Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory would not commit to putting North Carolina back into the federal program that provides long-term unemployment benefits during an interview on the N.C. Spin television program this week.
North Carolinians lost access to long-term unemployment benefits last summer after the state changed how much it would pay workers when they first became unemployed. Federally-funded benefits take over after state benefits expire.
The change in state law violated federal rules and, as of July 1, ended benefits for workers who had exhausted their state unemployment benefits. A bill now moving through Congress would reauthorize the national long-term unemployment program and restore North Carolina's eligibility to participate in the federally funded long-term program.
N.C. Spin host Tom Campbell asked McCrory, a Republican who has just finished his first year in office, if North Carolina would opt in if given the opportunity.
"The answer would be 'no' if the administration or Congress would require us to raise our unemployment compensation above South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee," McCrory said.
The current federal bill "grandfathers" North Carolina in, meaning North Carolina would not have to change its current benefits system. Contacted after the N.C. Spin taping, a spokesman for McCrory declined to say what the state might do if the final federal bill would require no changes to the state system.
"We will be happy to provide additional comment if and when that legislation is passed," spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said.
McCrory this week celebrated the drop in North Carolina's unemployment rate over the past year, which he said was evidence state unemployment reforms were working. Economists say that much of the drop in the rate has to do with people dropping out of the workforce rather than new jobs being created.
Asked about this by Campbell, McCrory stood by the state's reforms.
"We had the ninth-most-generous unemployment compensation in the country," McCrory said. "We were having a lot of people move here, frankly, from other areas to get unemployment ... People were moving here because of our very generous benefits, and then, of course, we had more debt. I personally think that more people got off unemployment and either got jobs or moved back to where they came from."
Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch think tank and a regular panelist on N.C. Spin, said it would be "tragic" if North Carolina didn't opt into a reauthorized federal program and scoffed at the idea that people would move to North Carolina just to collect unemployment.
"That is ludicrous, and I'd love to see some evidence that was actually the case," Fitzsimon said. "The labor force is smaller. That doesn't mean they've left the state. That means they've given up. It's astonishing that the governor would make that claim without any evidence to support it."
This week's episode of N.C. Spin will air at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. Other highlights from the program include:
- McCrory continued to publicly back state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos, who leads an agency that has frequently been in the news for problems administering key programs. "The last thing we need to do right now is again have another turnover in management," McCrory said, saying of Wos, "I'm lucky to have her."
- McCrory said he hoped this year's budget would provide raises for both teachers and state workers. "We've got to have teacher raises," he said, declining to answer what specific proposal he might put forward. "We hope to come up with something pretty soon."
- Among his key priorities for 2014, McCrory said he would continue to push for changes to the state Medicaid system as a way to control costs and will continue to push the state toward allowing natural gas drilling both on-shore and off.
- Asked about other priorities for the coming year, McCrory said, "My wife would kill me if I didn't say a puppy mill bill ... to at least require puppy mills to give basic food and water and shelter."