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Clear cut / April 20, 2009
With all the trimming, hemming and hawing that occurs in politics, it’s rare to experience a moment when clarity prevails and the depravity of segments of our so-called leadership is laid bare for all to see.

Such a moment arrived late last week in Richmond when the House of Delegates — defying reason, compassion and plain good sense — rejected $125 million in federal stimulus funds to expand unemployment benefits in Virginia. The House vote, cast mostly along party lines, would have been deplorable even in the best of times. But with a terrible economy putting jobs at risk across the Commonwealth, the delegates’ action is nothing short of astounding. Let them eat cake indeed.

Here are the facts: Virginia stood to receive $125 million in stimulus money to extend jobless benefits for out-of-work part-time workers and people enrolled in job training programs. With unemployment across Southside Virginia mired in double digits, our region in particular stood to benefit from this expansion of the system. Unemployment benefits in Virginia are among the stingiest in the nation; according to The Washington Post, Virginia employers pay an average of $98 per worker a year for unemployment insurance, compared to the national average of $258. The stimulus funding would have underwritten the expansion of jobless benefits for two years; afterwards, the cost to businesses would have $4.50 per worker per year. That’s four dollars and fifty cents — or for a small business like mine, maybe $60 a year. Heck, I spend ten times that annual amount just on caffeine.

And the benefits? Well, most businesses are dependent one way or another on consumer spending, and the $125 million that the House turned down would have circulated through the economy in any number of ways. The newspaper business, for example, relies on advertising revenue, and retailers are a lot more inclined to spend money with us when people are spending money with them. The entire point of unemployment insurance is to cushion the harshness of down times, especially when there are few jobs available no matter how much people would like to be working in one. Losing a job not only is devastating to workers and their families, it’s the kind of thing that can fuel a vicious cycle in which personal financial peril leads to widespread economic misery and no one emerges from unscathed.

None of this apparently mattered to the ideologues and dim bulbs who make up the Republican majority in the House of Delegates. The delegates could have sunset the expanded jobless benefits, ending them at a date certain and rendering the net cost to Virginia businesses at exactly zero (as opposed to the aforementioned whopping total of $4.50 per worker per year). Instead the delegates chose to forgo $125 million in federal aid so they could make a stand that has everything to do with phony ideological purity and nothing to do with actually helping people. (And by the way, other states will get that $125 million and Virginians will pay the same share of whatever burden may result). It’s interesting: Back when the General Assembly plugged up a $4 billion budget gap with stimulus money, precious little was said about the evils of federal government expansionism. Apparently it’s OK to receive money from the federal trough to protect the priorities of state politicians, but not to help ordinary people ravaged by the worst economy in decades.

Congratulations go out to Donald Merricks of Pittsylvania County, who was one of only two Republicans in the House of Delegates to support the expansion of jobless benefits. Merricks showed an openness of mind and decency of spirit that evidently is lacking in his GOP colleagues. The other Republican to vote for the bill, Danny Marshall of Danville, also deserves some credit, although unlike Merricks, Marshall has a tough fight for re-election on his hands. A “no” vote would have doomed his chances in a district where unemployment is hovering around 15 percent. As for the rest of the GOP membership, they showed their true colors with this execrable action. (The same is true of Republican members of the State Senate, who tried but failed to reject the stimulus money on a 21-19 party line vote.)

It’s tough to know if the Republicans truly buy into their own nonsense — let’s remember that few of Richmond’s finest actually run their own businesses, and many more delegates and senators have no real jobs outside of politics — but whether it’s because they’re wearing ideological blinders or are suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome, GOP legislators sent an unmistakable message about their agenda in the General Assembly. This vote was all about catering to short-sighted business interests, pleasing the partisans and hack ideologues with silly rhetoric equating jobless benefits with “welfare,” and showing everyone else the backs of their hands.

It’ll be interesting to see how all this plays out in November when Virginians elect a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. After James Edmunds kicked off his House of Delegates campaign by talking about the repeal of the estate tax on inherited wealth, i.e. the “death tax,” it’ll be interesting to see if he will advocate on behalf of those who weren’t born with millions of dollars in their pocket, and have to work for a living — not that such a thing is always possible in a rotten economy such as the present. Edmunds would do Halifax County and the area an enormous favor if he were to call upon his political mentor, Clarke Hogan, to reverse his vote against the jobless benefits in the House. Otherwise, we’ll have a pretty good idea of Edmunds’ agenda should he make it to the legislature.

If voters needed any more proof of the difference between Democrats and Republicans in Richmond, the vote on jobless benefits should do the trick. Maybe GOP delegates will realize the error of their ways when they’re the ones out looking for a new job.

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