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          Front Page


Thursday, March 20, 2003

Benefit Boost for Unemployed Becomes Law

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE Unemployment benefits will increase and taxes on businesses will decline under legislation signed into law on Wednesday by Gov. Bill Richardson.
    "This is a great bill," Richardson said at a news conference.
    The new law would:
   
  • Increase the weekly unemployment benefit to recipients by 5 percent, add a $15-a-week benefit for each child up to four and expand who is eligible for unemployment. The average benefit is about $200 a week in New Mexico.
       
  • Expand who qualifies for benefits. Workers who voluntarily leave a job because of domestic violence will become eligible for benefits along with full-time students, those in job training programs and people seeking only part-time work. Currently, a person must look for full-time work to qualify. Most of the benefit changes will take effect in July. An estimated 4,000 people are expected to gain benefits from the changes.
       
  • Lower the payroll tax rate for new companies in New Mexico, from 2.7 percent to 2 percent, and create a lower payroll tax rate schedule for other employers. The rate reductions take effect Jan. 1, 2004.
        The changes in the unemployment system will cost about $54 million. However, supporters say the cost will easily be covered by the $600 million balance in the state's Unemployment Trust Fund.
        A coalition of labor, business and social services groups backed the proposed changes in unemployment.
        Sen. Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City, a sponsor of the legislation, said the new law will offer much needed assistance for workers who lost their jobs in mines in southwestern New Mexico.
        "I've always felt kind of guilty that we have almost $600 million sitting idly and I have so many unemployed workers in my district," Altamirano said at the bill-signing ceremony in the governor's office.
        Benefit improvements for the unemployed will cost about $28 million and the price tag is $26 million for the rate reductions for businesses.
        Most of the proposed revisions will end after four years, or sooner if the fund's finances drop too low.
        Also signed by Richardson were proposals to:
       
  • Allow restitution to businesses for evacuations or closures caused by a bomb threat. A judge could require a person convicted of making a bomb threat to pay for the "economic harm" to the target of the hoax.
       
  • Allow the use of state school equalization aid to back bonds if a school district misses a payment.