face recall on Aug. 9 and two Democratic senators are up for recalls on Aug. 16. The elections were spurred by the senators’ stances on Walker’s contentious collective bargaining law, which strips most public workers of nearly all their union rights.
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