Virginia Lawmakers Split on What's Best for Workers, Employers

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, center, meets with legislators during a recent news conference. Kaine, a Democrat, is at odds with the GOP on job-related stimulus funds.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, center, meets with legislators during a recent news conference. Kaine, a Democrat, is at odds with the GOP on job-related stimulus funds. (By Bob Brown -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via Associated Press)
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A largely party-line vote by Virginia Republicans last week to reject $125 million in federal unemployment funds -- and a full-throated push yesterday by Democrats to reverse that decision -- is part of a broader political fight over which party should be trusted to help lead workers and businesses out of the recession.

Democrats slammed the action by the Republican-led House of Delegates, with Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) calling it "disgusting," and sought to take the offensive in the campaign for control of that body and the governor's mansion. Republicans said the vote reflected a principled bid to keep employers, who would have had to pick up the tab once the federal stimulus funds ran out, from being further burdened.

At issue is whether Virginia should change its law to allow some part-time workers or those in some training programs to receive unemployment benefits. But the election-year dust-up includes a mixture of impassioned declarations of principle, mutual accusations of political opportunism and starkly divergent bets on what voters want.

"I would use the word 'tone-deaf,' " said Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax), who added that her GOP colleagues in Richmond had misread the voters' mood. "They were rallying against Barack Obama and [discussing] federalism, and we kept talking about people. So it was an interesting debate. These are people who, in my opinion, had not quite gotten over the results of last November."

Amundson yesterday joined fellow Democratic leaders from Northern Virginia, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, outside a Fairfax County government services building on Route 1 in the Mount Vernon area. Also among those present was Greg Werkheiser, who is running against Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) in Virginia's 42nd District, a key race in the fight for control of the House.

"People along Route 1 are struggling," Werkheiser said. "I will hold my opponent . . . accountable for this vote."

Albo, who voted against changing the law to take advantage of the federal money, said yesterday that it is a fight worth having.

"It crystallizes the difference between Republicans and Democrats. The Democrats want to hand unemployed people money, and the Republicans want to create jobs so unemployed people won't be unemployed," said Albo, who added that the additional cost of the benefits would have to be borne by businesses already straining to cover their costs. "This was just a public policy vote. I don't think you put more people back to work by making it more expensive to give them a job," he said.

Connolly said Virginia's average unemployment insurance costs, at $98 per employee, are among the lowest in the nation. Adding a little more than $2 to that tab is not an undue burden. "You've got to be kidding," he said, adding that although some Republican governors have spoken out against accepting the unemployment money, others have embraced it.

But Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax) said the state's soaring unemployment rolls are already projected to double the per-employee unemployment insurance costs by 2011. "This would have been another tax on business at a terrible time when lots of business are really struggling," Rust said.

Both sides see opportunity. Virginia Democrats are trying to amplify the political gains they made by helping Obama reach the White House. Republicans are pushing back, seeing an opening to knock back at Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, head of the president's party.

Kaine has hinted that he would keep pushing to accept the federal money, possibly by calling legislators back to the state Capitol for a special session later this year. Legislators say that is unlikely unless a deal has already been worked out.

The three Democratic candidates for governor -- state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former delegate Brian Moran -- blasted Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell, who had no role in refusing the money but who opposes accepting it.

"I know what it means to struggle," Moran said. "Growing up, my father was laid off from his job and our family station wagon was towed out of the driveway. . . . It's unfortunate that Bob chose to stand with some national Republican leaders who are turning a blind eye" to Virginians.

Tucker Martin, McDonnell's spokesman, said the Republican is lobbying members of Congress to remove the requirement that forces states to change their unemployment programs to receive the funding. "In our system of federalism, Congress should not be micromanaging private business and state governments with these kinds of policies,'' Martin said.

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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