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Missouri House moves to forgive federal coronavirus unemployment overpayments

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The House moved to forgive federal unemployment overpayments issued to Missourians during the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, sending a legislative package to the upper chamber expected to impact nearly 50,000 people.

HB 1083, sponsored by Rep. J. Eggleston, would allow the Department of Labor (DOL) to forgive non-fraudulent overpayments of unemployment benefits granted through the CARES Act or other federal programs designed to provide unemployment relief. 

While the bill passed with only three members in opposition, its emergency clause fell — and that was by design. Eggleston encouraged the body to vote it down, moving for what is known as a tongue-in-cheek adoption of the clause. He said the provision was added in committee in an effort to speed the bill along.

But after assurances from DOL, Eggleston said the emergency clause should be stripped from the legislation. The department said it would be too overwhelmed for the bill to go into effect immediately and assured lawmakers it would not hassle taxpayers — including with letters threatening to garnish wages — in the meantime. 

“We’re going to keep an eye on them and hold them to their word,” Eggleston said. 

The package — a collection of language from three Democrats and three Republicans — was the result of a lengthy hearing in the House Special Committee on Government Oversight last month. Committee chairman Jered Taylor said the Governor’s Office supported the version on the floor Thursday. 

“Let’s get Missourians the help that they deserve,” Taylor said. 

Two of the no votes came from House Budget Committee leadership: chairman Cody Smith and vice chairman Dirk Deaton. Rep. Andrew McDaniel was the other dissenting vote. 

The bipartisan effort was also applauded by members on either side of the aisle, including Reps. Raychel Proudie and Peter Merideth. Merideth, however, voiced his frustration with Gov. Mike Parson, arguing he could unilaterally forgive the overpayments without the legislature’s approval. 

“I’m supportive of what they did,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden told reporters Thursday. “We’ll see what the rest of the body feels like. It sounds like it was an overwhelming vote over there.”

President Pro Tem Dave Schatz noted the bill would follow the process in line with other House bills and said it was difficult to fast-track legislation to the governor’s desk. 

“We’re open to seeing what the legislators do,” Parson told reporters Thursday afternoon. “We don’t want to punish law-abiding citizens, and I think the legislators understand my concerns of saying we’ll give a blanket policy for that.”

DOL Director Anna Hui testified last month that 3 percent of the more than $5 billion in unemployment benefits paid out in 2020 from the state and federal government were overpayments, amounting to around $150 million. 

Hui also said unemployment overpayments are not new, but the amount given out in 2020 was significant because of the increased number of Missourians who made claims in the midst of the pandemic. 

Of the overpayments, approximately $40 million came from the state and $108 million from federal funds, a Labor Department spokeswoman told The Missouri Times. 

In the upper chamber, Sens. Lincoln Hough and Doug Beck filed legislation prohibiting the Department of Labor from recouping erroneous payments sent during a state of emergency because of COVID-19. The bills are SB 481 and SB 482.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn contributed to this report. This story has been updated.