FRANKFORT (AP) — Legislation aimed at revamping rules for jobless benefits was vetoed Friday by Kentucky's governor, who condemned it as a “callous” measure that would spur more population losses in rural regions.
The bill — requested by business groups — would increase work-search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits and tie the length of time recipients get benefits to the unemployment rate. That could cut the number of benefit weeks by more than half in times of low jobless rates.
“We have a duty to one another during hard times to provide a hand up,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a veto message posted online, adding that Kentucky's current benefits are “right in the line” with most states.
“But this is callous," the governor said in referring to the vetoed bill. "It’ll show the world, sadly, that we as a state care less about those that have fallen on hard times than other states.”
Supporters say the measure represents an important step toward improving the state’s workforce shortages as businesses struggle to fill jobs.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Russell Webber, said Friday that the measure seeks to preserve the availability of benefits while increasing employment.
“Kentuckians value work, they want to be independent and they deserve an unemployment insurance program committed to helping them return to the workforce,” Webber said.
“The governor needs to stop normalizing the idea that Kentuckians want nothing more than to be dependent on state government when, in reality, they value hard work and want more for their lives,” he added in a statement.
It's the latest in what could become a series of policy clashes between the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers as the 2022 legislative session heads into its final days. Friday was the 51st day of this year’s 60-day session.
In issuing his veto Friday, Beshear warned that the unemployment-related legislation would cause hardships in some economically struggling regions of rural Kentucky.
The bill's opponents warned that its increased work-search requirements would lead more laid-off workers to leave struggling rural regions where job prospects are more scarce.
“What it’s going to do is lead to the further depopulation of parts of eastern and western Kentucky, where people are going to be forced to move instead of giving those communities the time they need to get back up on their feet after being knocked down by a changing economy,” Beshear said.
Kentucky now offers up to 26 weeks of eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits. Under the bill, people would collect benefits between 12 to 24 weeks, with the length determined by an indexing formula based on unemployment trends. The bill would add five weeks of benefits for people enrolled in approved job training or certification programs.
“Remember, unemployment isn’t available to those that quit," the governor said. "This is for people that were working, and through no fault of their own are suddenly having to find a new career.”
The bill's supporters have defended the indexing provision. During a debate on the bill, Republican Sen. Wil Schroder said: “Just as Kentucky allows for more weeks of benefits when the economy is bad, it should offer fewer weeks when the economy is strong and jobs are widely available.”
Republicans, with commanding legislative majorities, have routinely overridden the Democratic governor's vetoes. But GOP ranks were splintered over the unemployment bill, with some eastern Kentucky lawmakers speaking out against the measure. They said it would hurt their constituents struggling to find work in a region where many coalfield and manufacturing jobs have vanished.
In an emotional speech during a debate, Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler predicted the new standards would cause “great misery” in his area of eastern Kentucky.
It was the governor's second high-profile veto in recent days.
Beshear also vetoed a GOP-backed measure calling for an early end to Kentucky’s COVID-19 state of emergency. Beshear said such action would cut off extra food assistance to struggling Kentuckians.
The governor said there’s no pressing need to end the emergency, noting there have been no statewide virus restrictions for six months. The measure's supporters said it signaled that life is getting back to normal after the long fight against the pandemic.
The unemployment-related legislation is House Bill 4.