Fitzsimon File

A public charade after secret meetings to slash worker benefits

If you were looking for a case study about how the General Assembly works and who it really works for, you couldn’t find a better one than the charade that passed for a meeting of the Revenue Laws Study Committee Wednesday.

The committee was considering radical changes to the state unemployment insurance system, including a reduction in the amount of benefits for laid off workers, shortening the length of time workers could receive benefits from 26 weeks to as few as 12 weeks, and tightening eligibility requirements.

The plan also includes some modest increases in unemployment taxes for less than a third of North Carolina’s employers and a temporary surcharge to help retire the state’s $2.4 billion debt to the federal government. The reduction in benefits would be permanent.

The state was forced to borrow the money during the economic downturn to keep paying benefits to unemployed workers.

The proposal to repay the debt was developed in secret meetings over the last several weeks between Republican legislative leaders and business lobbyists, primarily the folks from the N.C. Chamber of Commerce. No labor representatives or other advocates for workers were invited.

The plan unveiled for the first time publicly Wednesday morning and then approved shortly thereafter was not just about repaying the debt. It was a sweeping reform of the state’s unemployment law long sought by corporate interests.

The committee heard a lengthy explanation of the plan, complete with charts and power points, but there was no mention of the five unemployment tax cuts for business in the last 20 years.

None of the presenters brought up the fact that if North Carolina employers had paid unemployment taxes at roughly the national average, there would currently be $2.8 billion in the trust fund and the state would not owe the federal government a dime.

The legislators running the committee did allow a few people to make public comments, but each speaker was only allowed a minute to make their case. A few unemployed workers tried to tell their stories but were hurried along by the committee chairs. The same for workers advocates. Time was wasting and the plan to slash benefits had to be approved.

The most absurd moment of the public comment period came when the lobbyist for the N.C. Chamber of Commerce addressed the committee to praise the plan, a plan that he helped write in the backrooms over the last few weeks. Funny he didn’t mention the secret meetings in his remarks.

That was rivaled in its insincerity only by the numerous claims by committee members and business lobbyists that the plan was a balanced approached, requiring sacrifice from both employers and unemployed workers.

Let’s see. Employers enjoyed tax cut after tax cut for years, and now roughly a third of them will pay slightly higher taxes and others will pay a temporary surcharge. Folks who lose their job through no fault of their own will receive less money to buy food for their families and might only receive the meager help for three months, depending on how the state’s economy is doing.

That doesn’t sound much like shared sacrifice at all and it makes you wonder how many of the employers’ CEOs could survive on the state’s average unemployment benefit of less than $300 a week and then have that cut off in a few months.

That’s exactly what some workers will face if this offensive assault on the unemployed is enacted—or more accurately when it is passed. The wheels are clearly greased.

The secret meetings and the corporate lobbyists and the campaign contributions guaranteed that.

All the unemployed workers get is smaller benefits to take care of their families, and for a shorter period of time.

And a rushed minute each to talk about it.

If the workers had any doubt who the General Assembly leadership is working for, they know for sure now. And it’s not them. It’s definitely not them.

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