Construction workers oppose unemployment cuts-WEB ONLY

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Thousands of union workers packed the Statehouse yesterday to protest proposed cuts in jobless benefits as lawmakers try to
compromise on legislation to fix Indiana’s bankrupt unemployment insurance
fund.

Republicans who control the Senate have proposed a plan that would increase
employer taxes, reduce benefits for most jobless claimants and tighten
eligibility standards. Democrats who rule the House have proposed higher
employer taxes, but they oppose benefit cuts.

Lawmakers face a Wednesday deadline for adjourning the regular
session. Their biggest priorities are to agree on a new state budget and a
solution for the unemployment fund.

Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) said yesterday that negotiators on the unemployment
legislation met privately over the weekend, and he was optimistic a deal could
be struck. But he said benefit cuts remained a big “stumbling block” in
negotiations.

The union workers who attended the rally came from across the state, many of
them riding in buses. They packed the north atrium of the Statehouse, many
crowded wide staircases to the third floor, and others looked down from the
railings on the third and fourth floors. Hundreds more remained outside.

Many carried signs. One read, “Don’t want to be a welfare recipient,” while
another said, “Which way to the poor house.”

House Speaker Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) drew cheers when he pledged to
keep benefits intact.

“We will not cut your benefits,” he said. “You have worked too hard and you
earned those benefits and you will keep those benefits. “We will continue to
tell the other side to join us in helping you keep your benefits, and we think
in the end they will.”

But lawmakers agree something must be done. Indiana’s unemployment insurance
fund has been paying out hundreds of millions of dollars more in benefits that
it has been collecting in employer taxes. The fund has had to borrow more than
$700 million from the federal government to remain solvent.

Currently, the state’s maximum weekly unemployment benefit is $390, while the average is $298.

Under the Senate Republican plan, benefits would be paid on a sliding scale
that would decline the longer a jobless person is in the system. The maximum
benefit of $390 would be increased to $424 for the first four weeks but
ultimately drop to $310 in weeks eight through 26. Only those receiving the
maximum benefit would get a temporary increase.

The Senate Republican plan also would tighten eligibility standards. One provision would allow companies that lay off employees for several weeks
at a time every year to opt out of the system, so their laid-off workers would
not get benefits. The companies also could choose to reimburse the state for
nearly all the costs of benefits for their laid-off employees.

Democrats say that unfairly targets certain industries such as construction,
in which workers often lose their jobs temporarily when a project ends.

David Packwood of Indianapolis, a carpenter who attended the rally, said
he has been out of work at times and was most recently laid off on Friday.

“Even if I draw $351 (a week) in unemployment, my house payment is $1,700 a
month, and then I have my gas bill and my electric bill,” Packwood said. “I want
to work just as much as they don’t want me to be unemployed, but if the work is
not there, it’s not there.”

Kruse said he understood workers’ concerns, but the rally would not affect
his negotiations on the unemployment legislation.

Meanwhile, private negotiations over a new budget continued yesterday.

House Ways and Means Chairman William Crawford (D-Indianapolis), said he
thought negotiators were close to a deal on the budget.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne), said he
was hopeful that a compromise on the budget could be reached within the next 24
hours, but the issue was proving to be tough.

Long said that because of continued bad news about the economy, Senate
Republicans were trying to spend less than they did in the version of a budget
bill they passed earlier this month.

“It’s again sobering for all of us to recognize this [economy] has a ways to
go before it bottoms out,” he said. “We have to reflect that in our budget.
We’re doing the best we can. House Democrats are trying as well.”

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