By Ted O’Neil | The Center Square contributor
(The Center Square) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that will end federal pandemic unemployment in exchange for a long-term increase in state unemployment benefits.
The bill passed last week as the state’s regular legislative session came to a close.
House Bill 183 will increase state unemployment payments by $28 a week, starting Jan. 1, up to a maximum of $275 a week. The state’s current weekly payment of $247 a week is among the lowest in the nation.
Republican legislators said they would support the proposal if Edwards agreed to turn off federal pandemic unemployment payments of $300 a week, starting July 31. Those payments are scheduled to end nationwide in early September.
With his signature Wednesday, Edwards became one of the first Democratic governors to agree to end the federal payments early. At least 25 states, all led by Republican governors, have indicated they would do the same.
Business leaders across the country have been urging states to opt out of the federal payments early, saying the additional money is an incentive for people who are unemployed not to seek new jobs. Louisiana’s unemployment rate is 7.3%, ninth-highest in the country.
“The federal unemployment enhancement made sense when government mandated business shutdowns that left hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents without the opportunity to work,” a statement from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce said. “The weekly payment, combined with state unemployment assistance, is currently the equivalent of almost $14 per hour, which is nearly median individual income in the state. In other words, one can be in the middle of the pack in terms of earnings by not working.”
Democrats in Louisiana were split on the measure.
“I just can’t believe you’re doing this, turning down federal unemployment for people who have had the hardest year of their life,” Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, told her colleagues during debate on the floor.
Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, who sponsored the bill, said he had “heartburn” over the tradeoff but that “a permanent increase going forward is desperately needed.”
The Senate approved the bill 32-5, while the House voted 74-27 in favor of it.
Edwards said he and other state officials had been discussing an August cutoff for the federal payments and July 31 was a reasonable compromise.
“When kids go back to school, parents have more of an opportunity to go back to work without having to worry about child care,” Edwards said at a news conference. “That was really always the reason for picking August as opposed to September.”