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Budget panel delays unemployment checks

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans on the Legislature’s finance committee moved Thursday to slow unemployment payouts, adding a measure to the state budget that would set up a waiting period and bar drug users from collecting benefits for a year.

The measure, introduced by six Republicans on the panel, would create a one-week waiting period before an unemployed person could collect his or her first check. It also would prohibit anyone who fails or refuses to take a drug test for an employer or a prospective employer from collecting benefits for 12 months.

The panel’s co-chairman, Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the plan is designed to help fill a $1.2 billion deficit in the state’s unemployment fund, the account that covers unemployment payments. The delay would save the state between $41 million and $56 million annually, according to state fiscal analysts.

Tension has been running unusually thick between Republicans and Democrats over the last few months after Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in March that strips most public workers of their collectively bargaining rights. A Madison judge struck the law down on Thursday, saying Republican legislators violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law during the run-up to passage, but the state Supreme Court may still take the case and Republicans may reinsert the provisions into the budget.

The four Democrats on the finance committee saw the unemployment provision as another attack on struggling workers. They took turns lambasting the motion, calling another callous, cold attack on workers.

“They’re punishing people who don’t have a job any longer. You’re sticking a nail in them,” Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, shouted at the Republicans. “Honest to God, if I had a plastic bag I’d put it over my head. Anyone who offered this should take a drug test because I’m convinced the six of you are under the influence.”

Vos was the only Republican who responded. He dismissed the Democrats’ criticism as overblown rhetoric.

People usually get their last work check at the end of their first week of unemployment and the maximum amount of unemployment benefits available wouldn’t change, he said. Nearly 40 other states have waiting periods, he added.

The measure ultimately passed 11-5. Sen. Randy Hopper, who faces a possible recall election this summer over his support for the collective bargaining law, was the only Republican who voted against it.

The finance committee is expected to spend at least another week revising the two-year budget before sending it on to the full Legislature. Both the Senate and Assembly must pass an identical version before it can go to Walker for his signature.

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