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Governor: Plans underway to boost jobless benefits by $400 a week

Posted August 12, 2020 2:59 p.m. EDT
Updated August 12, 2020 3:10 p.m. EDT

NC Division of Employment Security website

Gov. Roy Cooper told lawmakers Wednesday that the state is working on the $400 boost to unemployment benefits President Donald Trump rolled out over the weekend.

Those benefits require a state match: If North Carolina puts up $100 a week, the federal government will pay $300.

"My administration has already begun preparing the application for the payments," Cooper said in a letter Wednesday to House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

The governor also noted, though, that the state needs more guidance from the federal government on the program's details.

The two Republican leaders had written the governor Tuesday, urging him to take this step. In his response, Cooper chastised the General Assembly leaders for failing to improve the state's unemployment benefits long term and asked them to take the matter up when the legislature returns to session Sept. 2.

"While I appreciate your new-found interest in helping people who are unemployed through no fault of their own, you as legislators should do more," Cooper wrote. "North Carolina has among the worst state unemployment benefits in the country, but you have failed to remedy that in the middle of this pandemic."

Cooper said lawmakers "should extend unemployment benefits to at least 24 weeks (it’s now the lowest in the country at 12 weeks) and increase the maximum weekly state benefit to at least $500 (it’s now $350)."

His figures reflect the state benefits that are paid out in ordinary times just as they are during the pandemic. The federal government has supplemented them temporarily, extending the number of weeks benefits are paid and, up until recently, adding $600 a week.

That money ran out near the end of July, and Congress deadlocked on a broader pandemic relief bill that would have extended the supplements. That's when the president announced a workaround, tapping federal disaster money to boost benefits, if states will pay a share.

Cooper said Wednesday that the state's share should come from its Unemployment Trust Fund, normally tapped to pay state unemployment benefits, and not federal Coronavirus Relief Funds, which Congress doled out to states earlier this year.

"With no federal help in sight, CRF money should be reserved for additional critical pandemic needs like helping small businesses, schools and health care," Cooper said in his letter.

The governor also called on Trump and the Congress "to agree on more reliable help for the unemployed and to replenish the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund being used for this temporary aid."

Berger's office accused the governor of running "the same cynical ploy that cost teachers their pay raise last year."

Cooper and legislative Democrats rejected a Republican raise proposal in those budget negotiations, saying teachers deserved more. Now, Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said, the governor is pressing on the state's unemployment program instead of simply taking the offer at hand.

"The governor pretends to just want more, guarantees nobody gets anything, then blames Republicans," he said.

The governor's letter didn't say, though, that he'd accept the federal boost only if lawmakers tinker with the state's program, and some increase in state benefits may already be on the table.

The Senate approved one earlier this year. It was the House that balked at it.

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