Weekly Briefing

New Year, same old deception

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McCrory, legislative leaders, Pope groups mislead again on unemployment insurance

Unemployment insurance is back in the news this week as lawmakers in Washington debate proposals to revive the flow of federal relief dollars (halted on December 31) to workers still struggling to find jobs in the nation’s slowly-warming economy – at least the workers in states whose leaders are willing to receive them, that is. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s aggressive stance against unemployment insurance benefits – the state’s conservative leadership voted last year to affirmatively cut off tens of thousands of unemployed North Carolinians from extended federal benefits – puts the state on the outside looking in, even if the renewal/extension is approved.

This harshest-in-the-nation stance forced Senator Kay Hagan to call, somewhat awkwardly, for two separate things when she spoke in Raleigh on the subject on Monday: 1) approval of the proposed federal renewal/extension and 2) a reversal of course by Gov. McCrory and state legislative leaders so that unemployed North Carolinians could actually benefit from such a law.

One might have hoped that Hagan’s appearance would spur McCrory, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Thom Tillis and their allies in the advocacy groups funded by State Budget Director Art Pope to stand up and respond with an honest debate about the merits of unemployment insurance during hard economic times. After all, all of them have at one time or another questioned the very premise of unemployment insurance and its benefits to the broader economy and stated or implied that lazy workers are mooching off the benefits rather than finding work.

Unfortunately, however, most seem to have chosen a different and much more disingenuous course: At the same time that they continue to disparage the very idea of unemployment insurance in some circles, they are attempting to blame Hagan, of all people, for her supposed failure to obtain some kind of federal waiver that would have allowed federal benefits to keep flowing after the state directly violated federal directives last year.

This is from a WRAL report on the subject yesterday:

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, later Monday blamed Hagan for failing, in late 2012 during congressional budget and tax negotiations, to find a way to exempt North Carolina from losing those benefits when the legislature changed its unemployment insurance program a couple months later.

If she truly cared about these North Carolinians, she would have done what the General Assembly called on her to do more than a year ago,’ Berger and Tillis said in a statement. ‘But she dropped the ball and is now desperately trying to spin her way out of the damage she created.’”

The Berger-Tillis statement was then dutifully repeated by the Pope-Civitas group on a blog post minutes after it was issued.

Just plain untrue

On one level, of course, it’s no surprise that politicians and partisan attack groups like Pope-Civitas would do whatever they can to harass Hagan. After all, Tillis is seeking the GOP nomination to run against her this fall. Don’t be surprised if he tries to blame this week’s cold snap on the Senator at some point. Moreover, there are undoubtedly many legitimate items for which Hagan deserves blame after five years in Washington.

That said, it simply must be pointed out loudly and repeatedly that this particular attack is a scurrilous falsehood.

As was explained early last month in this post in the aftermath of the impromptu sidewalk debate between Rev. William Barber and Budget Director Pope, to blame Hagan for the cutoff in federal unemployment benefits that hit North Carolina last July 1 is to tell a gigantic whopper:

The simple truth is that when Congress put extended emergency benefits in place as part of the economic recovery/stimulus law back in 2009, it told states that they could only continue to access those federally-funded benefits if they didn’t cut benefits and eligibility at the state level. This is a standard congressional practice used by leaders of both parties to help make sure that federal initiatives aren’t undercut by free-riding states with no skin in the game. Federal officials repeatedly told North Carolina this and warned them not to cut benefits lest they jeopardize the state’s participation in the federal emergency program.

The state’s response: A big raspberry. Despite the plain warning (and pleas from advocates to merely delay new cuts until 2014 so as not to run afoul of federal law), legislative leaders and Gov. McCrory plunged ahead with unprecedented cuts to benefits and eligibility that were quite possibly the largest in American history. As a result, the federal government was left with no choice but to abide by the congressional mandate and cut North Carolina off July 1….

[Blaming the feds and/or Senator Hagan] is like the state passing a law to raise the speed limit on I-40 to 100 mph and then saying it’s the federal government’s fault for not giving the state a waiver and cutting off federal highway money; it’s utterly nonsensical.”

Ah, but some other states have gotten waivers from the feds, says McCrory-Pope-Berger-Tillis quartet. That North Carolina didn’t obtain one shows that it must be the fault of Hagan (or Obama or some other convenient politician they’d like to pillory).

This claim, too, is utterly without merit. As was also noted last December:

[W]hile some other states did receive federal waivers for unemployment cuts they enacted, this was only for cuts that would go into effect in 2014 and later — that is, after the expiration of the federal emergency benefits. If McCrory and Pope had only followed this path and delayed their cuts until 2014 (as advocates asked them to do repeatedly) tens of thousands of unemployed North Carolinians would still be paying their rents and light bills. As it is, many of those people are now suffering greatly.”

Put simply, the “waiver” that the conservative quartet purport to blame Hagan for not obtaining would have been tantamount to a reversal of the federal program while it was still in effect! Each of the four states that got waivers from the feds in order to enact new unemployment insurance changes in recent years (Arkansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) made sure to delay the effective dates until after the expiration of the federal emergency benefits program. Moreover, the reductions imposed were dramatically less draconian that those imposed by the McCrory-Pope-Berger-Tillis team. That these men can continue to repeat their ridiculous claim about North Carolina’s vastly different situation with a straight face in light of such facts is truly amazing.

Avoiding real debate

Ultimately, of course, it’s not hard to detect the real reason for the insincere attacks on Senator Hagan; conservative leaders are afraid to proclaim too loudly what they really think about unemployment insurance – namely that it’s a free ride for slackers. Oh sure, they’ll dish out such red meat to selected conservative audiences and allow back-benchers and ”think-tankers” to blame the unemployed for their own situations (and even imply it indirectly to general audiences), but when the media lights get bright, they quickly turn warm and fuzzy or attempt to shift the blame.

The whole thing is actually sadly reminiscent of when Berger and Tillis held a press conference last February to proclaim their grave concern about hunger in the state and to promote a legislative canned food drive after having moved to slash the public safety net – that is, utterly absurd but likely to fool a big enough chunk of a distracted public to make it worth the effort.

Let’s hope that over time, people see through the smokescreen and recognize that – as Chris Fitzsimon explained thoroughly yesterday – North Carolina’s problem lies not in a glut of shiftless workers but in a dearth of jobs. And until that problem is addressed, restoring the flow of federal unemployment benefits is the one of the smartest and most humane things that can be done for the state’s overall wellbeing.

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