Senate OKs proposed new unemployment restrictions


LITTLE ROCK — The Senate passed a pair of bills related to unemployment benefits Monday, one that would require testing applicants and recipients for illegal drugs and another to reduce the maximum weekly unemployment check.

Senate Bill 38 passed on a 25-5 vote. The bill by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, would mandate random drug testing for applicants and recipients of unemployment benefits. Those who fail a drug test would be denied or would lose jobless benefits.

Hutchinson said a requirement to receive unemployment is to be actively looking for a job. Hopefully, his bill would serve as a deterrent against using drugs for job seekers.

“If you can’t pass a drug test, you typically can’t get employed and thereby, I would argue, you are not actively seeking employment,” he said.

The random drug testing would cost the state Department of Workforce Service less than $30,000 annually, Hutchinson said.

SB 875 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, passed 19-12. It would lower the maximum weekly unemployment benefit by $126 — from $451 to $325. Hester said the change would put Arkansas’ jobless benefit in line with surrounding states.

“The intent here is to find a happy medium between the people that need it and fairness to the business owners and their employees,” Hester said.

He said the reduction would take effect after the state pays off more than $200 million it owes the federal government for unemployment insurance, which is expected to occur by 2015.

The state owes the federal government for money it borrowed to keep unemployment benefits flowing to thousands of out-of-work Arkansans during the recession. The current balance is down from $360 million.

In an effort to address the debt, the Legislature in 2011 approved and Gov. Mike Beebe signed into law Act 861. The law capped maximum unemployment benefits and cut the benefit period by a week. It also eliminated wage indexing and changed some of the eligibility requirements for workers seeking unemployment.

“This is a horrible bill,” said Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, speaking against SB 875. “It reduces unemployment benefits by $100 a week for people that can barely feed their families.”

Burnett noted that the Senate had just minutes earlier passed SB 38, “which places a further indignity on people of out of work by implying that they may be drug users, by implying that since you are so low down the totem pole that you don’t have a job so we’re going to drug test you before we give you whatever measly amount we’re going to.”

“Everybody in this chamber ought to be ashamed if you vote for this,” he said.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, reminded lawmakers that the people receiving unemployment benefits were not fired, but were laid off because their place of employment either downsized or went out of business.

“They didn’t do anything ,” she said. “This is not the right thing to do for the people in our state,” she said.

Both unemployment-related bills go to the House.

The Senate also passed HB 1294 by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, a school-choice bill, 33-1. Under the bill, a student approved for transfer to a non-resident district under a provision of law that is later struck down or repealed would be allowed to finish school in the new district, and any present or future sibling also would be allowed to do so.

The bill now goes to the governor.

HB 1478 by Rep. Walls McCrary, D-Lonoke, which deals with capturing, transporting and killing feral hogs, passed the Senate 34-1. Under the bill, a person could capture or kill a feral hog on his or her own land or on public land if given permission and if all applicable state or federal laws are followed. A captured feral hog could be transported to a facility for slaughter but could not be released into the wild.

The bill goes to the governor.

The Senate also passed, 24-6, HB 2204 Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren, which would require a school board to review any increase in a school district employee’s salary of 5 percent or more. The bill goes to the governor.