Showdown on jobless benefits shifts to Perdue

Posted April 14, 2011 4:02 p.m. EDT
Updated April 14, 2011 4:58 p.m. EDT

— Leaders of North Carolina's divided government played chicken Thursday with unemployment benefits for about 37,000 long-term jobless workers as Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue fought over the cost of keeping the money flowing.

The state Senate voted 30-17 along party lines to approve extending the jobless benefits for up to 20 more weeks, and the House voted 66-49 to concur with the move. The federally funded benefits will stop Saturday unless the warring state leaders agree to change a formula and keep the payments coming.

But Republican leaders have tied the extended benefits to a plan that forces Perdue to accept a 13 percent spending cut from her proposal for the entire budget year starting in July if the two sides can't agree on a budget before then.

Perdue on Wednesday called the move "extortion," but it was unclear Thursday whether she would veto the bill. Her choice is between continuing jobless benefits for thousands or preserving her bargaining power as choices over where to cut heat up over the next 2½ months.

The Senate and the House scheduled rare Saturday sessions in case she does veto the bill.

House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Wednesday they wanted to stave off the threat of a government shutdown after a budget impasse. The GOP leaders said they connected the two issues because they believe a smaller budget and avoiding a shutdown would spur job growth.

Democrats argued that unemployed workers were potential victims of a political debate.

"There are 37,000 workers out there today not knowing if they're going to get another check," Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt told Republican colleagues. "They should not be collateral damage to a fight about separation of powers. They should not be (dragged) into a fight you have with the governor."

Robin St. Louis of Charlotte is one of the long-term jobless workers at risk of seeing her unemployment check cut off unless the politicians negotiate a plan to redo the formula.

"As of this Saturday, I'm cut off," said St. Louis, 46, who said she's been watching television news reports to see what happens. "I think it's totally unfair. It's just unfair. They're making it seem like the people who are unemployed are not trying."

She said she lost her job in December 2009 as a sales rep who lined up advertisers for a publisher of telephone directories. She said she did well managing and re-signing existing accounts, but that changed as the recession dragged on and the plumbers and other small-business owners she worked with struggled to keep their business open.

"I didn't want to be unemployed in the first place. I am a result of the economy. I was in sales. People in sales can't make money if other small businesses are not open and viable," St. Louis said.

North Carolina is one of about three dozen states in which an extended benefits program of up to 20 weeks of compensation was created as a way to lessen the pain for the long-term unemployed caught in the recession's massive job losses.

None of the money comes from North Carolina funds and extending the benefits would not add to the state unemployment trust fund's $2.6 billion debt, the state Employment Security Commission said.

The 2008 federal stimulus package included a provision that paid benefits for a final 20 weeks until a jobless worker reached a maximum of 99 weeks, ESC spokesman Larry Parker said. The extended benefits at risk could kick in for jobless workers before they reach 79 weeks depending on how long they were employed over the previous 15 months, he said.

The U.S. Labor Department notified North Carolina officials nearly two weeks ago that the extended benefits program has to stop paying out by Saturday because the state's recent three-month average unemployment rate had improved from 2010 and 2009. South Carolina and 13 other states have passed legislation to revise their formula and keep the extended benefits flowing, the ESC said.