Hagan pushes for restored jobless benefits as Republicans blame her for loss
Posted January 6
Raleigh, N.C. — U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican state lawmakers traded barbs Monday as Congress prepared to take a series of votes that could restore long-term unemployment benefits to the state's unemployed workers.
The Congressional votes could lead to the restoration of benefits for thousands of unemployed North Carolina workers who lost weekly unemployment checks when a recently passed state law conflicted with federal unemployment rules. Monday's exchange also reads like a preview of the coming U.S. Senate campaign in which Hagan, a Democrat, is seeking re-election and a leading lawmaker is her best known Republican rival.
"This current General Assembly, controlled by the Republicans, knew that they would, in effect, cut off access to 170,000 North Carolinians, to the tune of $780 million," Hagan said.
Republicans blasted back, saying that it was Hagan who was responsible for the cutoff by not seeking a change in federal law.
“It's about time Kay Hagan finally admitted she could have helped North Carolina’s long-term unemployed, but the fact is she’s a year late and $600 million worth of benefits short," House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a joint statement.
Congress poised to act
Each state sets the rules for its own unemployment program, which it administers with oversight from the federal government. Taxes raised directly from businesses, based on the number of employees they have, fuel the trust fund that pays for those benefits.
After state benefits are exhausted, the federal government pays extended benefits for the long-term unemployed.
During the most recent recession, North Carolina's unemployment trust fund was depleted, and the state borrowed more than $2.5 billion from the federal government to pay unemployment claims. Due to that debt, taxes on employers will rise automatically every year until the money is repaid.
Lawmakers voted last spring to attack that debt by cutting back the state's benefits, reducing both the maximum weekly benefit and cutting the number of weeks someone could receive benefits form 26 to 20.
However, that change to state benefits ran up against a provision in federal law meant to make sure that states don't shift the burden of paying for unemployment to the federal government. That law says that states that change their unemployment rules, without permission from Congress, lose long-term federally funded unemployment benefits.
Following the changes to state unemployment law taking effect on July 1, long-term unemployment benefits to North Carolina workers were cut off. Some 170,000 North Carolinians were affected by the change between July 1 and Dec. 31.
Separately, the federal law that authorizes long-term unemployment benefits expired at the end of 2013. That change affected roughly 1.3 million Americans. The U.S. Senate is expected to take the first of a series of votes Monday night that could lead to the national program being extended.
Part of that pending legislation restores North Carolina's participation in the long-term unemployment program.
Hagan takes credit for that provision, pointing to a letter she wrote to Senate leaders last month. But Republicans say she should not have had to write that letter at all.
In their news release, Berger and Tillis blame Hagan for the loss of long-term benefits. They point to a letter they wrote in December 2012, notifying her that they planned to pursue changes to the state unemployment program. Four other states – Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island – had changes to their unemployment insurance programs "grandfathered" by Congress in February 2012 so that they would not lose benefits.
North Carolina should have gotten the same consideration in 2013, the Republicans said, saying Hagan "dropped the ball."
But Hagan said that, at the time of that letter, no bill was officially filed. The General Assembly didn't go into session until last January.
"When they requested that, it was a hypothetical bill. You cannot pass legislation in Congress based on a hypothetical bill that might or might not pass," she said.
The debate is especially heated because Tillis is the best known member of a Republican primary field vying for the chance to replace Hagan. The debate over unemployment benefits seems to be one likely to crop up during the campaign.
Asked if she thought the looming campaign was fueling the vitriol over this matter, Hagan replied, "somebody is usually running every other year, no matter what."
Hagan herself was pointed in her remarks, repeatedly emphasizing it was Republican lawmakers who shoved through the unemployment change.