RALEIGH – Senate Democrats forced the scheduling of a final vote today on a bill ensuring that roughly 37,000 North Carolinians will receive unemployment insurance benefits without interruption. Republican leaders coupled legislation extending unemployment benefits with what they call insurance against a potential veto by Gov. Bev Perdue of the budget being written in the House.
Wednesday, the Senate stripped House Bill 383 (PDF) of its original language and inserted the two provisions. The first deals with the unemployment benefits; the second would direct Perdue to continue the current fiscal year’s budget — with spending limited to 87 percent of current levels — into the next fiscal year if a budget is not approved by the July 1 deadline. State government would continue to operate at the reduced spending level until the budget becomes law.
Perdue and other Democratic leaders say the Republicans’ tactics play political games with people depending on unemployment benefits. Republicans counter that by failing to notify legislative leaders that the benefits were about to expire, the state Employment Security Commission was guilty of playing politics.
“Sounds like extortion to me,” Perdue said in an interview posted on YouTube. “You’ve got about 37,000 families today worried about getting that extension of unemployment. These are real people who need milk and bread.”
“This bill as it’s written sends a message to the public,” said Sen. William Purcell, D-Scotland, on the Senate floor. “The Senate is incapable of passing a budget.”
Republicans say the ESC is to blame. The state’s unemployment rate was 10.1 percent in February, less than 110 percent of the average unemployment rate of the previous two years. Under current law, the declining unemployment rate triggered a formula that would cause the benefits to end Saturday.
The ESC alerted unemployment recipients that their benefits would expire before the agency notified legislative leaders of the situation April 8. The General Assembly had only eight days to act.
So H.B. 383 was stripped and amended. The current version would modify the unemployment insurance formula, allowing benefits for the long-term unemployed to be extended through the end of the calendar year — if the bill passes both houses, as expected, and Perdue signs it.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, noted that Perdue had joked at a recent speech that an aide gave her a quart jar of red ink to use with her veto stamp. (By law, Perdue said, vetoes must be marked in red.) Perdue posted a video of the event at Winston-Salem State University on her YouTube channel.
“If the governor is going around the state saying she has a quart of red ink for a veto stamp, [then] we have insurance,” Berger said on the Senate floor.
Republicans are rushing the revised House bill through the Senate. It passed its second reading Wednesday in a party-line vote. Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, objected to a third reading and delayed final Senate consideration until today.
The Senate is likely to approve the bill quickly and send it immediately to the House, where it could be adopted with one floor vote and then sent to Perdue.
Beyond the governor’s claims of dirty politics, Democratic senators argued the bill removes the necessity of debating the state budget. “It’s like asking the ref to play overtime before the regular game is over,” Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, said.
Democrats say the continuing resolution in the bill essentially removes any deadline to pass the budget. They said it would allow the Republicans to sit back and do nothing while allowing a 13 percent cut in spending
Some Republicans pointed out that the bill also would create a major incentive for Democrats to ensure a budget passes in a timely manner — if they wish to avoid such large cuts.
“At least we’ve planned ahead,” said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow. “Now, you know where we’re going to be. Now, we can work to get our job done.”
Democrats made three attempts to separate the unemployment benefits from the budget provisions of the bill. All failed on party-line votes.
Anthony Greco is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.