GOP sees bargaining chip in jobless benefits

Posted April 13, 2011 10:51 a.m. EDT

State Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis announced today they’ll take action that would allow 37,000 jobless North Carolinians to keep receiving jobless benefits – but only if Governor Bev Perdue agrees to give up some of her bargaining power on the budget in return.

Earlier this month, the state was notified that a slight decrease in unemployment numbers had made the state ineligible for extended federal help. Unemployment officials say changing a formula in state law would allow the federal dollars to keep flowing.

Republican leaders say they’re willing to make the change, which won’t cost the state anything. But there’s a price to Perdue: the measure also includes a year-long “continuing resolution” to keep the state running at 87% of Perdue's recommended budget if she and lawmakers can’t agree on a spending plan.

Berger said today the spending provision was necessary to keep the state from a potential shutdown. “We don’t want to see the kind of brinksmanship we’ve seen in Washington,” he said, warning that public safety and schools could be at risk.

When questioned, Berger conceded he was not aware that any such shutdown had ever happened in North Carolina. But he says he’s concerned the governor might use a shutdown as a bargaining strategy. 

Tillis and Berger said the provision is needed because Perdue is “playing politics.” When asked whether their measure wasn’t also “playing politics,” Tillis answered curtly, “We’re playing the hand we’ve been dealt.” 

Watch the press conference at right.

Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson called the manuever "a little sneaky, but I'm not saying it isn't clever."

Pearson said it's too early to say whether Perdue would agree to the deal. "The governor has been looking out for the unemployed, and urging the legislature to do what it needs to do to extend the benefits," Pearson said. "But frankly, we're a little surprised that the General Assembly feels the need to consider a continuing resolution this early in the game.  

Pearson said Perdue has done all she can to keep lines of communication open with GOP leaders. "I hope this is not an indication that they are throwing in the towel this early for any hopes of cooperation or collaboration to find a reasonable and balanced budget that moves this state forward." 

Is Perdue planning to use a shutdown if budget talks hit an impasse? "That's the last thing we want to see," Pearson said. "We're two and half months out. We should have plenty of time to reach a compromise."