David Cox | Fighting fires and unemployment

Imagine this: Fire breaks out in your next-door neighbor’s house. It endangers yours. Fortunately our faithful fire departments respond quickly. Unfortunately—this would never happen here, but remember, we’re imagining—one of the squads needs to use your hose. The squad has the water; all they need, urgently, is your hose.

Do you lend it for the emergency?

Evidently not, if you are the Virginia House of Delegates.

The recession has created an emergency in unemployment benefits…and for the unemployed. Locally, around 9% of our workforce lacks work, two if not three times the normal. Fortunately, the Federal government offered Virginia $125 million to help. Unfortunately, the Delegates on partisan lines said, in the words of Sarah Palin, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

What would $125 million do for Virginia?

First, it would extend benefits for the unemployed to cushion the recession, which oh how we hope is beginning to show first signs of abating. Particularly, Gov. Kaine wanted to get some benefits to people who are part-timers or who are preparing themselves for better jobs. Seems humane to me…and an investment in our future to help workers be better trained.

Second, it would pump $125 million into the economy. Those folks aren’t going to sock their benefits away, not when they need the money to pay their bills. Seems to me like an investment in our present.

So what’s the problem? Majority delegates, along with many business folk, worry that employers will have to pick up the tab for these benefits after the Federal money expires in 2011. That’s like the fire truck pulling away leaving you to pump your own water through your hose on the smoldering embers. It’s a reasonable concern, for the result would be one of those unfunded mandates that I so often criticize.

But let’s probe that concern in light of our story:

First, if the fire still rages, the squad will probably stay on the scene—i.e. the government may of necessity continue the benefits.

Second, even if they leave but the fire still threatens your house, it’s in your interest to sacrifice some of your water not only for the sake of your neighbor’s house, but also for your own.

But, third, if the fire is contained, then neither your hose nor your water will be needed any more. The firemen leave and your neighbors move back in to clean up and resume their lives.

That is to say, if these are understood as extraordinary benefits, extended only for a specified period after which they are ended, then there won’t be any mandate foisted upon our businesses and, hence, no additional cost.

In his column in the Rockbridge Weekly two weeks ago, Del. Cline suggested as much. I wonder why he and others didn’t work something out as part of the process: If they tried, I saw no reports of any attempts and welcome being corrected. More importantly, if the Governor calls a special session to try again, they’ll all have another chance.

Extending a benefit, and then ending it, takes political courage. For that reason, clarify terms at the outset. They can be changed if necessary, but get the ground rules established so everyone will understand what happens in an emergency.

But just saying no, in the face of genuine need, without working through the difficulties, is not an act of political courage. It’s just the opposite. And it threatens the whole community.

 

– Column by David Cox


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