The editorial incorrectly identified legislation that would change unemployment benefits in Oklahoma. The bill under consideration is House Bill 3096. It has since been updated.
As the stock market and oil prices crashed, the Oklahoma Legislature prepared for the potential of a recession by ... wait for it ... cutting unemployment benefits for Oklahomans.
Last week, the state House approved House Bill 3096, which would reduce the maximum number of weeks Oklahomans could draw unemployment benefits under current circumstances from 26 weeks to 12.
The bill provides for the limit to rise if the state’s unemployment rate goes up. The new maximum would be 26 weeks when unemployment hits 6.7%, although at one time legislators were seriously considering a 20-week cap, which would only go into effect at 9%.
The unemployment rate was 3.4% in December, which is excellent, but there are obvious signs of bad times ahead for the nation in general and Oklahoma in specific.
Under HB 2096, if you lost your job early in a recession, you would be out of luck: Twelve weeks and out.
It should be noted that the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which distributes unemployment checks, is a nonappropriated state agency. It is completely funded with federal and state taxes that don’t go through the legislative appropriations process.
That’s important because it means the proposal has no foreseeable direct fiscal impact on the state budget whatsoever. It saves no money. It doesn’t create a penny that can be used for other priorities.
Let’s call this bill what it is: mean-spirited.
In the long run, squeezing unemployed Oklahomans might save businesses some tax costs, but only because they laid off working people who hadn’t done anything to deserve losing their jobs. Remember, people are only eligible for unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs through no fault of their own and are actively seeking employment.
At the same time, there’s no doubt HB 3096 would take money out of circulation in the state, and reduce state sales and income tax revenue. A state House fiscal analysis says that had the bill been in place during the 2019 calendar year, it would have reduced benefits to jobless Oklahomans by about $120 million.
Unemployment benefits create a direct economic stimulus because unemployed people will spend the income they get on the necessities of life.
At a time when disease and OPEC politics have a knife to the throat of the state’s economy, it is ridiculous to make this change.
The Legislature should give this bill the pink slip.