Legislation making sweeping changes to Kentucky’s unemployment insurance system won Senate passage Thursday, leaving it one vote away from clearing the Republican-dominated legislature.
Key parts of the measure would increase work-search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits and tie the length of time recipients get benefits to prevailing economic conditions. That provision could cut the number of benefit weeks by more than half in times of low jobless rates.
The measure — backed by business interests and opposed by organized labor — sparked emotional debate before the Senate passed it on a 22-13 vote. The bill returns to the House, where it could receive final passage if the chamber accepts the Senate’s changes.
In other action Thursday, the Senate advanced a proposed constitutional change that would restrict governors from granting pardons in the weeks before and after an election.
The proposal reflects ongoing anger over former Gov. Matt Bevin’s flurry of last-minute pardons before he left office in 2019. It won Senate approval on a 25-10 vote and goes to the House next.
The unemployment insurance measure could have a profound impact on laid-off workers.
Opponents said the stricter rules would increase hardships for many laid-off workers, forcing them to accept lower-wage jobs as they face a quicker cutoff of benefits.
In an emotional speech opposing the bill, Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler predicted the new standards would cause “great misery” in his area of eastern Kentucky. With the region struggling to keep and attract jobs, he said the measure could lead to more population losses. Eastern Kentucky has been hard hit by the loss of coal mining and manufacturing jobs.
The state now offers up to 26 weeks of eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits. Under the bill, people would collect benefits between 12 to 24 weeks, with the length determined by an indexing formula based on unemployment trends. The bill would add five weeks of benefits for people enrolled in approved job training or certification programs.
“Just as Kentucky allows for more weeks of benefits when the economy is bad, it should offer fewer weeks when the economy is strong and jobs are widely available,” Republican Sen. Wil Schroder said in supporting the measure.
Supporters have pointed to a workforce participation rate in Kentucky that they say is among the worst in the nation. By boosting work-search requirements, the goal is to fill vacancies in workplaces across the state, they said. But the bill’s opponents tore into that argument.
“This whole notion that somehow if we cut unemployment benefits we’re going to magically increase our workforce participation rate is just a flawed idea,” Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas said.
Meanwhile, the proposed constitutional amendment to rein in a governor’s late-term pardon powers cleared a hurdle by winning Senate approval. It goes to the House next.
The measure would amend the state’s Constitution to curb a governor’s pardon powers in the month leading up to a gubernatorial election and for the time between the election and inauguration. If the bill clears the legislature, it would go on the statewide ballot for voters to decide the issue.
If ratified by the voters, a governor would still retain pardon powers for all but about two months of a four-year term, said Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel, the proposal’s sponsor.
“All this amendment does is require that a governor, or the party he represents, will have to stand in front of the voters and account for a pardon,” he said. “I don’t think that basic accountability for a power that frees murderers to walk the streets is too much to ask. There will be no more hiding in the darkness of the last minutes of an administration.”
Bevin issued hundreds of pardons between his electoral defeat and his final day in office in late 2019. Several stirred outrage from victims or their families, prosecutors and lawmakers.
Opponents of the constitutional proposal have expressed disgust with the pardons but portray the measure as an overreaction to actions by one executive.