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Missouri Supreme Court tosses out state Senate vote that cut state's unemployment benefits

Willis Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri Supreme Court has restored the length of the state’s unemployment benefits to 20 weeks, by tossing out the General Assembly’s action last year that reduced payment of benefits to 13 weeks – the shortest in the country.

Republican lawmakers and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce say they’ll try again next session. The state Department of Labor says 14,612 people have been affected by the 13-week limit since it went into effect Jan. 1.

For the court, the issue was timing. The court ruled, in effect, that the Missouri Senate waited too long to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the bill.

It cut benefits when the state’s unemployment rate is less than 6 percent.  The state’s current unemployment rate is less than 5 percent.

The Missouri House made its override vote in May 2015, within days of Nixon’s action. But the Senate was stymied by a Democratic slowdown after Republican leaders forced a vote on an unrelated bill.

Credit Willis Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

So Senate GOP leaders opted to wait until the veto session in September to override the governor. But the state Supreme Court says the Senate couldn’t do that. The court ruled that the Senate had to take the vote during the regular session.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, on Tuesday called the court’s action “another example of an activist judiciary overstepping its constitutional authority. I agree with the three dissenting judges who believe this ruling violates the court’s own history in interpreting the Constitution. It also tramples on the respect for a co-equal branch of government demanded by our state’s Constitution. The Legislature is the voice of the people of Missouri and with today’s decision the court has substituted its own voice for theirs.”

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, praised the ruling. “The constitutional limitations on when lawmakers have the legal authority to override a veto cannot be ignored simply because the majority party finds them inconvenient. Unfortunately, Republican legislative leaders too often treat the Missouri Constitution as mere set of guidelines rather than actual rules. With today’s Supreme Court decision, we hope GOP lawmakers have finally learned that claiming to be a constitutional conservative requires one to obey the constitution.” 

Nixon said late Tuesday in a statement, "The judges’ ruling clarifies the law limiting when the legislature may vote to override a Governor’s veto and is good news for thousands of Missourians who were wrongfully denied the unemployment benefits they had earned.”

Nixon said the state Labor Department "will work to make sure people get the unemployment benefits they have earned."

"Missouri’s average weekly unemployment insurance benefit of $243.63 ranks 43rd out of all 50 states," the governor added. "Missouri’s restored cap of 20 weeks of assistance places Missouri among eight states that pay less than the national norm of 26 weeks, while only about one third of Missourians who apply for unemployment insurance benefits actually receive them. "

Lawmakers plan to seek to restore cut in 2017

The technical battle appears to overshadow the basic fight over the employment benefit cut. Nixon, who has yet to comment on the court’s ruling, has maintained that the cut was unfair to unemployed workers. Backers say the cut would help businesses who pay into the fund and force the unemployed to look harder for work.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce says the benefit cut is needed. “The Missouri Chamber is extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court decision,” said Dan Mehan, Missouri Chamber president and CEO. 

“This common-sense measure was designed to protect Missouri’s unemployment insurance system from economic downturns that have repeatedly thrown Missouri’s fund into insolvency over the last decade.”

Democratic House leader Hummel asserted, “The court’s ruling repairs the gaping hole the majority party’s enactment of House Bill 150 had slashed in the safety net for working families. Although we are certain GOP lawmakers will again try to reduce unemployment benefits next year, Democrats are confident that after the upcoming elections we will be in a strong position to stop them.”

Copyright 2016 St. Louis Public Radio

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.