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          Front Page


Friday, February 28, 2003

Plan To Boost Unemployment Benefits Has Wide Support

By Deborah Baker
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE A proposal that boosts benefits to the unemployed while reducing the rates for most employers was unanimously endorsed by the Senate on Thursday.
    The projected $54 million cost of the changes about $28 million in benefits for the jobless and about $26 million for employers would come out of the $600 million-plus Unemployment Trust Fund.
    The bill has the backing of labor, business, religious and social services groups.
    It's "a bill that everyone benefits from," said its sponsor, Sen. Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City.
    Similar legislation already has passed the House. But the same bill must pass both houses before it would go to the governor.
    The proposal would increase the weekly benefit to recipients by 5 percent, add a $15-a-week benefit for each child up to four and expand who is eligible for benefits.
    It would extend benefits, for example, to full-time students, those in job training programs and to those who voluntarily leave their jobs because of domestic violence problems.
    "Domestic violence is probably the biggest single barrier to employment in this state today," said Sen. Clinton Harden, R-Clovis, former state labor secretary.
    Getting unemployment benefits would allow domestic violence victims to leave their work places until the problems were resolved, Harden said.
    At the same time, the proposal would lower the payroll tax rate for start-up companies from 2.7 percent to 2 percent and create a new, lower payroll tax rate schedule for other employers.
    Most of the reforms would end after four years or sooner, if the balance in the fund dropped too low.
    Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, said the changes were "very, very positive."
    "I think we've got something here that will increase the benefit to our employees who are out of work, while not injuring in any way the employers of this state," Leavell said.
    According to the bill's supporters, the New Mexico fund has become the nation's most solvent because while 99 percent of employers pay into it, only three of 10 unemployed residents actually get benefits.