It was one of the more shameful moments in the not-exactly-illustrious rule of Republicans in the General Assembly and the governors mansion. Last summer, GOP lawmakers cut state unemployment benefits knowing it would mean that jobless North Carolinians, many of them innocent victims of the Great Recession, would lose emergency federal benefits.
North Carolina was the only state to reduce unemployment benefits even though federal law required states to maintain benefit amounts to qualify for the extended federal payments. Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers justified leaving thousands and thousands of families in the cold by saying that extended unemployment benefits discouraged people from going back to work.
In fact, most of the beneficiaries have been looking for work in an economy with not enough jobs. Theyre not, as the GOP implies, all lying around living large on the average $300 a week people get in unemployment payments.
Come July, the situation could get even worse for many families because the length of time they receive benefits could decrease again. The states unemployment rate has been dropping, and lawmakers created a system that twice a year causes jobless benefits to go down if the rate goes down. The drop in the unemployment rate is deceptive, however. More than 60,000 workers have dropped out of the labor force after giving up on finding jobs, so theyre not counted in the rate.
Now, the U.S. Senate has passed a measure that would extend federal benefits to about 2.8 million people nationwide, including North Carolinians if McCrory will go along with it. Hes not even taking a position, and his office says he wont until the U.S. House passes the measure.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, supported and advocated for the bill. Republican Sen. Richard Burr voted against it.
The Republicans logic in cutting benefits in North Carolina was just plain mean. They said they wanted to give employers a break. Employers were having to pay a little extra into the unemployment fund to repay the federal government for money the state borrowed to cover an unanticipated run on benefits after so many lost their jobs during the Great Recession.
By cutting benefits last summer, lawmakers said the state would pay off its debt to the federal government faster. Thats true, but the time difference in repayment is not that great, and the accelerated payment plan comes with a human cost, cuts that might well cost people their homes.
Tea party playbook
It was no wonder that between cuts to unemployment and a refusal to extend Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, many observers saw a war on the poor being staged in the General Assembly. Although the extension would have been paid for entirely by the federal government, Republicans disgracefully decided that government couldnt be trusted.
Thats straight out of the tea party playbook: The feds may say theyll pay for extended unemployment benefits and Medicaid, but you cant trust them.
In fact, state Republican lawmakers were just taking a slap at President Obama and the Affordable Care Act (extending Medicaid was part of the act) and beating up on the jobless.
McCrory has the opportunity now, should some form of unemployment help pass Congress, to do the right thing by saying the state will go along with the help. If he wont do that because its right, he might consider it a politically savvy thing to do. Even some Republicans recognize that, flush with power, GOP leaders took things too far with their refusal to help the poor, the unemployed and teachers.
McCrory has a chance to redeem himself and the party. But first, lets hope the unemployment bill passes the House. The jobless need it, and the country needs it because it will stimulate the overall economy. This is important for everyone.