A panel of lawmakers has given its approval to a bill that would increase the penalties for unemployment claimants who fraudulently obtain jobless benefits.
State law already has penalties for people who conceal material facts related either to their ability to obtain jobless benefits or to the wages they had earned while working. Those who are found to have committed a violation known as concealment can be forced to pay back the money they received from the state plus a penalty equal to 40 percent of that amount.
Aside from those civil penalties, a person can also face criminal charges for concealment and be hit with penalties ranging from $100 to $500 in fines and as many as 90 days in prison.
Assembly Bill 710, and its companion in the state Senate, Senate Bill 542, would ratchet up those criminal penalties, making them go up in accordance with the amount of benefits a claimant illegally obtained. If the benefits fraudulently obtained totaled $2,500 or less, a claimant would face a maximum of $10,000 in fines and nine months in prison.
For those who obtained between $2,500 and $10,000 worth of benefits, the offense would become a felony and the criminal penalties would be three and a half years in prison and a maximum of $10,000 in fines.
For claimants who had fraudulently obtained more than $10,000 worth of jobless benefits, the crime would also be a felony but the maximum penalties would be $25,000 in fines and 10 years in prison.
The bill would allow a series of violations to be prosecuted as a single crime.
The Assembly Committee on Public Benefit Reform voted 5-3 on Tuesday, along party lines, to recommend the bill for adoption. State Rep. Jesse Kremer was absent from the meeting and did not vote.
State Rep. Debra Kolste, a Democrat, had proposed amending the bill so that it would also apply to employers. However, that amendment failed on a 5-3 vote on party lines.
The vote came after a public hearing the committee held on the bill on Jan. 30. Its companion bill, SB 542, received a recommendation for adoption from the Senate Committee on Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal relations.
That panel approved the bill on 3-2 vote.
Both bills still need to be approved by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker to become law.
Last session, a similar bill, AB 533, was passed out of the full Assembly but never made it to a vote before the full Senate.Follow @erikastrebel