RALEIGH — Republican majorities have moved quickly in the first 2½ weeks of the 2013 General Assembly on legislation they say is tough medicine for tough economic times, but critics say the plans plainly hurt poor people.
The state House and Senate hold veto-proof GOP majorities and last month gained a friend in Gov. Pat McCrory, a fellow Republican. Priorities in the session's first two weeks have included legislation to cut unemployment checks and shorten the length of time the jobless can collect them, as well as a plan to reject a Medicaid expansion that would provide health care coverage to an estimated 500,000 residents. A third measure brought up last week would shave a state subsidy for the working poor, cutting the state's Earned Income Tax Credit as the federal credit increases.
President Barack Obama's health care overhaul promises the federal government will pick up the full cost of expanded Medicaid coverage for the first three years and 90 percent over the long haul.
Medicaid expansion likely would have helped 49-year-old Theresa Pulley of Henderson, who struggles with uncontrolled diabetes, liver disease, bronchitis and other illnesses. The Chapel Hill teaching hospital run by the University of North Carolina system writes off the costs to treat her, recognizing she'll never be able to pay, and she says her local hospital emergency room does, too.
"I've worked all my life. I'm not a lazy person. I'm just sick," Pulley said. "I'm falling apart."
Pulley said she lives alone and earned about $3,000 last year by working two months for a local nonprofit, a job cut short by her health conditions. A recent emergency room visit at Maria Parham Medical Center in Henderson left the small, rural hospital with bills of at least $2,300, she said.
Republicans know stories like Pulley's help GOP critics, but party leaders believe they'll be judged by whether the state economy improves and jobs flower.
"They can have an eight-second sound bite that makes (me) look like an evil, cruel cold-hearted person, and the explanation of why 'no, this was the better of two bad choices' takes awhile, so we do have our necks out," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford.
The state would receive more than $15 billion to expand Medicaid from 2014 to 2021, according to a report from the North Carolina Institute of Medicine. Even accounting for increased administrative expense and other costs, the state would come out $66 million ahead because millions in prison inmate care, AIDS drug assistance, and mental health services would be taken off the state's books and assumed by Medicaid, a report by the state's Division of Medical Assistance said.
But Republicans are skeptical the federal government would continue paying all or most of the cost of expanding Medicaid given the nation's debt problems. The same state Medicaid report that pointed to a net gain for North Carolina over seven years estimated higher state costs of $97 million in 2020 climbing to nearly $119 million in 2021, indicating further cost increases, expansion opponents say.
While the Medicaid bill nears final legislative passage, legislation cutting unemployment benefits needs only McCrory's signature to become law.
Maximum weekly benefits will fall by one-third, to $350, from $535 today for jobless claims filed in July. The maximum term for state benefits will fall from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 12 to 20 weeks, depending on the state's unemployment rate. North Carolina's 9.2 percent jobless rate is one of the country's highest.
The changes also mean federal emergency extended benefits will end early this summer, cutting off 170,000 people from $780 million once their state benefits run out, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
The cuts, along with higher state and federal taxes for businesses, will allow North Carolina to pay off three years early $2.5 billion borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits since the Great Recession.
The Republican decisions worry Bridgette Burge, 39, who has been unable to find a permanent job since February 2012. The married Raleigh mother of two receives $422 per week in federal emergency benefits. Burge would lose that help if she doesn't find a full-time job by July.
The General Assembly's decision is "unconscionable. It's cruel," Burge said. "Our leaders should be waging war on record poverty and record unemployment in North Carolina. But these Republicans are waging war on the poor and the unemployed."
The state's business community spearheaded the effort to change an unemployment benefits system they say discourages companies from creating jobs or moving into the state. Federal taxes are increasing annually by $21 per employee until the debt is paid off. The changes will amass an extra $2 billion by the end of the decade to pay future benefits, bringing employers more certainty, said GOP leaders such as N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg.
"It's going to lead to having a financially sound and solvent unemployment insurance fund for now and well into the future," Rucho said.