ATLANTA (AP) -- While Georgia lawmakers grapple with how to deal with unemployment and the state's massive trust fund debt, state leaders may find the solution in a $1 billion federal pilot program patterned after a homegrown jobs initiative.
With dozens of states facing similar challenges, competition for the funds could be stiff, but Georgia's past experience with such a program could help the state make its case. The federal program mirrors Georgia Works, an on-the-job training program pairing the long-term unemployed with potential employers that has been endorsed by President Barack Obama and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
The program has been replicated in states including New Hampshire, Missouri, North Carolina and New Jersey.
Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said the agency is working on its application for the federal program, which was approved last month by Congress.
"It's going to be pretty tough competition, but we should have a leg up, seeing as how we have run a program," said Butler, who added that the proposal is "loosely based" on Georgia Works.
Butler severely cut the state's program shortly after taking office in January 2011, citing budget constraints. Georgia Works was the brainchild of former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.
"I think the most gratifying thing is that states all across this nation have adopted verbatim models of what we established and implemented in Georgia, and now it's going to be a national model," Thurmond said.
Under Thurmond, people who registered with the state for unemployment benefits could volunteer for on-the-job training for up to eight weeks through Georgia Works. They also received a weekly stipend to cover costs such as child care or transportation.
The federal pilot program would split the money among 10 states. States must apply for the money through the U.S. Department of Labor, which is currently finalizing guidelines for the process. Such programs would have to be at least a year long, implemented within three years and completed by the end of 2015.
The goal is to get more people back to work and off of unemployment with a fresh approach that gives people more than just a handout. The program could also ease the burden on states' unemployment trust funds, which have been depleted in the economic downturn, forcing states to borrow heavily from the federal government in recent years to cover payments.
"The quicker you get somebody off unemployment, that's less money going out of the trust fund," Butler said. "It could be part of the solution, no doubt. It can help save us money."
Georgia is still borrowing tens of millions of dollars to cover its unemployment benefits, and it will be years before the fund debt is repaid and its coffers are replenished.
The Georgia Senate has proposed a plan reducing the number of weeks people could collect unemployment -- a politically unpopular choice that supporters said was a tough but necessary decision to start paying back the state's $730 million federal loan to the unemployment trust fund. The legislation has been criticized as potentially unconstitutional and harmful to the unemployed.
The U.S. Labor Department must notify states of their approval or denial within 30 days of receiving their application for the pilot program. Butler said flexibility in how to use the funds-- particularly for job training -- factored into his decision to make a bid for the federal funds.
"I'm a big proponent of providing as many training opportunities as possible to as many Georgians as possible," Butler said. "If we can provide a way to get them a training opportunity that can enhance the skills they have and make them more marketable to employers."
Butler said the pilot program could help him meet that goal.
"Right now, we definitely could not fund it on our own," he said, adding that the cost of running the program could've risen to as much as $12 million last year. "We had to scale it back. ... It's barely operating now. We kind of put the program on semi-hold because we wanted to wait to see what came out of this federal legislation."