May 28, 2009
Unemployment insurance dies, CHIP lives

Not unexpectedly, SB1569 was a casualty of the weekend chubfest. Also not surprisingly, it was basically chubbed by Republicans, who wanted to ensure its death as the local and consent calendar was finally finished up a little before the midnight deadline. I'm disappointed to see this bill die, but given that it hadn't been passed by a veto-proof majority in time for the inevitable veto to be overridden, it was doomed anyway. If that helps the House Republicans blow off some steam, then so be it.

On the good side, CHIP expansion got new life.

The Texas Senate late Wednesday, facing a midnight deadline, used a House bill concerning newborn screening to revive a measure aimed at expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, put SB841 (the CHIP expansion bill) into HB1795, which was approved 28-2 by the Senate.

The CHIP amendment allows some families with incomes above current limits to buy into the insurance program.

The measure now heads back to the House with changes approved in the Senate.

One hopes it will be accepted as amended. That's at least one less casualty from the weekend.

I'm including an excerpt from Ed Sills' Texas AFL-CIO email newsletter about SB1569 beneath the fold. Click on to read it.

UPDATE: Floor Pass, quoting Harvey Kronberg, thinks the CHIP add-on might fall victim to a point of order.

At this writing, SB 1569, the Unemployment Insurance bill, is dead.

The bill has fallen victim to the GOP push for so-called "voter ID" legislation and Gov. Rick Perry's opposition to expanding the pool of unemployed Texans who are eligible for UI benefits.

In retrospect, the die was cast against SB 1569 and hundreds of other bills in the first days of the session when the Texas Senate ended a long-standing tradition by allowing a mere majority of the membership to okay "voter ID" for floor debate. The decision to junk the two-thirds rule led inevitably to the meltdown in the House at the end of the session.

The collateral damage was extensive, and on the UI bill, that damage occurred to hundreds of thousands of Texans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

Never mind the politics of the situation. Texas workers who lose their jobs are the 50th most likely in our nation to qualify for Unemployment Insurance benefits that help them meet their basic needs. SB 1569 would have substantially improved that situation, would have drawn up to nearly $1 billion in federal funds and, as a consequence, would have reduced taxes for Texas employers.

The reason you could have fried an egg on the heads of much of the United Labor Legislative Committee last night when the clock expired on the UI bill was not the legislative defeat. It was the fact that reactionary elements of the Texas Legislature messed with the lives of tens of thousands of hard-pressed working families because they don't like President Obama or because their ideology can still trump common sense on the playing fields that test the viability of legislation. Even some Chambers of Commerce came around to the notion that SB 1569 would have been a net gain for employers in Texas. Pro-business economists weighed the options and supported the bill. We believe the legislation wasn't just good for labor, but good for Texas.

The fight isn't over. In fact, an important measure in the bill that would extend benefits to approximately 75,000 currently unemployed workers still has a strong likelihood of making it into the state budget. And if, as is rumored, the governor calls a special session, you can bet that ULLCO will reassert SB 1569 for the good of families who have seen their breadwinners lose jobs. The deadline for taking the federal money is August 2011, so UI is going to be an issue in the interim, in the election season and in the next legislative session.

We have emphasized all session that the quest to pass SB 1569 has been a bipartisan one, and this is a good time to point up some of the lawmakers and other friends who played a critical role in moving the bill as far as it got.

In the House, state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, got his formidable mind around all the intricacies and was doing a splendid job in floor debate before the wheels came off the House. Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, has worked hard to improve the UI system in Texas for many years. Deshotel authored much of the original legislation and helped the bill move from his position as chair of the House Business & Industry Committee. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, worked along the way to support the lawmakers who sought to bring a consensus bill to the House floor. Many other lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, helped in many ways throughout the process.

In the Senate, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, was absolutely focused on championing the legislation, bravely redoubling his efforts even after Gov. Rick Perry tried to put the kibosh on the bill in his infamous upscale Houston hardware store news conference. Sens. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, authored key components of the legislation and worked hard to get the bill through the traps in the Senate. Several Republican and Democratic senators alike stood up to intense pressure brought by the Governor to do the right thing for working families in Texas in the floor debate and vote.

There was enough voting on the issue, in fact, to suggest that solid majorities were in place for final passage of SB 1569. The House was developing a bill that went even further in answering critics, and we strongly believe it could have made it to Perry's desk with a large margin in both chambers.

In addition, the Texas AFL-CIO would like to pause and thank the Center for Public Policy Priorities for their stalwart work on this effort. The CPPP brought a wealth of research, policy expertise and plain old-fashioned hard work that provided all the necessary information and analysis needed by lawmakers and advocates alike. Also, the National Employment Law Project, the nation's foremost research and advocacy organization for low-income workers, provided invaluable guidance, expertise and support for our efforts here in Texas. Working families in Texas owe both these organizations a substantial debt.

SB 1569 was a signature bill for labor this session, one we are proud of even if it didn't get to the finish line. It has been many years since organized labor in Texas got to play offense on legislation instead of remaining on our heels fighting off the worst proposals. One potential pitfall in advancing legislation is that defeat is sometimes snatched from the jaws of victory. But frustration is not the only end product of the fight for SB 1569. In this process, we sent a signal of better things to come.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 28, 2009 to Budget ballyhoo
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