It was mostly an excuse to neglect workers under the guise of easing a burden on employers when Republicans proclaimed their intention to pay off early the state’s debt to the federal government for covering unemployment insurance claims.
After the economic collapse that began at the end of the Bush administration, more and more North Carolinians needed unemployment insurance payments. The state’s unemployment trust fund ran out of money in 2009, and the state had to borrow money from the federal government to pay benefits to North Carolinians who had lost their jobs.
That debt was about $2.5 billion when Gov. Pat McCrory took office in 2013. The truth is, many states had problems paying unemployment, and North Carolina’s debt eventually would have been paid off through increased taxes on businesses – only about $21 per employee per year – added to the federal unemployment tax paid by employers.
But Republicans conjured ridiculous visions of businesses being hampered by that tiny tax and used the debt as an excuse for actions that hurt thousands of North Carolinians and their families.
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They cut the maximum unemployment benefits from $535 to $350 a week and then they changed the maximum number of weeks for which people were eligible from the standard 26 to a sliding scale tied to the unemployment rate that can go as low as 12 weeks. It was nothing but a boot on the necks of North Carolinians who were already having it tough, the vast majority of whom were looking for work and digging into savings and trying to keep their families fed. Now businesses get early relief from a small surcharge, but benefits to the unemployed will remain permanently reduced to near the lowest in the nation.
But Republicans talked about how slashing benefits would encourage people to look for work, as if the state were full of freeloaders living the big life trying to support a family on $350 a week. (The actual average benefit was less, around $300 a week.)
This was but one stage of the “war on the poor” and to some extent on the middle class. Another was the refusal of Gov. McCrory and lawmakers to expand the Medicaid health care program to another 500,000 North Carolinians, something the federal government would have paid for in the first three years, covering 90 percent of the cost thereafter. The GOP’s excuse? They said the federal government, the United State government, might go back on its promise to cover the expenses. Nothing but hard-core, right-wing partisanship, in other words.
North Carolinians can be forgiven if they don’t applaud the payoff of the state’s unemployment insurance debt a year early, which the governor and the self-satisfied architects of the GOP agenda in the legislature celebrated Tuesday with big smiles on their faces and disgracefully over-the-top rhetoric by McCrory. Said he, “It took visionary leadership, it took courage and it took fortitude to make it happen.”
That’s insulting and ridiculous. Courage? Whose courage? The people who needed courage here were the ones victimized by Republican policies cutting their benefits for their families. Fortitude? The fortitude came from those whose hills got a little steeper thanks to the Republicans.
The cuts in unemployment benefits represented one of the low points of a Republican administration in the governor’s office and in the GOP-led General Assembly, and given their cuts to public education and extreme social agenda, picking a low point isn’t easy.
So we can do without the posing and pontificating on the payoff of a debt one year early that could have been paid off without hitting so many families in need. The governor and legislators are backslapping in the legislature, but those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own have received a different sort of slap.