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Chances of special session on unemployment benefits remain nil to small

(From left) House Speaker Andy Tobin, Gov. Jan Brewer, Senate president Russell Pearce (File photos)

(From left) House Speaker Andy Tobin, Gov. Jan Brewer, Senate president Russell Pearce (File photos)

The Senate polled its members last week to find out if there’s support for holding a special session to extend unemployment benefits following discussions between legislative leaders and Gov. Jan Brewer, who is pushing for it.

But the possibility seems to have fizzled out this week and without any plans in place to return to the Capitol, the possibility of beating a June 11 deadline seems remote.

“There is still very little support for it,” said Senate Majority Whip Steve Pierce, who has spoken with colleagues about the issue.

Asked if a special session could take place this week, Pierce matter-of-factly said, “No.”

“She could call us in but the votes are not there to get it done,” Pierce said, referring to the governor.

About 15,000 people are expected to lose unemployment benefits at the end of the week because state lawmakers didn’t make a simple statutory change that would have extended the benefits for an additional 20 weeks at no cost to the state.

The renewed drive to extend unemployment benefits took place amid a flurry of disappointing news at the national level. The U.S. Department of Labor released employment figures on Friday that showed the economy only added 54,000 jobs in May. Earlier, Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index also reported that home prices in 20 large cities are still dropping, terrible news for Arizona, a state whose economy is largely driven by growth in the housing industry.

Significant obstacles remain for those who are pushing for the special session.

To allow the extension to immediately take effect, supporters would need a two-thirds vote in each chamber. That means 20 votes in the Senate and 40 hands in the House.

To satisfy that threshold, Pierce estimated the proposal would need the backing of at least 11 Republican senators, but it doesn’t have that level of support in his caucus. All nine Democratic senators are expected to back the proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs already said he’s not “overly excited” about extending unemployment benefits, explaining that it means increasing the federal deficit and causing the federal government to go into long-term debt to finance a short-term program.

Others argued that people tend to go look for jobs faster if they anticipated their unemployment checks would stop coming.

But some are receptive to the idea.

Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, said he supports extending unemployment benefits. McComish said he believes the majority of the unemployed would prefer to be working rather than getting the little sum they get in unemployment aid.

“It’s not much of an incentive to stay home,” McComish said.

The Department of Economic Security has already sent out letters to more than 29,000 people who could be affected by the loss of extended unemployment benefits.

The extended benefits program is expiring because Arizona’s unemployment rate has dropped to a level that triggers a formula in state law, cutting off the 20 additional weeks of unemployment aid.

Earlier this year, Congress allowed states to adjust their formulas to compare current unemployment levels to what they were three years ago instead of two years ago. While many states adjusted their formulas, Arizona did not.

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