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Some good, some bad notes from legislative work

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From the House

By Rep. Jeff Greer

FRANKFORT ee" To better understand just how much the country’s economic crisis has affected Kentucky, it may help to look at some hard-to-imagine statistics in a different way.

If the number of people seeking unemployment insurance for the first time in February came together, for example, they would immediately become Kentucky’s third-largest city, slightly ahead of Owensboro.

The total number of unemployed is of course much higher. Its size easily outranks the combined populations of Owensboro, Bowling Green, Covington and Richmond.

At 192,000, this group would fill up the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium nearly three times and Rupp Arena more than eight times.

The county with the lowest unemployment rate in February ee" Fayette ee" still had 7.4 percent of its workforce looking for a job. The county with the highest ee" Menifee ee" had almost one out of five doing the same. This doesn’t include the potentially thousands of people who have given up their job search, at least for now.

Statewide, February’s 9.2 percent unemployment rate was the highest since 1986. A comparison with the previous February is literally off the charts: It was the biggest year-to-year jump since records were first kept in 1976.

During that 12-month period, only two industries grew: natural resources and mining, which added 3,100 jobs, most of those in coal mining; and education and health services, which added 3,200.

Manufacturing, however, shrank by more than 34,000 jobs during that time. Construction lost nearly 13,000 jobs, and the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues, dropped 2,000. Our public agencies cut back by more than twice that amount.

Unemployment benefits first began during the Great Depression, and are paid from assessments on most businesses. Not surprisingly, the unemployment insurance fund has been hit especially hard because of the economic downturn.

We were in the same situation back in the early 1980s, when the fund went into the red and Kentucky had to borrow money from the federal government. The trend went in the opposite direction during the 1990s, and by 2000 there was a record surplus of $700 million.

That began to change in 2002, when the fund started paying out more than it took in because of the economy and administrative changes designed at the time to keep the surplus in check.

On January 28th of this year, the fund officially went dry, and we began to borrow money again to meet the weekly benefits that in all of 2008 totaled $500 million. By the end of March, we had borrowed almost $180 million. By the end of the year, as many as 30 states are expected to be borrowers as well.

There are some glimmers of good news. March’s preliminary numbers may show a higher unemployment rate, but they also point to gains in such businesses as restaurants and retail stores, perhaps a key sign that the economy is beginning to pick up.

On Thursday, Governor Beshear announced that the state would qualify for a new round of federal stimulus benefits that we had not previously been eligible to receive. This will give beneficiaries additional weeks at no cost to the state.

This good news came a day after the first meeting of a task force the governor created to study the unemployment insurance program. The long-term goal is to find a way to improve the program for employers and employees alike.

It should be noted that Kentucky’s unemployed are getting more help than many of their counterparts in other southern states. While our average weekly payments are 22nd nationally, they do provide $300 more per month than in Tennessee and $400 more than in Mississippi and Alabama.

If you have any questions about qualifying for unemployment insurance, there are several avenues you can take to get more information. One is contacting a local unemployment office directly. You can also go online to www.kewes.ky.gov/ or call 859-547-3362. There are a variety of programs, and it may take time for a response because of high volumes of calls.

As always, if you have any questions about state government in general, please don’t hesitate to let me know. My address is Room 357C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.