Republican lawmakers on Monday swept away Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a measure revamping rules allowing laid-off workers in Kentucky to receive unemployment benefits.
The hotly debated legislation will increase job search requirements for people receiving unemployment benefits and link the length of time recipients receive benefits to the unemployment rate. This could more than halve the number of weeks of benefits in times of low unemployment.
It was among two veto waivers on Monday as the GOP-dominated legislature flexed its decision-making power as the 2022 session enters its final days.
Lawmakers also finished pushing through a measure to end Kentucky’s COVID-19 state of emergency a few weeks earlier than expected in mid-April. Vetoing the measure, Beshear warned it would cut additional federal food aid to struggling Kentuckians.
“I admit that this bill is largely symbolic,” Republican Senator John Schickel said. “But it’s a very important symbol. The symbolism is that we’re ready to move on.
Opponents called the measure politically motivated, noting that no statewide coronavirus restrictions remain in place in the Bluegrass State.
“What’s the benefit other than it’s a political stunt against the governor?” asked Democratic Senator David Yates. “What’s the advantage? It’s too risky here.
Meanwhile, the veto override of the unemployment bill came over objections from Democrats and some Republicans in eastern Kentucky. GOP critics of the bill said it would hurt their constituents who are struggling to find work in an area where many coal and manufacturing jobs have disappeared.
Supporters described the measure as an important step toward improving the state’s labor shortages as businesses struggle to fill jobs as COVID-19 cases recede.
“There are currently 100,000 job vacancies in Kentucky, across all industries,” said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer. “Help signs are posted everywhere. If you are an able-bodied, healthy Kentuckian, you have no excuse for not having a job.
In his veto message, Beshear called the tougher unemployment benefit standards “insensitive”, warning that the measure would lead to more population loss in rural areas with fewer job opportunities.
During Monday’s debate, Democratic Sen. Robin Webb called the measure “an insult to rural Kentucky.” GOP Rep. John Blanton implored his colleagues to uphold the veto, saying the proposal’s new standards would hurt his eastern Kentucky district.
Kentucky now offers up to 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefit eligibility. Under the bill, people would receive benefits for 12 to 24 weeks, with the length determined by an indexing formula based on unemployment trends. The bill would add five weeks of benefits to those enrolled in approved job training or certification programs.
Vetoing the measure ending the COVID-related state of emergency a few weeks earlier, Beshear said he would “take food straight from the tables” of Kentuckians — many of them children or the elderly. .
The measure would reduce their average monthly food stamp benefits by about $100 during a period of rising food prices, Beshear said.
Senate Republicans indicated Monday that governors can request a one-month extension for additional food aid beyond the emergency end date. But the governor’s office told lawmakers that a declaration of a state of emergency was required to receive the emergency food aid allocations.
As of February, about 544,000 low-income Kentuckians qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Due to the pandemic, the federal government provided about $50 million more in monthly SNAP benefits to Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Republican Senator Donald Douglas said 28 other states have ended their COVID-related states of emergency, adding: “We cannot live under a constant state of emergency.”
Without the additional federal assistance, SNAP benefits will return to normal levels, he said.
“A lot of people make it an emotional issue,” Douglas said. “Let’s ask ourselves, should SNAP benefits be a way of life? Now we know it’s for some. Should it be a way of life for adults?
More political clashes are likely to erupt between the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers as the 2022 legislative session enters its final days. Monday was the 52nd day of this year’s 60-day session.