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New version of unemployment bill introduced Saturday

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers introduced a new version of a controversial unemployment bill on the final night of the regular legislative session, resulting in a vigorous debate about deciding on such a complicated, important policy right up against the midnight deadline.

Delegates passed the bill on a 66-31 vote. It would go to senators to consider later in the evening.

Because of printing deadlines, this report was published prior to senators taking up the bill.

Delegate Jordan Bridges, R-Logan, questioned the urgency of passing the bill Saturday.

“It sounds like there’s been a whole lot of horse trading going on to get this bill passed through at such a late hour, and I’m just trying to understand why it is needed,” he said.

Delegate Clay Riley, R-Harrison, who was explaining the bill said it was amended to be more palatable than previous versions.

In his later argument in favor of passage, Riley said the bill would impose financial predictability on West Virginia’s unemployment trust fund.

The latest House version of the bill freezes employer contributions to the unemployment trust fund at $9,500.

For people who are unemployed, the bill sets a maximum benefit of $662 and keeps the maximum number of weeks at 26. That also represents a freeze of current benefits.

The bill would require at least four work search activities a week such as registering with the state’s labor exchange system or taking a civil service exam.

The changes would become effective July 1.

Delegate Adam Vance, R-Wyoming, said he’s witnessed ups and downs of the coal industry and expressed concern that the bill could affect people losing their jobs. He said the bill had been rushed and could yield unfortunate consequences in the future.

“I have my people to look out for,” Vance said.

S.B. 841 was first advanced in a Senate committee two Saturdays ago as a bill that used West Virginia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate to determine the maximum number of weeks of benefit eligibility.

The first version of the Senate unemployment bill received criticism for being introduced up against the backdrop of hundreds of job losses at Cleveland-Cliffs in Weirton and Allegheny Wood Products at locations around the state, including Preston County.

Senators changed the bill the night it passed that chamber to lower the amount of the benefit over time.

Shortly after the bill moved toward a passage vote on the House floor, delegates moved it to the inactive calendar. That caused a standoff with the Senate that led to almost no legislative activity over the final two days of the regular session. Everything came to a crawl as Senate and House leaders negotiated behind the scenes.

Finally, just a little after 5 p.m. Saturday, delegates moved a new version to the active calendar and moved it to the top of bills under consideration.

Democrats objected to an explanation of the bill in lieu of having it read aloud — so the nearly 30 pages were read aloud by a House clerk.

“There have been so many different iterations of this bill, and I thought the other ones were bad but honestly I think this one is the worst and I’m afraid that in the short-term we’re going to keep the amount of benefits the same but not increase it with inflation,” said Delegate John Williams, D-Monongalia.

Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, also spoke against the legislation.

“If you can’t tell, I really don’t like this bill. At all. I don’t think we have a problem. I don’t think we should be cutting unemployment. We’ve had two large employers close, about 2,000 people recently out of work.”