@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Smoke, but no fire on benefits standoff

Posted May 18, 2011 7:22 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2011 7:23 p.m. EDT

House and Senate Democrats called on Republican legislative leaders today to take action to allow tens of thousands of jobless North Carolina workers to receive extended federal benefits.

The Employment Security Commission now estimates more than 42,000 workers are without the federal checks, designed to help those who’ve been jobless for more than a year and a half. The checks stopped when lawmakers and the governor were unable to reach agreement on a necessary change to a formula in NC law that determines eligibility.

Republicans insist they’ve already approved the formula change. But the bill they sent Gov. Bev Perdue coupled the change with an unrelated provision that would have forced her to either sign their budget bill or accept a 13% spending cut next year. Perdue vetoed the measure, calling it “extortion,” and asking lawmakers to send her a “clean bill” without the political gamesmanship.

So far, Republicans have declined.

Democrats said today “clean bills” are ready and waiting in both the House and Senate should GOP leaders reconsider. “This is what we call a one-day bill,” said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney. “Let’s fix this right now.”

Senate Democrats have tried a parliamentary petition to force their fix bill, S584, out of committee, but have been unable to get a single Republican signature - even from Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, the bill’s co-sponsor.

“It makes absolutely no sense to me,” said Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt.

Democrats brought in Greg Smith, a Castalia man whose jobless benefits have been cut off by the stalemate. He says he and his kids will lose their house at the end of the month. He’s angry lawmakers can’t put politics aside for one day to help.

“Y’all serve us!” Smith said. “You’re here for us. Whether you’re Republicans, Democrats, whatever! You’re put up here to serve us.”

“But to sit here and cut our throats?” Smith continued. “45 thousand people. How many of those 45,000 people have children? I’ve got two. Explain to my child, my 14-year-old, what’s going to happen next month...Where are we gonna live?”

Watch the full Democratic press conference at right.

Afterward, Senate Leader Phil Berger said there’s “no specific plan” to take action to restore the benefits. 

He says House and Senate Republicans have already voted to extend them, and says he doesn’t understand why Perdue wouldn’t accept the budget cut attached to the measure.

“The simplest way to deal with it would be for four Democrats in the House to agree to override the veto,” Berger said.

When asked for comment on Smith’s statement that the lawmakers work for the voters, Berger would only say that the governor does, too.

Watch Berger’s full press conference at right.

Late this afternoon, Nesbitt tried to add the benefits extension as an amendment to the state health plan fix. But Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who presides over the Senate, reluctrantly ruled Nesbitt’s amendment out of order because it didn’t relate to the substance of the bill.

Dalton said he hoped a stand-alone bill could still come forward to fix the unemployment formula, but "Rules are rules."

After session, Senate Rules Chair Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said there might be some chance for a fix. “I really don’t know,” he said. “It’s something we still talk about. But this wasn’t the vehicle to do it today.”