Va. Assembly Rejects Stimulus Funds That Would've Expanded Jobless Benefits

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

RICHMOND, April 8 -- A divided General Assembly narrowly rejected $125 million in federal stimulus money Wednesday that would have provided additional unemployment benefits to thousands of jobless Virginians.

The defeat was a blow to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had pushed the matter as the state legislature reconvened for a one-day session.

A visibly angry Kaine berated legislators after the vote and hinted that he might try to find another way to accept the federal money. "There's an awful lot of people who are hurting in Virginia, and the message to them seemed to be: 'We don't care. Fend for yourself,' " he said.

The GOP-controlled House of Delegates, a fiscally conservative body that has long opposed fundamental changes to laws that extend such benefits, killed the proposal after members argued it would translate into higher taxes for businesses once the supply of stimulus money was exhausted.

"We are being used," Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) said. "Actually our constituents . . . who are now unemployed are being used by this administration to hold a gun to the head of this General Assembly with the assistance of the governor to force through a bad bill."

The General Assembly also considered Kaine's amendments to and vetoes of bills passed during the annual legislative session.

Legislators failed to override vetoes of bills that would have expanded the death penalty to criminals who assist in murders or who kill fire marshals or auxiliary police officers. They also did not have enough votes to overturn Kaine's veto of a bill that would have allowed concealed-carry permit holders to take guns into bars and restaurants as long as they did not drink.

The change to Virginia's unemployment system would have allowed thousands of residents who work part time or are in approved job training programs to be eligible to receive benefits. Almost 300,000 Virginians are unemployed, pushing the state's jobless rate to 6.7 percent.

After a long debate, the Senate approved the change on a 21 to 19 party-line vote, and the House rejected the bill by a vote of 53 to 46. Two Republican delegates from southwest and Southside Virginia, where unemployment is in double digits, voted for Kaine's proposal.

"People in Virginia are hurting," Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said. "They are looking for us to help them."

The battle in Virginia reflects a partisan debate taking place in states around the country. Republican governors in several states have refused at least some federal stimulus money approved by President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to expand benefits for the unemployed.

In Maryland, officials said they probably would not seek the federal funds until next year, when they begin overhauling components of the state's jobless benefits program. In the District, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the D.C. Council approved emergency legislation to allow the city to access the additional stimulus money for unemployment benefits.

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