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JEFFERSON CITY — Questions of political opportunism circulated the Senate as an overwhelmingly popular effort to halt the repayment of overpaid unemployment benefits was derailed by a last-minute substitute.

The bill, HB 1083, would require the Department of Labor to stop charging Missourians who were overpaid unemployment benefits during the pandemic. The bill had already passed the House and was well on its way to passing with bipartisan support in the Senate on Monday evening.

Then Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, amended the bill to include a provision that would permanently shorten the length of time Missouri residents are eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Under the provision, Missouri would offer a shorter eligibility window — between 12 and 20 weeks depending on the health of the economy — than any other state in the nation.

“We took what I would consider an easy bill and injected a really contentious topic into it,” said Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence, who proposed another amendment to take out the provision.

Senators on both sides of the issue emphasized the importance of the original legislation in helping their constituents.

Opponents argued that this bill was not the right forum to have the debate — that threatening the prospects of unambiguously important legislation with a contentious addition willfully undermined the efforts.

“We’re having two separate conversations — whether unemployment benefits should be 20 weeks, 40 weeks, eight weeks, that’s a conversation for a different day,” said Sen. Steven Roberts, D-St. Louis. “Right now, our constituents are struggling. We need to put this amendment off, and we need to focus on the original intention.”

But other senators argued that the substitute was an extension of the bill’s intent and was vitally important.

“Our economy cannot sustain what we’re doing today,” said Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove.

Moon and other proponents argued that unemployment benefits are creating a disincentive for people to return to work and that the payments are stimulating inflation. While there has been discussion about how the CARES Act benefit increases and stimulus money will prompt inflation, unemployment benefits funded by the state are not traditionally understood by economists to have a direct correlation with inflation.

Some senators said that proponents were trying to levy the high investment in the legislation to move a more difficult issue forward.

“To conflate these two issues,” said Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, “it’s enough to make someone cynical.”

Opponents made it clear they were not willing to give in on the unemployment eligibility issue and would allow the passage of the bill to hinge on its removal.

“If we take this out ...” said Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City.

“... Great bill. Best bill we’ll pass all year. It’ll fly through,” said Arthur, completing the thought.

No compromise was reached on the substitute and responding amendment, and the bill was tabled.

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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