GOP lawmakers try another jobless benefits bill

Posted May 25, 2011 2:18 p.m. EDT
Updated May 25, 2011 7:04 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina House Republicans pushed ahead Wednesday on a new bill they say will resolve a stalemate over unemployment benefits, but Democrats argue it's more of the same political gamesmanship that led Gov. Beverly Perdue to veto a similar measure last month.

The House Rules Committee voted along party lines to support a measure to restore extended benefits to 42,000 long-term jobless workers, but the extension remains tied to putting spending cuts in place July 1 should a final state budget remain unresolved.

House Speaker Thom Tillis labeled the measure a compromise designed to end the impasse. The benefits have been set aside since Perdue's April 16 veto, and Republicans have been in a standoff with her since then because they don't have the votes to override it.

"The governor has failed in leading a compromise scenario with the House and Senate, so we're stepping up and trying to do it," Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, told reporters earlier Wednesday.

The rancor spilled over to the committee meeting, with Democrats and Republicans trading charges of political posturing at the expense of jobless workers, many of which have been out of work for more than a year.

"You have connected two totally unconnected things, and it has the effect of denying unemployment benefits to people who need it, who are destitute, who are desperate, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself," House Minority Leader Joe Hackney said.

His amendment to remove the budget provision failed by a vote of 14-9. The bill now heads to the House.

Majority Leader Paul Stam said the governor is the one playing games by failing to sign a measure that would require her to accept state spending that's only 3 percent less compared to what her budget proposal recommended.

Republican lawmakers said the two issues are linked and provide certainty to state workers and the public if a budget deal for next year isn't reached on time.

"We have to keep state government going, and we have to avoid games being played that try to force this General Assembly to raise taxes," said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

Wednesday's bill would still change a formula to keep extended benefits from a federal program flowing for people out of work for up to 99 weeks. North Carolina is one of about three dozen states that have the program for the long-term unemployed, but an improving unemployment rate meant the benefits would end after 79 weeks without state action.

Unlike the vetoed bill, which called for 13 percent spending cuts after July 1, the new bill would mandate 3 percent cuts if a budget isn't in place. The cuts also would last for only three months instead of a year.

Perdue called the previous GOP effort to link the two issues "extortion," and she reiterated her demand Wednesday for a standalone bill to address the unemployment issue.

"If this bill were to become law in its current form, thousands of teachers, teaching assistants and students would be held hostage by the legislature’s political games," Perdue said in a statement, noting that the spending limits would hurt education funding.

Louis Keith, who has been out of work since October 2009, said he's tired of politicians playing games with his unemployment benefits.

"The (legislative) leadership has plenty of other things they can get in the sandbox with and fight it out with the governor on. This is not one of them," said Keith, who has written more than a half-dozen letters to lawmakers in recent weeks asking for an end to the stalemate.

"They're playing politics over something that has no state money in it. There's not one red cent coming out of state coffers" to pay for the extended benefits, he said.

Stam, R-Wake, said Keith is wrong if you look at the big picture.

"They're federal funds, but guess who pays federal funds – North Carolina taxpayers," he said. "It's out of the pockets of North Carolina taxpayers."