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NC GOP lawmakers try another jobless benefits bill

By Gary D. Robertson

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina House Republicans pushed ahead Wednesday on a new bill they say will resolve a stalemate over unemployment benefits, but Democrats including Gov. Beverly Perdue argue it's more of the same political gamesmanship that led her 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, R-Mecklenburg, 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 ever since because they Republicans didn't have the votes to override it.

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," said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange. 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, R-Wake, said it's the governor who is playing games by failing to accept a measure that would require her to accept state spending that's only 3 percent less compared to what her budget proposal recommended. Stam 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.

"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 told reporters earlier Wednesday.

In April, Perdue called the GOP effort to link the two issues "extortion" and said she would sign a separate benefits bill.

Perdue said Wednesday the new bill if approved would hold hostage teachers, teaching assistants and students "by the Legislature's political games" because the budget provision would cut education spending drastically.

"On behalf of the 42,000 unemployed North Carolinians who have been denied benefits, I call on the General Assembly to act and pass a bill that solely addresses these federally funded unemployment benefits," Perdue said in a statement.

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 without state action.

The vetoed bill had language to force Perdue to accept a 13 percent cut from her spending proposal starting in July to keep government operating if the Legislature and the governor are still negotiating a budget when the new fiscal year begins. The new bill would keep a similar so-called "continuing resolution," but the cut would be only 3 percent compared to her proposal, and it would last three months, instead of a year.

Tillis said the length and extent of the cut in the vetoed bill probably went too far, but coupling it with the unemployment benefits still makes sense to him. Advocates for the unemployed don't see it that way.

"Linking vital supports like these benefits to an unrelated ideological issue isn't a compromise," said Harry Payne, general counsel with the liberal-leaning North Carolina Justice Center and a former Employment Security Commission chairman.


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