Senate Republicans call on governor to ‘step up’ and compromise on unemployment benefits

By Audrey Moon

JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Senate Republicans say they are ready to negotiate with the Democratic governor and end the filibuster over unemployment benefits subsidized by federal stimulus money.

Leader of the Republican coalition, Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, said he is not targeting the unemployed workers of Missouri and instead wants to send a message to the federal government.

“I think it is important not only for Missouri, I think it is important for all states, to stand up and say to the federal government, ‘We are not willing to be accomplices in your overspending and you piling debt on this nation and on this generation and the next,” Lembke said.

At a press conference held Wednesday, Lembke announced that all four of the Republican senators participating in the filibuster are now willing to negotiate about extending the benefits. He said if the governor will agree to send $300 million of the $570 million in stimulus money already allocated to the state back to Washington, then they would end the filibuster.

“It is not about sending all the federal money back; it is about sending borrowed money back, in particular this stimulus money,” Lembke said.

Unemployment benefits to Missouri workers ended on Saturday after the original 79-week program ended. The extended benefits could be good for another 20 weeks, but so far they has been blocked. Missouri has been the only state to voluntarily opt out of the benefits so far.

“The reality is, the last checks went out on Sunday so there are no more checks,” Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said. “Even if we get it finished this week, there are people who are going to have a week without their check.”

The Republicans active in the filibuster outlined a list of expenditures they found “most insulting” and could be sent back, including:

• $170.13 million for weatherization projects,

• $49.95 million for wastewater infrastructure,

• $22.64 million high-speed rail study,

• $5 million for energy audits,

• $2.5 million for intercity and non-urban public transportation and

• $100,000 for three fisheries.

“That bill is full of pet projects — some of the most egregious examples of federal overspending and lavishing on the states money they don’t have,” Lembke said.

It is estimated that $105 million of stimulus money would be allocated to the state for the extended benefits.

An angry tone was directed at the governor by some of the senators who spoke at the press conference. Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, said the “four horses of the Apocalypse” have extended the olive branch to the governor, and he has yet to respond to them.

“This is the money the governor is asking of the federal government in stimulus funds, and what you will find, literally, is some of the most horrific, stupid, egregious spending that we could ever use tax payer dollars or, excuse me, Chinese dollars to pay for,” Nieves said. “We have repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly sent the message to the governor to simply reduce the bill by $300 million and we will sit down and allow the unemployment bill to come up for a vote.”

After repeated attempts to contact the governor or his staff, a press release was issued by the governor’s office on Wednesday afternoon saying the governor’s support lies with the unemployed citizens of Missouri.

“I support and stand with the thousands of Missourians who have lost a job through no fault of their own … Helping them get back on their feet is a value we all share. We will continue to work with the leadership of the Senate to accomplish these priorities on behalf of all Missourians,” the release read.

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, said the entire Democratic caucus, along with plenty of support from other Republicans, wants to pass the unemployment extension benefits.

“This money, if it goes back to Washington, is not going to pay down the debt; it is going to unemployment,” Green said. “If it isn’t going to Missouri then it is going to some other state. Missourians are just like every other individual in every other state who are unemployed. They could use those resources.”

Justus called the filibuster “ridiculous” and agreed that if the money does not stay in Missouri, it will just go to other states.

“These are already dollars that people of Missouri have paid into the system, the federal government has authorized those dollars to be sent to Missouri and we are essentially saying no and sending them back to the federal government and it is just going to go to somewhere else.”

Missouri’s unemployment rate has remained above 9 percent for nearly two years.