While Congress debated an extension of federal long-term unemployment benefits this week, Republican leaders in Raleigh again tried to hide their role in leaving tens of thousands of jobless North Carolinians out in the cold.
In a lengthy statement Monday, N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis blamed U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, for not helping the state’s long-term unemployed by failing to persuade Congress to grandfather North Carolina’s anticipated unemployment insurance reforms back in 2012. “She dropped the ball,” the Republicans said.
This narrative, which Republicans have pushed before, is more revisionist than reality. It ignores that Berger and Tillis – who hopes to unseat Hagan in November – ultimately allowed North Carolinians to be denied $780 million in federal unemployment benefits last year. Let’s review:
Republicans in Raleigh, recognizing that the recession had exposed a broken state unemployment program, set out in 2012 to enact reforms and repay more quickly $2 billion-plus the state had borrowed in unemployment benefits from the federal government. “North Carolina was completely unprepared to pay the flood of new unemployment claims,” Tillis and Berger say. They’re right. Reforms were needed.
The fixes they proposed, however, were unbalanced – sizeable and permanent benefit cuts for the unemployed, with less painful and temporary cuts for employers. Also, the congressional fiscal cliff agreement required that states make no changes to their unemployment benefits, which meant that without congressional approval of the N.C.’s reforms, the state would be disqualified from receiving federal unemployment benefits.
Tillis and Berger say now that Hagan should have been able to persuade Congress to grandfather North Carolina’s reforms, as had happened with other states earlier in 2012. Tillis and Berger neglect to say that no one else in the N.C. congressional delegation got the grandfathering done, either, including Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
Perhaps that’s because, as Hagan maintains, grandfathering unemployment insurance reforms couldn’t happen until those reforms actually passed in 2013. “It’s impossible to grandfather a hypothetical bill,” Hagan spokesperson Sadie Weiner told the editorial board Wednesday. (Burr’s office did not return a message.)
That left Berger and Tillis with an additional decision last summer: Delay the unemployment insurance reforms until Jan. 1, 2014, and the federal government would send $780 million to unemployed North Carolinians in the last half of 2013. Instead, the legislature made the changes immediate, making North Carolina the only state to deny the federal benefits. Not surprisingly, that didn’t make it into the Berger/Tillis statement Monday.
Tillis, meanwhile, declared this week that he’d vote “no” on a bill that would extend federal unemployment benefits for millions of Americans. That bill, which passed a key Senate hurdle Monday, includes a provision introduced by Hagan that would restore North Carolina’s eligibility for federal benefits.
Tillis, like many Republicans, has philosophical objections to extended unemployment benefits, but his hypothetical “no” puts him in the position of rejecting the same thing he’s criticizing Hagan for not pursuing. It would be less muddled – and more honest – if he’d simply own up to his actions instead of retroactively pointing his finger elsewhere.
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