Unemployment, picketing bills draw early hearing and ire

A quickly called legislative committee meeting Monday caught opponents outside the state Capitol and unable to vote on bills that could cut unemployment benefits by nearly half and criminalize picketing outside of homes.

The move by the House Industrial Relations Committee angered Democrats, as well as tea party members and good government watchdogs who have formed a coalition to lobby for greater transparency in government and tougher ethics laws. Three of the four Democrats on the committee were unable to make it to the meeting. A majority of Republican members did attend.

Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, missed the meeting. He said he got notice of the 9 a.m. start at 8:40 a.m.

"It was done, I don't want to say in an ‘obscure' way, but -- it's a good word," Marin said.

Chairman Bill Hembree, R-Winston, said he called the meeting with an hour's notice but the timing was not meant to scatter opposition. Testimony on the bills was heard a week ago, he said.

"I gave both sides a full week to lobby for and against it," Hembree said. "I could have called for a vote last week."

The votes on the Republican-dominated committee to send the bills to the House for a possible vote were a foregone conclusion, he said.

"I don't think any minds were changed [in the week]," he said.

Rep. Margaret Kaiser, the only Democrat to make the meeting, said, "Today was our day to try to make amendments."

"I would normally be taking my children to school now," the legislator from Atlanta said,, but she got an email at 8:05 a.m. announcing the meeting.

Without support from absent Democratic members, Kaiser was powerless to get a second for any changes or discussion.

Nine Republicans members recommended passage of the bills. Two absent Republicans members were conducting meetings elsewhere, one member missed it and one showed up late.

The action incensed members of the coalition seeking tougher ethics laws.

"I think it's outrageous," said Jim Kulstad of Common Cause Georgia, a good government group. "It appears to me the fix was in."

Julianne Thompson, the state organizer of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said: "I think it is unacceptable that they waited until today to do that, knowing that there is citizen opposition to [the picketing bill] from the right and the left. We are going to continue strongly opposing the bill."

Senate Bill 469, sponsored by Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, but written by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, proposes jail time and fines of up to $1,000 a day per person and $10,000 for unions or organizations who picket outside homes of people involved in labor disputes. The bill would allow the person or entity targeted by the picketing to ask the court for the fines.

Balfour said the bill would protect the sanctity of a businessman’s home.

“If they want to picket, they can picket my business. That’s fine," he said. "But not my home.”

Opponents say the bill tramples on free speech rights.

Senate Bill 447 could cut state unemployment payments from 26 weeks to as little as 12 weeks, impose a week of waiting before getting unemployment benefits and raise the amount businesses pay for unemployment insurance.

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, sponsored it as a way to pay back $757.3 million that Georgia borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment checks after the recession and unemployment tax cuts drained the fund to zero. Millar's system would also build the unemployment fund back up to $1 billion.

Supporters including manufacturers say the bill strikes the right degree of asking the unemployed and businesses to contribute to fixing a problem that will compound if Georgia does not pay it back. But opponents say it asks too much of those who can least afford to pay -- the jobless.

Elizabeth Appley, an attorney who represents nonprofits that work with families and union interests, said the state created the problem by giving unemployment insurance cuts to businesses. Now, she said, the state wants to make up for that by taking money from the unemployed.

"It is a small lifeline to help people until they get to their next job," Appley said.

She added, "The impact on the working families and children of this state would be grave."

Employers pay unemployment insurance on the first $8,500 they pay each employee. The bill would raise the level 12 percent to $9,500. That compares with the U.S. average of $12,450. It varies by state. North Carolina, for example, collects insurance payments on $19,700 of a salary while Alabama collects on $8,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, thought the bill was fair and argued during hearings this is no time to be putting more costs on businesses. That could suppress the creation of new jobs, which could help solve the crisis, he said.

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