Leader Blues

Monday, March 02, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Beebe should accept help

Governor Beebe was undecided this week about whether to join a few other governors, mainly in the South, and turn away millions of dollars in new federal assistance to unemployed workers in Arkansas. Let us hope his indecision is short-lived. Why would a governor want to deny help to some 6,000 of the neediest of the jobless and to send all that economic activity to other states when it is needed here?

Mark Sanford, Sarah Palin, Haley Barbour and Rick Perry are turning away the federal stimulus money for their states because they are competing for the soul of the right wing of the Republican Party and a leg up on the presidential nomination in 2012. They need to show that they can be tough on whining workers and federal handouts even when the economy hangs on the cliff’s edge. That has never seemed to be Governor Beebe’s game. He is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. That is why he is the most effective governor in 30 years.

Part of President Obama’s stimulus program is extended unemployment insurance. The idea is that it would put cash into the pockets of the neediest people, who would spend it right away and stimulate the demand for goods and services. The country needs economic activity in the worst way, and what quicker way than put it in the hands of people who lost their jobs, often multiple jobs, but who do not qualify for jobless payments because they do not meet the crazyquilt rules that many states follow to deny benefits?

To qualify for the extra insurance, many states will have to adjust their eligibility rules. Eligibility is determined by a worker’s relatively recent job history. Arkansas and many other states, including nearly all Southern states, do not count a person’s wages in the current or preceding quarter in determining his or her eligibility. Only the person’s earnings in the previous four quarters are counted, so many low-wage workers who go from job to job and chronic part-time workers do not qualify. Neither do those who have only recently been hired and been laid off again or those who left their jobs voluntarily for compelling family reasons like a sick child, domestic violence or moving with a spouse. States would have to change their rules to make some of those people eligible.

A few governors say the expanded eligibility for unemployment would put a permanent burden on their states’ unemployment trust funds and might require an increase in the payroll tax sometime in the future. That apparently is what Beebe is studying.

Simple fairness — is anyone still for that? — dictates that the insurance program cover these people anyway, but if Governor Beebe and any of his executive office colleagues are troubled about the long-term effect on the trust fund and unemployment contributions, they can abort the liberalized rules when the recession fades away and the stimulus aid plays out. Governments do it all the time. Unemployment insurance rules have been altered temporarily in previous deep recessions — several hard-hit states did it last year — and then relaxed when the job market recovers.

If we know Mike Beebe, he will not stanch the flow of scores of millions of dollars into the stagnant Arkansas economy, nor will he deny a little sustenance to 6,000 troubled families. He will figure out a way to do it where the whole state benefits.