Jobless Benefit Extension Draws Criticism
The county's two Republican legislators are critical of Gov. Beverly Perdue's recent executive order to restore unemployment benefits to an estimated 47,000 people without jobs since mid-April.
State Sen. Harris Blake and state Rep. Jamie Boles have also taken a dim view of her prospective veto of the state budget. Both lawmakers said their respective chambers have veto-proof majorities.
"If she had the authority seven weeks ago, why didn't she do it then?" said Boles, who pointed out that the state budget adopted Saturday provides for extension of unemployment benefits.
However, that budget contains cost-cutting measures that Perdue, a Democrat, finds unacceptable.
Blake said he sympathizes with the unemployed but pointed to the expense to the state budget and to businesses required to pay into the compensation fund. He added that North Carolina already has a debt of $2.5 billion to the federal government to cover unemployment payments - unless the federal government decides to "forgive the debt."
Blake and Boles expressed doubt Tuesday that the governor has legal authority to issue such an order. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger issued a statement saying that the legislature's nonpartisan staff has been directed to determine whether the governor's act was legal.
In the meantime, on Tuesday morning, the Job Center in Moore County had a waiting room full of unemployed workers anxious to sign up for benefits.
Gene Norton, director of the Employment Security Commission office in Aberdeen, estimates that several thousand Moore County residents may well be eligible for extended benefits if and when they become available.
"Our offices were pretty full this morning," Norton said.
He said many of the applicants on Tuesday had previously exhausted their benefits and have been unable to find employment. Norton said his office does not issue payments. Instead, his office is responsible for processing applications and maintaining job availability records to help the unemployed find jobs when jobs are available.
Norton said he does not know anything about legal aspects of the governor's executive order.
"But our boss - the governor - has done it, and when she says do it, we do it," Norton said. He added that the executive order has not yet taken effect.
What emerges from this stalemate is a political standoff with legislative Republicans, who control both houses, defending their $19.7 billion budget and the Democratic governor arguing that the budget is unacceptable because of steep cuts in education and other areas.
In issuing the executive order, Perdue said she has been trying without success to work with the Republican-controlled legislature and "instead, they have persistently attempted to use our unemployed workers as hostages by tying the extension of their benefits to my acceptance of budget bills that would inflict severe and unnecessary cuts to our schools and other essential programs."
In response, Berger shot back by saying:
"We hope that, in a desperate effort to claim credit for what's going to occur because of the bipartisan budget, she is not putting the benefits of tens of thousands of unemployed North Carolinians at risk by using a questionable legal gimmick. If she really thinks this is appropriate, she shamefully did nothing for seven weeks."
Berger added that Republican legislators want eligible residents to receive benefits.
Blake said he is not indifferent to the needs of the unemployed but expressed serious concern about the effect of the benefit extension on state finances and the economic condition of businesses that are required to contribute to the fund.
"You'd be surprised at the amount of money this state owes to the federal government," said Blake, who said the amount totals $2.5 billion. "We're hoping the feds may forgive that debt."
That's because the state borrows from the federal government every time unemployment benefits are extended beyond available financing.
"Anybody unemployed has got my sympathy," he said. "But as long as people are receiving these payments, they lose some of their incentive to go out and find a job. That sounds harsh, but it's a tough issue."
Boles expressed his own reservations about the governor's timing on the executive order, which he says was issued just a few hours before the General Assembly adopted the state budget early Saturday morning, shortly after midnight.
The unemployment benefit deadlock between the Democratic governor and the Republican lawmakers is based in a complex issue in which the Republicans offered to change the formula restoring federal unemployment funds provided Perdue would accept a 13 percent budget cut.
That budget represents a compromise reached between House and Senate negotiators last week. The $19.7 billion budget finally adopted provides $300 million more for public schools than did the version approved earlier by the House.
The new version restores funding for 13,000 teaching assistant positions in first through third grades and adds money to hire 1,100 new teachers for the early grades.
The University of North Carolina System would also receive $100 million more than the first House budget.
However, the budget eliminates 13,000 education positions, including almost 9,300 in the public schools. The budget also eliminates other funds for public schools that will require further cuts at the county level.
Perdue wants the legislature to authorize continuation of at least a portion of a state sales tax scheduled to expire at the end of June. Continuing the tax another year would add about $1 billion to the state budget, reducing the cuts to public education.
Good and Bad
Boles said he has experienced victory and defeat in the budget but has not given up hope that Samarkand Youth Development Center can be spared the budget ax.
"I'm still working on Samarkand," Boles said Tuesday.
The budget adopted by the legislature retains funding for the historic House in the Horseshoe in Moore County but does not include Samarkand, a unit administered by the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Samarkand has been operated in Moore County by the state for almost 100 years.
Boles said he is pleased that the budget allows Moore County to keep a district attorney's office here but is disappointed about the loss of sentencing services, a program that saves money for counties and the state.
The question about a gubernatorial veto remains alive, although Blake and Boles say that their chambers have enough votes to override a threatened veto. The Senate managed to secure budget approval last week when five Democrats agreed to vote with the GOP in supporting the budget compromise. Those five Democrats are expected to vote with the Republicans again if the governor vetoes the budget.
Perdue has another option. She could refuse to sign the document but not veto the budget. If she does not sign the budget, then the budget would go into effect 10 days after Saturday - the day the final vote was taken by the House.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story