Jul 26, 5:42 PM EDT

Court strikes down Missouri law cutting jobless benefits



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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The Missouri Supreme Court struck down a law Tuesday that had cut the duration of the state's unemployment benefits to one of the shortest periods nationally, meaning thousands of residents could get a longer financial lifeline as they look for work.

Since January, jobless workers have been limited to 13 weeks of benefits as a result of a measure that links the duration to Missouri's statewide unemployment rate, providing less aid when fewer people are searching for work.

In a 4-3 ruling Tuesday, the state's high court said the law never should have taken effect because of the way in which it was passed by the Republican-led Legislature. The result is that Missouri's jobless benefits will return to a maximum of 20 weeks, which is still shorter than the longtime national norm of half a year.

When Missouri's benefit cut took effect, it tied the state with North Carolina for the second shortest period, behind only the 12 weeks of benefits offered in Florida.

"When compared to other states, (Missouri) does not have a particularly generous unemployment benefit," said St. Louis attorney Michael Evans, who challenged the law on behalf of unemployed workers. "So further limiting it was harmful to Missouri families."

As of July 17, about 14,600 people had lost jobless benefits because of the 13-week cutoff, said Lauren Schad, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. She said the department will send information to those people about how to claim any additional benefits for which they may be eligible.

The benefit cuts were included in a 2015 bill that supporters touted as a means of shoring up Missouri's unemployment benefits trust fund. Missouri was among 35 states whose funds went insolvent following the recession that began in 2008, often resulting in temporarily higher taxes on businesses to replenish them.

Since the Great Recession, at least eight states have reduced the number of weeks that people can draw benefits, while others have cut the amount of money the unemployed can collect.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the Missouri legislation on May 5, 2015. The state House voted to override his veto a week later. But the state Senate did not act before ending its regular session work on May 15, instead waiting until September when lawmakers convened for a brief session to consider vetoes on a variety of bills.

The state Supreme Court's majority opinion, written by Judge George Draper III, said the state Senate override vote was invalid. It said the September session is reserved only for bills vetoed during the final week of the regular session or later, and the veto of the unemployment bill occurred earlier.

Dissenting judges, led by Judge Mary Russell, said the majority was reading too much into the wording of the constitution and thus improperly limiting the Legislature's powers.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard called the ruling an "unfortunate" precedent for how vetoed bills must be handled. But it may not spell the end of Republican attempts to further curb unemployment benefits and build up the trust fund.

"My ask of the Republican Senate would be, 'Let's get ready and try it again,'" Richard said.

Nixon said in a statement that the court ruling "is good news for thousands of Missourians who were wrongfully denied the unemployment benefits they had earned."

When the Legislature meets for its 2017 session, Missouri will have a new governor, because Nixon is barred by term limits from seeking re-election this year.

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