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The Associated Press April 25, 2011, 1:57PM ET

Jobless benefits for 37K in NC behind other issues

North Carolina Republican legislative leaders said Monday they would revisit legislation extending unemployment benefits for about 37,000 long-term unemployed workers after handling two other financial issues, timing that would force the jobless to do without for a second week.

Compensation payments have been cut off for more than a week amid a partisan tug-of-war between GOP lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue. Jobless workers whose payments were stopped April 16 could recover the money later if legislators and Perdue agree to change the eligibility formula.

"It's not dead. We may see something," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson and a member of the chamber's leadership team. His acknowledgement that legislators would revisit the lost jobless benefits was first reported by the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Lawmakers need urgently to cope with an earlier Perdue veto and craft a combination of premium increases, benefit cuts and taxpayer funding for the state health insurance plan for 663,000 state employees, teachers, retirees and their dependents, Apodaca said. Perdue vetoed a proposal that would have required all active workers to pay a monthly premium for their own insurance for the first time as part of the plan to help close a $515 million projected shortfall through mid-2013.

The state health plan fix is "the first priority. Then we can look at other vetoes," Apodaca said.

The House this week is focused on adopting its spending plan for the budget year beginning in July, leaving little time for anything else, said Jordan Shaw, spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.

"We're at capacity this week," Shaw said. "It's unlikely that the House will originate a bill this week, but if the Senate originates a bill we'll look at it this week."

About 37,000 jobless workers are caught in the partisan rift in Raleigh over the seemingly straightforward move to change a formula for calculating unemployment benefits, allowing the federally funded program to continue for people out of work for up to 99 weeks.

Republican lawmakers tied the benefits extension to a bid to force Perdue to accept double-digit budget cuts before negotiations begin in earnest. The GOP added language to the benefits extension committing Perdue to a spending cut at least 13 percent below what she proposed in February. Perdue called the linkage "extortion."

GOP leaders said they combined the two issues to ensure that schools, state agencies and contractors know how much state spending they could count on if budget negotiations drag beyond the start of the new budget year in July.

"The sooner the General Assembly can pass a clean bill to restore benefits, the better. The governor will sign it. She knows 37,000 people are waiting for it," Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said.

North Carolina is one of about three dozen states in which an extended benefits program of up to 20 weeks of compensation was created as a way to lessen the pain for the long-term unemployed.

The U.S. Labor Department notified North Carolina officials April 1 that the extended benefits program had to stop paying out after April 16 because the state's recent three-month average unemployment rate had improved from 2010 and 2009. South Carolina and 13 other states have passed legislation to revise their formulas and keep the extended benefits flowing, the state's Employment Security Commission said.

News organizations reported on the pending cutoff on April 5 as the state employment agency began sending letters warning people they could be cut off within days. Democrats filed legislation the same day to fix the problem by changing the formula. The state employment agency sent a letter to GOP legislative leaders on April 8 informing them of the pending benefits cutoff.

That delay in officially notifying Republican legislative leaders was a political ploy, Apodaca said. GOP leaders announced April 13 they would bind extending the benefits to the spending limits they wanted. They delayed final legislative action until hours before the federal funds paying for the extended benefits were due to end April 16. Perdue vetoed the bill late the same day.

"If you want to blame us (Republicans) you have to blame them, too," Apodaca said of the partisan faceoff. "It was plenty of blame to go around."

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