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Remember all those governors who objected to taking $7 billion in stimulus money set aside to help the unemployed? It turns out many of the governors reconsidered.
Now more than half the states are getting the federal stimulus, and some of the most conservative states have updated their laws so that they too can get a share. But there are a few who are still holding out. NPR's Kathy Lohr has the story.
KATHY LOHR: Several southern states were among the first to say they did not want to take federal stimulus funds to help the unemployed. Republican governors from Georgia to Louisiana, Texas and South Carolina were outspoken opponents of expanding unemployment benefits. Here's Mark Sanford of South Carolina back in 2009.
Governor MARK SANFORD (Republican, South Carolina): I was against the stimulus. I've consistently stood against the stimulus. If you take all this stimulus money and you spend it, over the long run there'll be less economic activity in South Carolina rather than more.
LOHR: But last week, without much fanfare, the Labor Department released $97 million to South Carolina after state legislators modernized the unemployment insurance program and Sanford signed the bill into law.
Mr. JON SHURE (Center of Budget and Policy Priorities): I think when some of the states were talking about not taking the money, it was more political than anything else. But in the end, I think the rational feeling that prevailed mostly was that this is a big help.
LOHR: Jon Shure is with the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Mr. SHURE: I think at the end of the day people put aside some of their political distinctions and ideological considerations and say, this is money we need, it's bad for the economy if we don't take it.
LOHR: With the unemployment rate at 9.5 percent and more than 14 million Americans out of work, state officials are under pressure to take the federal help.
Maurice Emsellem with the National Employment Law Project says seven states and the District of Columbia are among those who made changes this year. They include allowing part-time low-wage workers to now qualify for unemployment benefits.
Mr. MAURICE EMSELLEM (National Employment Law Project): The real beauty of this legislation is that it's a win for workers and it's a win for employers in many states, and it's a win for the state unemployment funds that are having a hard time right now because of the recession. Because when they qualify for this money, they get a big chunk of money all at once, right up front.
LOHR: On average, Emsellem says states get enough money to pay their expanded benefits for seven years. But that's the problem for some states. A block of southern governors, including Governor Rick Perry in Texas, continues to oppose any changes. Perry has turned down more than half a billion dollars for his state. Ms. ANN HATCHITT (Texas Workforce Commission): Governor Perry was very clear that he would not accept any recovery act funds that required Texas change its laws.
LOHR: Ann Hatchitt is a spokeswoman for the Texas Workforce Commission.
Ms. HATCHITT: Although half a billion dollars is a large amount of money, it would only last approximately five to seven years. And then the laws would still be in place. The pool of people that qualify for unemployment insurance would be expanded and those expenses would remain.
LOHR: Some state officials argue taxes will eventually have to go up to pay for the increase. Others object to what they say are orders from the federal government.
Tad DeHaven is a budget analyst with the fiscally conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He says many don't want to accept the restrictions that come with the money.
Mr. TAD DEHAVEN (Cato Institute): Unemployment benefits are paid by taxes. So you have a competitiveness issue, and I think some of these governors resent the top-down approach from Washington because it inhibits their ability to differentiate versus(ph) their neighbors in the rest of the 49 states.
LOHR: According to the National Employment Law Project, 28 states passed reforms last year and nearly a dozen states considered changing their laws this year. Several are still debating the issue. They have until next August to make the changes and qualify for the stimulus dollars.
But some are likely to hold their ground. Just last week, several Republican governors again balked at the latest federal stimulus package intended to help states pay for Medicaid and prevent more teacher layoffs.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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