Republican leaders in the General Assembly say they’re working with Gov. Bev Perdue to resolve a cutoff in unemployment benefits after the governor vetoed a bill extending them this weekend. Benefits for some 37,000 North Carolinians who already had been collecting unemployment insurance for 79 weeks expired Saturday. Their extension remains on hold for now.
Perdue used the red ink on House Bill 383 late Saturday after deadly tornadoes tore through the state. The bill would have changed the equation the state uses to extend unemployment benefits to a maximum of 99 weeks. It also would have given the General Assembly greater leverage if Perdue chose to veto the budget near the end of the current fiscal year.
Whether the General Assembly will attempt to overcome Perdue’s veto, or split the provisions of H.B. 383 into separate measures, is unclear. Jordan Shaw, spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said, “We’re consulting with the Senate, and we’ll continue to do the same with the governor’s office.” Amy Auth, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said no decision has been made on whether to attempt a veto override.
The state must have a budget in place by July 1 every year. In the past when budget negotiations stalled, the legislature passed short continuing resolutions to keep government operating. H.B. 383 would have circumvented that concern by implementing a continuing resolution that kept state government running at 87 percent of the spending in the governor’s recommended base budget. The resolution would have remained in effect until July 1, 2012, or the passage of an official budget, whichever happened first.
Extending the benefits would not cost the state any money immediately, but it could require additional funding from state taxpayers next year. The state’s unemployment trust fund — which already is more than $2.6 billion in the red — pays the first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. Uncle Sam fully covers the next 53 weeks of benefits.
Some states, including North Carolina, allow unemployed workers an additional 20 weeks of benefits, with the payments split 50/50 between state and federal funds. But the federal stimulus law has the federal government covering 100 percent of extended benefits for those final 20 weeks. Stimulus money runs out on Jan. 1, 2012, according the Employment Security Commission.
Republicans have enough votes in the Senate to override a veto. They fall four votes short of the three-fifths majority needed in the House. Any attempt to override Perdue’s veto would start in the House, because the bill originated in the lower chamber.
Both sides claim the other is using the 37,000 North Carolinians on extended benefits as pawns in the political chess game over the budget. Republicans have proposed a spending plan with more spending cuts than Perdue can stomach.
“The General Assembly’s leadership needs to quickly send me a bill that will aid our fellow North Carolinians, free of these antics, and I will sign it,” Perdue said in her veto statement.
Tillis issued a statement Saturday after learning of Perdue’s planned veto. “She will deny tens of thousands of our citizens with desperately needed support,” Tillis’ statement read. “And for what? So she can position herself to play games with the budget at the expense of everyone else.”
During debate on H.B. 383, Republicans described its budget provision as insurance against the governor’s veto stamp. They cited a video Perdue posted on her YouTube page. In it, she describes how an aide bought her a quart jar of red ink to make sure she has a sufficient supply for the vetoes she expects to issue.
Recent polling suggests this strategy could backfire. Perdue has sent five bills back to the legislature since it convened in late January. The conservative Civitas Institute polled 500 registered voters Thursday, before Perdue vetoed H.B. 383. Fifty-three percent of those polled said Perdue should sign the bill, while only 31 percent said she should veto it.
Another bill Perdue has vetoed would have charged state employees a premium for their health insurance and increase their co-pays, helping to close a multibillion-dollar long-term deficit in the State Health Plan. State employees currently pay no health insurance premiums. The same Civitas survey found 44 percent of voters polled were less likely to vote for her following the veto with 20 percent more likely.
“Governor Perdue has a growing problem with each bill she vetoes,” Civitas President Francis De Luca said. “Perdue alienates a few more voters with every veto, especially independents who want to see spending cut and see politicians get things accomplished.”
Anthony Greco is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.