Reporting from Sacramento—Tens of thousands of out-of-work Californians, slated to exhaust their unemployment benefits next month, could soon get an extra 20 weeks of help thanks to a compromise bill approved by the Assembly on Monday. It passed 76 to 0.
The bill now goes to the Senate for action Thursday. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it would make available extended benefits of $65 to $475 a week for an estimated 74,000 jobless whose assistance would otherwise run out in the middle of April.
Schwarzenegger, in a statement released by his office, said he would sign the bill when it got to his desk.
"There is no higher priority in California right now than helping our unemployed and creating jobs so Californians can get back to work," the governor said.
He praised lawmakers for their bipartisan cooperation after the same measure had been voted down last week by Republicans during a bout of political infighting.
But after tempers cooled down, it was amended to authorize the state to receive up to $3 billion in federal stimulus money in order to extend weekly benefits to a maximum of 79 weeks from the current 59-week limit.
"These dollars will help keep families in their homes and help keep food on the table," said Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-Solana Beach).
The extra federal dollars can't come soon enough, said advocates of the bill. Unemployment in the state reached 10.5% in February, a 26-year high, with almost 2 million people without jobs.
The legislation, AB 23-3X, is essential for getting money into people's pockets, where it can be quickly spent for groceries, rent and other necessities that will help local businesses, said its author, Assemblyman Joe Coto (D-San Jose).
The help is especially needed in hard-hit towns in the Central Valley, where more than 1 in 4 mainly agricultural workers are idle, said the bill's co-author, Assemblyman Juan Arambula (D-Fresno).
"We need these people to stay in place, so when the economy begins to pick up, there will be an available workforce for agriculture and other industries," he said.
Currently, 21 of California's 58 counties, mainly in mountainous or rural areas, suffer from unemployment rates that exceed 15%. Colusa County, north of Sacramento, has the state's highest unemployment at 26.6%.