SALT LAKE CITY — Utah leaders have refused to extend unemployment benefits for more than 20,000 people whose current assistance payments are about to end.
The offer from the federal government to provide nearly $100 million for an additional 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits expired April 2. Qualifying required the approval of state lawmakers, something the Republican-dominated Legislature never supported.
The issue was discussed during the 2010 legislative session but did not come up again this year despite the approaching deadline. The Legislature ended its 2011 session March 10.
"It's tax money, and people need to be weaned off of the government paying for everything," Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said. Refusing to continue to extend unemployment benefits "is a motivation for people to get back to work."
The state is also setting an example of self-sufficiency by not accepting the money, Waddoups said.
"Someone has to start pulling back from the federal government somewhere," he said.
Ending the benefits may impede a person's ability to find a job because they will lose an important "bridge," said Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
Plus, the federal money required very little state spending and should have been considered a good investment, Romero said.
"Instead of cutting the budget without regards to federal match money, it would be more strategic to leverage those federal dollars," he said.
Utah provides 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits, and there is another 47 weeks of federal unemployment available for people after state benefits end.
As part of the federal stimulus package passed in 2009, states with unemployment rates of 6.5 percent or higher could qualify for 13 weeks of additional benefits, and states with 8 percent or higher could get an additional 20 weeks.
In Utah, the current unemployment rate is 7.5 percent.
The extended benefits would have helped 23,432 Utah residents, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Utah is one of eight states that is not accepting the federal money, almost all of them by refusing to change their unemployment laws to qualify. Missouri was unique because it made the changes needed to qualify last year, but earlier this week the Republican-led Legislature stopped an attempt to reauthorize the state's participation.
The governors of Massachusetts, Michigan and Oregon all signed laws within the past week continuing participation.
Although the money wouldn't have required a state match, public employers would have been forced to pay extended benefits for any former employees still without a job, which Utah Gov. Gary Herbert opposed. "The real challenge for state government is balancing the needs of Utah's unemployed with the cost to fund unemployment insurance, which is shouldered by Utah businesses in the form of payroll taxes," Herbert spokeswoman Ally Isom said. "As Utah's economy is becoming stronger and we see that new unemployment filings are starting to decrease, we don't want to inhibit business from retaining or growing jobs."