RALEIGH – North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature plans to revisit last year’s bitter stalemate with Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue that led to more than 47,000 unemployed people being cut off from jobless benefits for months.
Lawmakers last month introduced legislation that scolds Perdue for unilaterally ordering the payments to resume, ending the seven-week partisan conflict. But the new legislation would simultaneously accept the fact that the money started flowing under a step GOP lawmakers consider illegal, and declare it legal after the fact.
“She just didn’t have the authority, but she did it. And so now we will try to say, OK, you did it, and we’re going to say it was OK, but don’t do it again. You don’t have the authority under executive orders to do that,” said Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie. Davie co-chaired a panel studying North Carolina’s overburdened unemployment insurance system.
Last spring, the Legislature refused for weeks to change a legal formula taking into account North Carolina’s high unemployment rate that would have allowed people out of work for months to keep receiving jobless benefits paid entirely by the federal government. Lawmakers tied the benefits to Perdue accepting a double-digit cut in the state budget before negotiations got going. Last year was the first time in more than a century that the GOP controlled the General Assembly.
Legislative attorneys recommended the after-the-fact step to prevent the chance that the U.S. Labor Department might penalize the state’s unemployment insurance fund for relying on Perdue’s say-so to spend money it wasn’t authorized to spend, Sen. Robert Rucho said Monday.
A Perdue spokeswoman acknowledged last year the governor was taking a legal risk, but the governor said she decided to act because Republicans were holding her and benefit recipients hostage after weeks of failed negotiations.
Her executive order last year said she was acting because families were “suffering great and undue harm, including the loss of homes, health insurance, and property, as well as an inability to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families.”
Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey said “the governor showed leadership and prevented thousands of eligible North Carolinians from losing their financial lifeline while they look for work.”
Harry Payne, general counsel with the liberal-leaning North Carolina Justice Center and a former head of the state’s employment agency, said Washington accepted Perdue’s argument that she represents the state in federal matters. Also, no one challenged Perdue’s executive order in court, Payne noted.
“It brought relief to people in the very worst of what we’ve gone through. I see no legal jeopardy here at all, but I do see an honest and fair ratification of her choice into the general statutes. The rest is just words to get us from here to there,” Payne said.
Perdue has cited her authority as the state’s executive officer in several orders countering the Legislature on issues she can’t win through negotiation. Other cases have included Perdue ordering state agencies to find money to educate more needy 4-year-olds, a step a judge ordered last summer but lawmakers didn’t immediately fund, and blocking the Legislature’s decision to require collecting tolls on more ferry routes.
Lawmakers are debating how to restrain Perdue’s use of executive orders, Rucho said.