U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.

Hagan, Democrats push to revive long-term jobless aid

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said Monday she’s pushing North Carolina to rejoin the rest of the states to help the long-term unemployed with emergency unemployment benefits. But Republican legislative leaders - including one who wants to unseat her this fall - argue she should have done more on the issue earlier.

Hagan held a news conference in Raleigh with Democratic state legislators, where they criticized the N.C. General Assembly for actions that led to the elimination in July of extended federal emergency jobless benefits for as many as 170,000 families.

The payments ended because the state was disqualified from the program after the Republican-led General Assembly in early 2013 approved changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system that included reduced weekly benefits and the number of weeks that benefits could be received.

Meanwhile, the payments ran out nationwide Dec. 28, and the U.S. Senate planned to begin considering later Monday a three-month extension of benefits that would affect an estimated 1.3 million people. Hagan introduced a provision last month that would make North Carolina eligible again for those benefits if they are reinstated nationwide.

“The General Assembly knowingly and willingly violated federal law, and I refuse to let the people of our state suffer because of their reckless actions,” Hagan said in a written statement, adding “North Carolinians struggling to get by while looking for work should receive the same benefits as citizens in other states.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, later Monday blamed Hagan for failing to, in late 2012 during congressional budget and tax negotiations, 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 unemployment benefit overhaul was designed in part to accelerate the repayment of more than $2 billion in benefit payments North Carolina owed the federal government from the Great Recession. General Assembly leaders say they had asked her to grandfather North Carolina, but it didn’t happen.

The emergency benefit issue is an early-year conflict between Hagan, who is seeking re-election in November, and Tillis, one of at least five Republicans seeking the GOP nomination in May.