During the legislative session, State Senator Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) sponsored a bill to freeze unemployment benefits and cut the benefit period from 26 to 25 weeks. The bill, which became Act 861, was designed to address the state's $240 million debt to the federal government in unemployment benefits. Yesterday, the Chamber of Commerce projected that Dismang's bill will eliminate the state's debt by 2015. We spoke briefly with Dismang today about the good news.
"We knew [the bill] could have a $50 million impact," Dismang said, "and we hoped for more, but we didn't want to overstate the possibilities. But we're proud of what it's going to do." The report released yesterday shows that the bill will, in fact, have a $60-75 million impact on the unemployment trust fund.
Dismang's bill, SB593, passed the House and Senate at the end of March, while the legislative session was racing to a frenzied conclusion. Another bill to address the unemployment debt was making its path through the Capitol at the same time -- Senator Jeremy Hutchinson's (R-Little Rock) SB305, which authorized the governor to call a special election for approval of a $500 million bond issue to cover the debt.
At the time, political observers believed Dismang's and Hutchinson's bills to be working in tandem to address the unemployment debt, but Dismang said their bills were actually "thrown together." "I had an issue with the theory behind Senator Hutchinson's bill," he said, "which was that it looked to me like the $50 million [from Dismang's bill] might just keep us at the status quo, keep the debt from growing." Despite wondering whether Hutchinson's bill was necessary, Dismang said he didn't have an issue with it, and he voted for it in two different forms in the Senate. He said he is glad that with the release of yesterday's numbers, it appears the special election and bond issue won't have to happen.
Organized labor, Dismang said, opposed SB593, while the Chamber of Commerce heavily supported it. But Dismang and his House co-sponsor, Rep. Davy Carter (R-Cabot), didn't want to frame the issue as business vs. labor. In order to avoid that impression, they asked the Chamber not to have any of its representatives testify in support of the bill in committee. The opposition from organized labor ultimately fizzled. "They never made any attempt to negotiate on it," Dismang said. "I hope that was because they, in the end, agreed that it was a fairly common-sense bill." In its final form, the bill passed the House 67-20 and the Senate 35-0.
Dismang had not heard of the new projections for his bill's impact, prior to their being announced by Chamber President Randy Zook. He refused to take sole credit for the success and instead praised Carter for playing a crucial role in the bill's passage -- "his presence in the House had as much an impact as anything else."
But will these new projections of the bill's impact become reality? Dismang doesn't know, but he's hopeful: "I would say with our business -- we're in real estate -- things are picking up slowly but steadily. Hopefully we'll have some upturn in the economy."