They say it comes with too many strings attached, requiring states to change their laws to expand coverage to more low-wage and part-time workers who have lost their jobs. It amounts to an unfunded mandate, that bugaboo of governors everywhere. Once the stimulus money disappears in a couple of years, states might have to raise business taxes a little bit (oh nooooo!) to pay for an expanded program to help laid-off workers feed their families.
"We are evaluating this piece of money, whether it makes sense for us to take it," Bredesen says. "We may well be one of the states that say we can't take on that portion of it."
The New York Times is editorializing on this topic this morning: "Imagine yourself jobless and struggling to feed your family while the governor of your state threatens to reject tens of millions of dollars in federal aid earmarked for the unemployed. That is precisely what is happening in poverty-ridden states like Louisiana and Mississippi where Republican governors are threatening to turn away federal aid rather than expand access to unemployment insurance programs in ways that many other states did a long time ago."
There's a Democratic governor in a poverty-ridden state doing the same thing.
In Washington at the National Governors Association meeting over the weekend, Democratic governors criticized Republicans who are turning down money, calling them "fringe" politicians eager to score political points. As they were talking, we're guessing Bredesen was staring at his shoes. We don't think Bredesen is trying to score political points. He just doesn't give a rat's ass about unemployed workers. OK, that's a little harsh. Let's just say he's having trouble connecting with his feelings.
Nationally, only about 37 percent of unemployed workers collect unemployment benefits, according to the National Employment Law Project, which supports the expanded unemployment benefit program. They estimate that, if states agree to the expansions, another 500,000 workers a year across the country would be eligible to collect unemployment.
Tennessee has one of the lowest benefit levels in the nation, providing a maximum of $275 a week. The average check is $216 a week. The unemployment trust fund, which is going broke, is pumping out 120,000 checks a week, three times more than last year.
If Bredesen doesn't turn it down, Tennessee would receive $141 million to expand the program. "We have an unemployment fund which is not in good shape right now," he says. "We're in the position of going back to our Legislature this year for changes in our tax structure just to keep our fund whole, and taking it to a new level may be too much of a lift for the Legislature this spring."