Ted Streuli

On St. Patrick’s Day, West Texas Intermediate crude was trading around $28 per barrel, down from $53 on Feb. 20. Everything, it seems, shut down. Edmond’s Chik-Fil-A restaurants will only serve you through the window, the ice rink and library are closed during spring break, and our public schools are shuttered until at least April 6. Even the Capitol is closed.

So what did Edmond’s legislators do in the face of the greatest economic downturn since 2008 and the stock market’s worst day in 33 years? They cut unemployment benefits.

Remember Nero?

Edmond’s Adam Pugh, who represents Senate District 41, was the upper chamber’s author on House Bill 3096, which passed in the House on March 11 on a 63-34 vote. Four of Edmond’s representatives had their fiddles out too; Mike Osburn (District 81), who was the original House author on the bill, Nicole Miller (District 82), Ryan Martinez (District 39), and Lewis Moore (District 96) each voted in favor. Chelsey Branham, whose oddly drawn District 83 includes about 3.5 square miles in southwest Edmond, was the sole local representative to vote no.

It’s a safe bet that Pugh, who represents most of Edmond in the senate, will vote for his own bill. Gentler hearts could prevail in the other bits of the city, which are represented by Senators Stephanie Bice (District 22) and Greg Treat (District 47). We’ll see.

Oklahoma’s pre-COVID-19 unemployment rate has been cruising along at about 3.4%, which is good news for just about everybody. To think that level will stay in place as we wave goodbye to the bull and say hello to the bear would be like believing the Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins will face each other in the 2020 World Series — if there is one.

Under the Employment Security Act of 1980, unemployment benefits are available for 26 weeks. As it stands after an amendment, there would be just 12 weeks of benefits when the state’s unemployment rate is 5.5% or lower and 26 weeks of benefits when unemployment hits 6.7%, but the bill originally called for a 20-week cap when unemployment reached 9%.

No matter the cap, it saves taxpayers nothing. Not a penny, because the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission doesn’t receive any money from the legislature. The payments are benefits from mandatory insurance premiums collected from employers. Eventually, the insurance rate might go down slightly, and save employers a little money. But there is no effect on the state budget.

A quick refresher: No one gets an unemployment check because they quit voluntarily. The benefit is only available to those who lost a job through no fault of their own, for example, energy sector employees laid-off because oil dropped to $28 per barrel. The benefit limit is $520 per week — that makes the top end equivalent to a $27,000 per year job, not enough to entice anyone to stay home.

Under this plan, those laid off first would get hurt the most as the unemployment rate would not reflect the economic turn. If your friend gets cut this month he gets 12 weeks of benefits while his coworker who gets laid off next month might get 26 weeks.

That’s absurd in an economy moving south as fast as this one. Bludgeoning laid-off workers with no benefit to the state reduces consumer spending and makes matters even worse.

That’s not merely fiddling around during the blaze, that’s conducting an orchestra.


© Ted Streuli 2020

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