Perdue: Jobless benefits extension bill 'extortion'

Posted April 13, 2011 4:00 a.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2011 5:20 p.m. EDT

— The debate over the state budget has complicated efforts to pass a bill to extend unemployment benefits for about 37,000 North Carolinians facing the loss of their financial lifeline on Saturday.

The Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to tentatively approve House Bill 383, and a final vote is expected Thursday.

House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the proposal would keep the jobless benefits in place through the end of this year. Funds for the benefits would come from the federal government.

Democrats have objected to a measure added to the bill. The continuing resolution would fund state government at 87 percent of Gov. Beverly Perdue's proposed budget if a budget isn't approved by June 30.

Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said the 87 percent level is about even with the $18.3 billion spending targets Republican lawmakers set for the budget.

"Ideally, what (Perdue) will do is take seriously our budget proposal, which will come to her the first week of June, and sign it. And then this becomes moot," he said.

Perdue called the proposal "extortion" and accused Republican lawmakers of being derelict in their duties.

"These are real people. You can't do this. It just makes me sick for North Carolina," she said.

Kim Nether, who is unemployed, said she needs her weekly benefit check to pay her bills, and she doesn't like the showdown between the governor and Republican lawmakers.

"I don't think it's fair, but what can I do at this point?" Nether said.

The budget plan unveiled Tuesday by House Republicans decimates public education in North Carolina, Perdue said, and they expect it to be vetoed as proposed.

"They're taking the easy way out. This is not going to happen," she said. "It's tough being a leader, and I guess sometimes they feel overwhelmed."

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said the GOP is responsible for producing a balanced budget.

"When we had Republican governors, we had to work with them. It wasn't the most fun thing we've ever done, but we did it. They need to do the same thing," said Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

The U.S. Department of Labor notified the state Employment Security Commission on April 1 that North Carolina no longer meets requirements for the extended benefits program because the statewide unemployment rate has declined in recent months.

The state unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in February, down from 11.4 percent a year earlier.

Regular unemployment benefits last 26 weeks, and the federal government has added four tiers of extensions during the recession to give people an extra 53 weeks of benefits. The extended benefits program kicks in after a person has exhausted the 79 weeks of benefits, and it lasts for 20 weeks.

Berger, R-Rockingham, said the ESC didn't notify lawmakers of the issue until a letter sent on Friday, and he called that delay "incompetent."

States set the bar for when extended benefits kick in, so any changes to the requirements must be done by state lawmakers. At least eight other states have managed to avoid a cutoff by changing the calculations used to determine when the money can be paid out.

For extended benefits to be paid, North Carolina's three-month average unemployment rate must equal or surpass 110 percent of three-month averages from 2010 or 2009.

The proposed bill would raise that to 120 percent.