Michigan lawmakers OK jobless benefits changes

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Republican-led Michigan Legislature on Wednesday approved legislation aimed at stabilizing the state's unemployment benefits fund, including a bill that could make it tougher for some to get and keep jobless benefits.

The bill that could affect jobless benefits eligibility passed the Senate by a 26-12 vote after clearing the House, 61-47. Both votes were largely along party lines, sending the measure to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Republicans say the bill will deter fraud, prevent overpayments and encourage the unemployed to seek jobs before their benefits run out.

Democrats say it could weaken benefits for some at time they need the help most. Michigan's unemployment rate has been falling but remains above the national average. That's the major reason why the state's unemployment fund has had to borrow from the federal government to make ends meet.

Two other, less controversial bills approved by the Legislature would help Michigan pay back loans from the federal government related to unemployment benefits. The debt, currently about $3 billion, would be paid off with the legislation allowing the state to issue bonds to cover the obligation.

"Michigan's unemployment insurance system must address this growing debt to get back on stable footing," said Rep. Wayne Schmidt, a Republican from Traverse City.

Snyder is likely to approve the legislative package pending final review, spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said.

The hotly contested bill would further limit the ability of a person who was fired for cause or who may have left a job voluntarily to collect jobless benefits. An employee could be considered to have left work voluntarily if he or she missed several consecutive work days without contacting the employer.

After a certain period of time, available work could no longer be considered "unsuitable" if it was outside the unemployed worker's previous experience or if it paid lower wages in some cases. That clause could kick in after 10 weeks of receiving state benefits, which Democrats say would force Michigan families into a cycle of underemployment.

Republicans argue that the requirements simply would prompt unemployed workers to accept new jobs when they're available.

The new requirements would come on top of an earlier law that will cut the length of time that jobless workers can get state unemployment benefits from the current 26 weeks to 20 weeks, starting with new filers in 2012.

Republicans say the overall package is designed to eliminate debt in the unemployment benefits system and ease the burden on employers who pay into the system. The legislation would require some employers to pay unemployment taxes on a larger portion of their employees' wages. Other changes, however, would save money for employers paying into the state's unemployment insurance program.

The bonding plan could allow Michigan employers to avoid higher payments that otherwise would be needed to repay the rising debt connected to the federal loans.

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The bills include Senate Bills 806, 483 and 484.

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