NC Lawmakers Back At Work; GOP In Firm Control
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina lawmakers returned to work Wednesday with expanded Republican majorities, turning their attention to GOP priorities such as retiring unemployment insurance debt and reducing maximum weekly benefits by one-third, staking out positions on federal health care expansion and helping cash-strapped group homes.
The House and Senate reconvened at noon and were out for the day within a half-hour. They had already elected their leaders and gotten committee assignments during a one-day meeting in January.
But lawmakers introduced dozens of bills Wednesday, a few of which will be heard and voted upon Thursday. Some Republican-sponsored measures expected to pass reflect their misgivings about the federal government.
One makes clear that the state doesn't want to run a health care exchange required by the federal Affordable Care Act - this means federal officials would set it up - and shows they're skeptical about expanding Medicaid as allowed under the law. Another measure would overhaul unemployment insurance effective July 1, even though it means an extra year of emergency jobless benefits approved by Congress this month would be eliminated after six months, possibly cutting off about 80,000 workers.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said this week that GOP lawmakers aren't going to keep depending on more money from Washington. "What we're doing by continuing to aid and abet the federal government's expansion of the deficit is digging a deeper hole, versus trying to come up with better solutions and more certainty."
The election of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last fall means the GOP controls both the executive and legislative branches of government for the first time since 1870. Two years ago, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed Republican-penned bills related to unemployment benefits and the Affordable Care Act.
Vetoes by McCrory this year aren't likely, and Democrats in the legislature have little recourse if Republicans won't let them seek to influence or change legislation.
"There's no potential to negotiate and defeat bills and then have them reconsidered," said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham. "This is a different environment."
Hall, other legislators and advocacy groups spent Wednesday setting the stage for the first significant legislation of the year - a 68-page bill that would accelerate the repayment of $2.5 billion owed the federal government for benefits to jobless residents and put $2 billion in the state unemployment trust fund by 2019.
The bill heading to the House Finance Committee for debate Thursday would require higher business taxes and cut maximum weekly benefits for future displaced workers from $535 to $350. Supporters say benefit changes would bring North Carolina in line with other Southeastern states.
A coalition of dozens of business organizations led by the North Carolina Chamber held a news conference Wednesday morning to endorse the legislation that it says would remove an impediment to job creation and keep federal unemployment taxes from soaring over time.
"You see a united business front," said Andy Ellen, president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association. "We hope that there will be bipartisan support."
The bill, along with legislation approved in 2011, also will ensure unemployed workers get real help from the state to locate training and job leads, said Bruce Clarke, CEO of Capital Associated Industries, which advises companies on employment issues. Clarke said the bill would require the unemployed to visit a state Division of Employment Security office before receiving their second weekly payment to check in. Currently displaced workers can "check in" electronically.
The bill "would restore the original purpose of unemployment as a necessary bridge for deserving claimants and the best place to find a good job," Clarke said.
Workers' advocates say the measure is unfair to the unemployed, who plow the weekly benefits into the local economy. Most "good cause" exceptions for workers to receive unemployment benefits when they've left work voluntarily would end.
"Cutting workers off at the knees will not be the answer," Hall said at a North Carolina Urban League news conference.
Hall said House Democrats would seek to offer amendments Thursday. Winston-Salem Urban League President Keith Grandberry said he hoped Democrats and Republicans could come together to expand job training and give displaced workers skills to find new careers.
While North Carolina's unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, Grandberry said some communities have much higher unemployment levels.
"It's a very difficult economic time for people right now," he said. "We're really not out of the recession from where I sit."
Another bill expected on the House floor Thursday seeks to ensure group homes can tap into about $40 million set aside to provide financial stability to facilities that provide personal care services such as bathing and cooking to residents with mental illness or developmental disabilities.
About 2,000 group homes residents were at risk of losing their homes because owners rely heavily on Medicaid reimbursements that were set to end Dec. 31. Perdue found money for a one-month delay.