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Special session called to extend jobless benefits

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Special session called to extend jobless benefits

Brewer now pushing for continued aid for long-term unemployed

With unemployment benefits for nearly 20,000 Arizonans set to expire next week, Gov. Jan Brewer called a special session of the Legislature on Wednesday, asking lawmakers to make a one-word change to state law that will extend jobless aid.

At the session, legislators will be asked to measure the state's unemployment rate over the past three years instead of two, Brewer said in an press release Wednesday night, thus qualifying Arizona's unemployed for additional aid.

"Extending benefits for the unemployed is the right thing to do both for our local economy and for Arizona families," Brewer said.

"For our economy, these federal dollars represent an immediate cash infusion of nearly $3.5 million a week as recipients spend on necessities like food, rent and clothing. For as many as 45,000 Arizonans in need, these federal dollars may mean the difference between making the rent and living on the streets," the governor said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature refused to make the change before the regular session ended earlier this year.

Many of Brewer's fellow party members continue to balk at extending benefits, even though they will funded entirely by the federal government.

Brewer resisted Democrats' calls for a special session over the past month, making the move just as benefits are about to run out.

The special session was called for Friday.

Although Arizona's unemployment rate remains at 9.3 percent, it has dipped slightly in recent months, which threatened an end to an extra 20 weeks of benefits afforded workers unable to find jobs.

Changing the "look back" period to three years rather than the current two would mean the state's three-month average jobless rate would remain high enough that extended benefits would continue to flow to those who've been out of work for more than 79 weeks.

The feds pick up the tab for benefits paid between 79 and 99 weeks in states with high unemployment.

"Unfortunately, a special session wasn't necessary to make this fix," said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell in a release, pointing out the Democrats' move to make the statuatory adjustment in April was blocked by the GOP.

"We aren't sure what changed their minds between now and then," said House Minority Whip Anna Tovar.

"We're just happy that to help struggling Arizona families to continue to put food on the table while they search for jobs and help local businesses by bringing $3.5 million a week to our economy," Tovar said.

"The Legislature and I have taken concrete steps in recent months to turn Arizona's economy around, and we've begun to see a lot of positive indicators," said Brewer.

"But with the state unemployment rate still at 9.3 percent – and even higher in many rural areas – we can't pretend there aren't thousands of our fellow citizens who remain jobless and in need of assistance. Our window of opportunity to make this needed statutory change is now. I am optimistic the Legislature will join me in this effort."

Part of Brewer's proposed change would require recipients to search for job prospects four times weekly (up from the current two) and certify that they're aware they must accept any job offer paying at least the minimum wage (currently $7.35 per hour). While currently the law, recipients are not now required the certify every week that they'll take any job.

The maximum unemployment benefit in Arizona is $240 per week.

About 17,000 will lose their benefits next week if the Legislature does not make the change, and 30,000 more could lose unemployment benefits by the end of the year.

Brewer pointed out that "more than two-dozen states that previously faced the elimination of their federal unemployment aid have already made the statutory change... these states include conservative strongholds like Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Idaho and South Carolina."

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