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Arizona’s rural areas cited in pitches for unemployment benefits extension

Social-service advocates are pointing to higher unemployment rates in Arizona’s rural counties as they urge legislators to keep 20 weeks of extended unemployment benefits flowing to thousands of Arizonans.

“In some of those small towns it’s clear there are no jobs,” Dana Naimark, president of the Children’s Action Alliance, said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer is near a deadline at the end of this week to call legislators into special session if the state is to avoid an interruption in payment of the federally funded extended benefits.

The extended benefits being paid this week will be the last without a formula change. That’s because Arizona’s unemployment has dropped enough to stop benefits after 79 weeks under the current formula. Approximately 15,000 people are now receiving the additional 20 weeks of benefits.

Brewer is urging legislators to change the formula, which would require a one-word change in state law.

However, many majority Republican legislators are reluctant. They cite the federal budget deficit and say they don’t want to provide an incentive for jobless people to avoid looking for work.

Arizona had a statewide seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 8.9 percent in April. The lower rates of the state’s two most populous counties, Maricopa at 8 percent and Pima at 7.9 percent, are the largest components driving the statewide rate.

In contrast, 11 of the 15 counties have unadjusted rates higher than the statewide rate, including Pinal at 10.6 percent, Mohave at 10.1 percent, Yavapai at 9.5 percent and Yuma at 25.3 percent.

Apache, La Paz, Gila, Navajo, Santa Cruz, Graham and Greenlee also had higher April rates.

The Children’s Action Alliance included unemployment rates for specific counties and their communities with letters delivered and emailed to legislators Tuesday to urge them to support an extension.

“We want to show them what’s going on within their own districts,” said Karen McLaughlin, the alliance’s director of budget and research.

On the other side of the issue, a critic of the proposed extension said lawmakers shouldn’t rush to extend benefits.

They should first require an audit of the unemployment program and take steps to ensure that the state tightens eligibility controls to weed out people who aren’t actively searching for work, said Goldwater Institute economist Stephen Slivinski.

Brewer spokesman Matt Benson said the governor favors the extension both to provide a “lifeline” for the thousands of affected unemployed people but also to keep the total weekly payments of $3.2 million flowing into the state’s economy.

Benson said Brewer and her staff were contacting legislators to urge support for the extension, but he acknowledged time was running short.

“If this thing is going to happen, we’re going to have to have movement in the next 24 to 48 hours.”

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