- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Republicans leveraged their large majorities in the Missouri Legislature to slash welfare and unemployment benefits this year in an effort they say will spur some people to find work and help businesses. But Democrats call the changes an “all-out attack” on the poor.

Despite strong resistance from Gov. Jay Nixon and his fellow Democrats, GOP lawmakers pushed through bills to scale back how long low-income families and unemployed residents can receive financial assistance. Republicans overrode Nixon’s veto of the welfare plan before the 2015 legislative session ended Friday, and they plan to do the same with the unemployment bill during September’s veto session.

But it’s unclear whether they’ll have the numbers to override a promised veto of right-to-work legislation, which would prohibit workplace contracts that require union fees from nonmembers. Opponents say such a law would undermine unions and lead to lower wages.

Republicans - who hold veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate - said the goal of the welfare and unemployment measures is to encourage residents receiving state assistance to find work and to encourage job growth through business-friendly policies. Republican Sen. Dan Brown of Rolla said a right-to-work law could help Missouri woo businesses, in part because most of Missouri’s neighboring states have such a law.

“I don’t view this as being against the working class,” Brown said. “I think this supports the working class.”

That narrative stands in stark contrast with Democrats’ perspective.

“We have had the opportunity to see an all-out attack on the working poor, the poor as well as the middle class,” said Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis. “It’s unfortunate, but the Republicans were able to have their way.”

The Department of Social Services estimates that 3,155 families will lose access to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program when that provision of the new law takes effect in January. Nixon has said about 6,400 children - including more than 2,600 younger than age 5 - will be affected by the law, which caps benefits for the program at three years and nine months instead of the current five years.

“I think we’ve seen that the majority seems to have an agenda of cruelty toward poor people… toward children especially,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel of St. Louis.

Bill sponsor Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, and other Republican supporters have argued that cutting the program might encourage parents to find work more quickly and could help families by adding structure to the program because the law also sets up an intervention system. If parents don’t follow work or education requirements, they would have to meet with state case workers and be given six weeks to comply. If people still don’t meet work requirements, their families’ benefits would be cut in half, and they would have an additional 10 weeks to come into compliance or be kicked off the program.

“Our goal was to get more people back into the working force,” Sater said. “Right now, that is not working.”

Under the unemployment legislation, benefits would be available to jobless residents for 13 weeks - the shortest amount of time in the U.S. - instead of the current 20 weeks if the state’s unemployment rate dips below 6 percent. The March unemployment rate was 5.6 percent.

“We know that it takes time to remove barriers and get the skills necessary (to find adequate employment),” said Heather Lockard, executive director of the Missouri Association for Community Action, an advocacy group trying to fight poverty. “It takes three, four or sometimes five years to get them all the support that they need.”

When Nixon vetoed the measure last month, he said lawmakers failed to consider how long tough economic times can last.

But the legislation also is aimed at keeping more money in the state’s unemployment fund, which supporters say would help businesses. Employers lose part of a federal tax credit when the state owes the federal government money for unemployment benefits.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said that could help prevent unexpected costs to employers. He said the bill doesn’t guarantee that businesses won’t face fees later, but he said policies to protect employers, even in small ways, could make Missouri more attractive.

“Creating a more friendly business environment creates more jobs,” Fitzpatrick said. “And when you create more jobs, there are going to be less people that need these programs.”

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Follow Summer Ballentine at https://twitter.com/esballentine

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