GOP links cuts to jobless benefits

Staff writerApril 15, 2011 

Legislative Republicans stung by two vetoes this week said Thursday that they need to protect the state against the governor hauling out her veto stamp this summer to prolong budget negotiations.

The insurance they want comes in the form of a GOP-backed bill that the leading House Democrat called "shenanigans," and that passed amid protests that Republicans were holding hostage the long-term unemployed.

The measure that passed both the House and the Senate along party lines ties the extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits to a bill that would weaken Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue in budget negotiations. For benefits for 37,000 unemployed people to continue past Saturday, Perdue would have to agree to a 13 percent budget reduction in state spending beginning July 1 if a budget is not finalized.

Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, said legislators need a way to work productively with Perdue.

"It's nice to talk about working with the governor," he said. "It's getting very difficult to do that."

The House timed the speed of the bill so it will get to Perdue on Saturday, the day employment benefits will end for people who have been without work for more than 79 weeks.

The benefits won't necessarily be cut forever, though. The legislature could act any time within this calendar year to restore them, and benefits would be paid retroactively, according to the Employment Security Commission.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, said passing the bill was critical to establishing fiscal certainty and stability.

Perdue would not say whether she will veto the bill, but criticized the tactic.

"I think it's not a time for gamesmanship or politics as usual," she said. "I don't think it's a time for hostage-taking or extortion. I think it's a time for leadership. I think these are two issues that don't belong together. You have 37,000 individuals who really need these benefits. To play politics with that is unconscionable in my mind. "

Legislative Democrats said Republicans had plenty of time to help the unemployed if that's what they wanted.

"I know the House of Representatives would not pull shenanigans like this," said Minority Leader Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat. "This is a Senate thing, to try to hold up unemployment benefits by putting it in a bill that's opposed by the governor and the minority."

Republicans heard complaints from those who said it was wrong to make families' financial lifelines a negotiation tactic.

"I just thought there was a disconnect with tying a program that's not state funds - not the state budget - to the state budget," said Doug Hinton of Newton.

Hinton, 56, said he has been unemployed off and on since 2009 but does not know whether he is one of those whose benefits would end.

Some Republicans contend they need the bill to guard against a state government shutdown. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said that won't happen, but everyone's focus would shift. "If we're still here in July, let's at least know how the government is going to run," he said.

Harry Payne, a former Democratic legislator who works at the N.C. Justice Center, told Republicans in an open letter that they should separate the budget from the benefits.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

Staff writer Rob Christensen contributed to this report.

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