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Owens and Doheny agree: Let unemployment extension lapse

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Come 2013, people who are laid off from their jobs will get 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, a drop from the 99 weeks they received under an emergency federal measure during the recent economic downturn.

Don’t expect your next congressman to try to change that.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and Republican Matthew A. Doheny, his Nov. 6 challenger, said that to varying degrees they supported letting the benefits for the unemployed lapse.

As long as the unemployment rate is “trending down, I would be comfortable with 26 weeks,” Mr. Owens said, adding that political realities would probably render his preference moot. Congress is unlikely to pass anything beyond 26 weeks anyway, he said.

Mr. Owens said he believes that during economic downturns, the government should extend unemployment benefits because 70 percent of the economy is based on consumer spending. If an unemployed person doesn’t have any money, he or she can’t spend that money on groceries, so the grocer might get laid off, too, Mr. Owens argued.

Though more reticent about the economic arguments that underpin his support for longer economic benefits during a downturn, Mr. Doheny signaled that he “doesn’t have a categorical disagreement with” extending the benefits during a downturn. But he’s “comfortable” with an end to the extension in January, Mr. Doheny said.

The end of extended benefits for the unemployment insurance program is, incidentally, the end of agreement between Mr. Owens and Mr. Doheny on the unemployment insurance issue.

People who are unemployed through no fault of their own — those who are laid off in a downturn, for example, but not those who quit their jobs or are fired for incompetence — receive the temporary state benefit, which is paid via a tax on employers.

Policymakers have tried to improve the program to get people back to work more quickly. Mr. Owens offered one idea that Mr. Doheny denounced as “insane” and “crazy,” but is something that could be a reality after Congress passed changes to the unemployment system earlier this year.

Under the law, the federal government will help 10 states set up and pay for pilot programs that could tinker with unemployment insurance programs. One idea, Mr. Owens said, is to entice the unemployed to go back to work via a supplement to the income of their new job.

If a person made $12 an hour at a job he got laid off from, he might be reluctant to take a job for $8 an hour. The state could step in and help make up part of the difference between the former salary and the new salary, Mr. Owens said. The income-padding would last only as long as unemployment benefits would have lasted.

Mr. Doheny said the system was not financially feasible, and said it was unfair to employees who are still making $8 an hour while a new employee makes more.

Mr. Owens said, “Whether that’s fair, that’s a very difficult conversation. What we’re trying to do is get you from receiving unemployment insurance of 10 bucks an hour to receiving unemployment of four bucks an hour, and your employers giving you eight.”

It’s a bad idea, Mr. Doheny said.

“That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the economy,” Mr. Doheny said. “The taxpayer just giving money away.”

Mr. Doheny had less criticism for other unemployment insurance ideas that Mr. Owens offered, but did say that he would approach the problem differently, or rather, not at all. He would leave it up to the states. The law that Mr. Owens supported includes federal government aid, helping pay for both startup and implementation of the pilot programs.

Other ideas include worksharing, which businesses in New York are eligible for. Under the program, the state encourages businesses not to lay off workers, but rather to cut hours for employees across the board. The state would help pay some of the difference from the employees’ lost hours. The state would have to pay less than it would have if employees had lost their jobs, and businesses wouldn’t have to train new employees to replace the ones who were laid off.

Neither candidate objected to an idea pioneered in Georgia called Georgia Works. Under the program, the state pays the entire cost for an unemployed person to be trained for a new job. It’s the same amount that the unemployed person would have made to do nothing, there’s no risk for the employer and the trainee has an easier time finding work. The program has its supporters and critics in Georgia as well as other parts of the nation.

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