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Arkansas Lawmakers Advance Bill Terminating Additional Unemployment Benefits

Arkansas Legislature

A bill that would give Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson the authority to terminate an additional $300-per-week federal unemployment benefit is one step closer to becoming law.

Members of the Arkansas Senate on Thursday voted in favor of Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang of Beebe. It passed on a vote of 29 to 6, with no Democrats supporting it.

The bill says the legislature agrees that the governor had the authority to order the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services to terminate the supplemental payments. An Arkansas judge previously ordered the program to resume in the state, ruling that the legislature, not the governor, had the responsibility to end it early.

Speaking against the bill, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, disagreed with the popular Republican sentiment that enhanced unemployment benefits have led to fewer people wanting to work.

"We’ve not even bothered to know what their reasons are, because if we did, we might have a whole different response,” Elliott said. “And we’re doing this in isolation based on assumptions we have about people who are getting the money. I don’t recall that we ever come up here, for the most part, and say we’re going to take away any kind of benefit from a business.”

Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said the extra unemployment payments have led to staffing shortages across the state based on his experiences.

“The people that I’ve spoken to are the people that are looking for people to work, and the story upon story upon story from business owners that have called people to come to work. And the story that they get is, ‘Why should I come to work? I can make just as much sitting at home and drawing that $300-a-week check,” Hammer said.

Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock spoke against the bill, saying it’s pointless to cut off benefits when the program is set to expire at the end of September.

“There are people who still need this money, and we have a tendency to believe that people are not going back to work because they’re lazy or they’re disinterested. But there are people who genuinely cannot go back to work, and we are taking our fellow citizens off of a program that will expire next month,” Chesterfield said.

But Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said there is no guarantee the federal government wouldn’t attempt to extend the program after its original deadline next month.

“This idea that the unemployment assistance is going to end in September is factually [incorrect]. They will continue it and push this emergency out for as far as humanly possible, and once they do, it’s up to the states to step in and act as a regulation against that overbearing federal government,” Garner said.

The bill now goes to a House committee for a vote.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.
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