Washington – The overwhelming approval this week of a House bill that would temporarily replenish a federal road-building fund has faded hopes Congress will come to the aid of the long-term unemployed in Connecticut, and elsewhere across the nation.
That’s because the nearly $11 billion bill, which would fund the Highway Trust Fund until May, would tap money from accounts liberal Democrats had eyed to pay for an extension of unemployment benefits for those who had exhausted their state benefits, usually provided for about 26 weeks.
To replenish the fund that pays for a lion’s share of road construction in Connecticut and other states, the House voted to raise $6.4 billion from pension “smoothing,” which temporarily reduces pension contribution requirements and increases a company’s taxable income to raise revenue for the government. Another $3.5 billion would come from extending customs fees and the bill would transfer $1 billion from a Department of Transportation account that pays for underground storage tank cleanup.
About two weeks ago, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., introduced a bill that would use “pension smoothing” and an extension of custom fees until 2024 to pay for six months of federal unemployment benefits for those who exhaust state benefits.
Before Dec. 28, 2013, the federal government offered extended unemployment benefits to the jobless, which average about $300 a week, because the economy was in trouble.
In 2008, in the depth of the latest recession, the federal government provided 73 weeks of extra benefits in Connecticut. As the economy improved, that was reduced to 37 weeks, for a total of 63 weeks of benefits.
Earlier this year, the Senate approved a bill that would provide five months of extended unemployment benefits and use pension smoothing and custom fees to pay for it.
Kildee’s bill would offer six months of benefits.
But on Tuesday Kildee joined most House Democrats, including every member of Connecticut’s House delegation, in a 367-55 vote to divert the money that could extend unemployment benefits to the Highway Trust Fund.
The next day, Kildee and other Democrats, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, attended a “Witness Wednesdays: Voices of the Unemployed” press conference sponsored by the Center for Effective Government, a liberal non-profit that advocates reinstatement of long-term unemployment benefits.
“We are not giving up,” Kildee said.
DeLauro asked “where are the values of this great country that we would leave people at the side of the road like roadkill and not do anything?”
She and other lawmakers read letters from unemployed constituents that detailed hardships.
DeLauro read a letter from “Heather” from Milford who had worked all of her life, but has been jobless for six months and received her last unemployment check from the state of Connecticut.
Heather wrote that she has two children in college, spent all of her life saving, cleaned out her 401k and “will have no income at all next week.”
“Next I will lose my house,” Heather wrote.
While the jobless rate is dropping in Connecticut and across the nation, there remains a sizeable number of people who have been unemployed for a year or more. Studies show the longer a worker is jobless, the less chance there is of that worker finding employment – especially if 55 or older.
Advocates for the unemployed also say about six million jobless Americans have given up on finding work and are therefore no longer counted in the jobless numbers.
Many Democrats who voted for the highway bill, including every member of the Connecticut congressional delegation, preferred a more permanent solution to the problem. They backed a Senate proposal that would keep the trust fund solvent for six years.
“Inaction, delay, and neglect give way to 11th hour patchwork, temporary fixes instead of comprehensive solutions to fix our nation’s pressing needs,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
“The men and women who work Connecticut’s building trades, community leaders who point to decaying bridges and roads in eastern Connecticut, and commuters who just want to travel safely and efficiently in their region tell me that one of the most important things Congress could do now to boost our economy would be to pass a long term and robust infrastructure investment bill.”
But it seems the Senate has scrapped the idea of a long-term approach and plans to vote on the House bill next week.