Jobless North Carolinians lined up this afternoon to ask lawmakers to break their political impasse with Gov. Bev Perdue and restore federal unemployment benefits to more than 37,000 would-be workers.
Senate Democrats hosted the public hearing, but there were just as many House Republicans in the room, including House Speaker Thom Tillis. Senate Leader Phil Berger was not in attendance.
One speaker after another told stories of empty pantries and gas tanks, late mortgage payments, education disrupted.
Greg Smith from Castalia said after a year and a half of searching for a new job, he finally has some interviews next week. But after two weeks with no federal unemployment help, he has no money for gas. “Now I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to get to the interviews I’ve been waiting a year for.”
Wilson resident Ken Williams said he lost his health-care job more than a year ago. There were tears in his eyes as he talked about having to ask his daughter for gas money to get to Raleigh. “I’ve worked hard all my life,” Williams said. “I never thought I’d have to ask my children for the first penny of help.”
Williams says he’s two months away from retirement. But if the legislature doesn't act soon to correct the formula that would restore federal benefits, he’ll lose his apartment. He said he's a lifelong Republican, but “I’m very upset that the Republicans have chosen to lead this way.”
“You folks are holding my future in your hands,” Williams told lawmakers. “And you’re holding hostage federal money.”
Williams’ emotional story touched Rep. Bill Brawley (R-Mecklenburg), who quietly followed him to the back of the committee room and offered him a twenty-dollar bill. “For gas, if you’ll accept it,” Brawley said. Williams, choked up, nodded his thanks as Brawley patted him on the back.
Later, Brawley said he didn’t mean to be part of the story. “Guys like him are caught up in this war,” he said. “And if any of the people in this room were half as willing to act in a bipartisan way as they are to talk about it, we could solve this.”
But, Brawley added, “Bipartisan doesn’t mean Republicans doing what the Democrats say.”
That was the same position taken by House Speaker Thom Tillis, who blamed “bad leadership” by the governor for the delay in benefits. He insisted that linking the benefit extension to a 13% budget cut was simply an attempt to guarantee stability for state employees in case the budget isn’t finalized by June 30th.
Still, he said, Republicans are open to suggestions for a way around the impasse. “We’d like the governor to tell us what we need to do,” Tillis said. “We do want to find a way, but it requires the governor to take a step in our direction as well. Politics is about compromise.”
As for Williams’ accusation that his party is holding federal money hostage, Tillis replied, “We all need to realize that those federal dollars flow from the pockets of taxpaying families.”
Later in the day, Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson issued the following response via email:
“The Governor is eager to work with the legislature on the budget – and will. But right now we have to deal with restoring a financial lifeline to 37,000 North Carolinians. The Governor’s veto message asked the legislature to send her a bill to restore the unemployment benefits without attaching any political games. The ball is in the legislature’s court.”