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Changes made to North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system a year ago have caused pain for North Carolina workers and communities, according to a new report by the NC Budget & Tax Center. Center analysts project things will get even worse for many jobless workers because of new limits to how long anyone can receive insurance that took effect this month. Here’s an excerpt from the report:

Two changes—lowering the maximum duration of weeks and a new formula that significantly reduces average weekly insurance amounts—fall most heavily on jobless workers in areas of the state’s highest unemployment, and primarily in rural counties. The cumulative effect of these changes is a double whammy for people out of work through no fault of their own – the amount of money they can collect has gone down and so has the number of weeks they can collect it.UIweekly

As of July 1, North Carolinians who have lost their job through no fault of their own will be able to receive a maximum of only 14 weeks of unemployment insurance compared to the previous maximum of 26. No other state offers fewer weeks. Meanwhile jobless workers qualifying for unemployment insurance will get nearly $300 less on average each month.

The combined result will be a significant reduction in the capacity of jobless workers to afford the basics for their families, let alone put gas in their cars to get to job interviews. And the ripple effect of these policy changes suggests the potential to slow the state’s economy.

The report also notes that the recent decline in North Carolina’s unemployment rate has been caused in part by people leaving the labor force, rather than finding work. In other words, the state still has a huge jobs deficit.

The average weekly unemployment insurance payment in May 2014 was less than $228, the 44th lowest weekly benefit in the nation.

To read the BTC’s full report, click here.

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House and Senate budget conferees head back to the bargaining table this afternoon.

Last week, senators made it clear they were sticking to their position of an average 11% pay raise for teachers, even if it could result in deep cuts to Medicaid and other areas of education spending.

House members are pushing for a six-percent increase for teachers, but have also talked about heading home without a revised budget in place.

As for teaching assistants, with thousands of jobs potentially on the line, they would like both sides to revisit the remarks from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison who spoke eloquently last week about the need for TAs in the classroom:

“Teacher assistants allow schools to address personalization; they allow us to differentiate to the level of need of the child,”explained Morrison to House budget conferees. “They allow us to advance more rigor for those students who are coming ahead, and they allow us to catch up those students who are behind. Teacher assistants have been fundamental in some of the most important legislation that our state has already enacted, Read to Achieve.”

Last week several Senators questioned whether teaching assistants really had an impact on results in the classroom.

Today’s Conference Committee gets underway at 4:30 p.m. in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building.

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The Wilmington Star News notes that the federal judge who will decide whether North Carolina’s voter suppression law should be placed on hold for the 2014 midterm elections has a lot to consider following last week’s testimony in Winston-Salem. But the editorial board concludes it would be foolish to enforce the law before a full trial. Here’s more from Monday’s Star News:

Voter IDSupporters say they just want to make sure that only properly registered voters have a say in our elections process. The integrity of our elections process is indeed important. But so is ensuring that citizens have the right to participate in that process without facing unnecessary or politically motivated obstacles.

The new voting laws are likely to discourage or exclude many qualified voters. Other states have adopted tough voting laws, but North Carolina’s is said to be the most exclusionary. It does not, for example, provide an alternative to people who do not have photo identification and would have financial or logistical difficulty retrieving a certified birth certificate required to get a government-issued photo ID. That would be a reasonable addition.

Voting is a constitutional right for U.S. citizens 18 and older. It is not a privilege, as is getting a driver’s license or boarding a flight. The government should have to clear a high bar before denying the vote to any citizen.

Kim Strach, the state elections director – whose husband is among the lawyers defending the voting laws – confirmed in a video deposition that the type of fraud North Carolina’s laws purport to prevent is exceedingly rare. Only one case was prosecuted in 10 years. In addition, Strach pointed to a double standard: No photo ID is required for voters who file absentee ballots, a method that tends to be used more by Republican voters.

Democratic voters, on the other hand – and especially black Democrats – are more partial to early voting. But early voting is popular across all demographics. In the 2012 general election, 56 percent of North Carolinians who went to the polls voted before Election Day.

The court has a lot to decide. It would be foolish to put these laws in place before the full trial, where both sides have the ability to lay out all their evidence and prove their case. The most restrictive of the provisions, including the photo ID requirement, do not take effect until 2016 anyway.

Delaying implementation of the voting restrictions until after the District Court-level ruling is the prudent course of action. That also would give the Honorables time to reconsider how to better ensure that in stopping fraud – a legitimate government goal – the law does not – inadvertently or deliberately – disenfranchise any voting-age citizen.

You can read the full editorial here.

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Berger-McCroryOptimists hoping for a budget resolution heading into the weekend had those hopes dashed on Friday, as House negotiators cancelled a scheduled public meeting. Senators had already announced they weren’t going to show up.

Adding to the tension, Governor Pat McCrory vowed to veto the Senate’s budget plan on Thursday as he lined-up behind a House proposal for six-percent pay raises for North Carolina’s teachers.

That threat, brought this terse response from Senate President Pro-Team Phil Berger:

“The governor has been unable to sustain any of his previous vetoes in the Senate. It would be more helpful for him to work with members of both chambers of the legislature, since his unwillingness to listen to those who have an honest disagreement with him on spending priorities in favor of staging media stunts and budget gimmicks is a major reason the budget has not been finalized.”

Senators are continuing to push for teacher pay raises of 11%. The governor and House budget writers say that would require deep cuts to other areas.

The House has announced another public budget meeting for Monday afternoon at 4:30pm.

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The Charlotte Observer’s Associate Editor writes this week’s back-and-forth budget battle in Raleigh (which has included a walkout by Senators,  finger-pointing on both sides, along with Christmas stockings and lumps of coal) could challenge Bravo’s Real Housewives series for ratings this summer.

Here’s Fannie Flono’s Friday editorial:

rljonesMy guilty pleasure these days is the N.C. legislature. The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Orange County have nothing on state lawmakers for entertainment value. Take for instance, the petulant walkout of N.C. Senate Republicans on Wednesday.

It was a bit surreal watching the honorables pack their belongings and sashay – ok, walk – out of a committee hearing because – gasp! – non-legislators (i.e., the public who pays their salaries) had been invited to speak on the issue before them. It was kinda like watching Housewife Nene walk out on Kenya after another contrived wrong on TV.

The bewildered looks on the faces of some of those non-legislators – school superintendents who had come to speak about the education issues that were the subject of the public budget negotiations between the House and Senate – were priceless.

So was the back-and-forth from chief negotiators of both chambers. Said Sen. Harry Brown to Rep. Nelson Dollar, both Republicans: “This isn’t your committee meeting. You decided you would be the rule-maker of this committee. The Senate isn’t going to allow that to happen.”

Dollar responded that the inclusion of witnesses would not violate the conference committee rules the House and Senate had agreed to because the rules didn’t specifically address that issue.

“We are controlling our hour,” said Dollar, calling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison as the first witness.

“Well, I think this meeting’s adjourned,” Brown said angrily, prompting his conferees to leave.

When the senators returned, they found a Christmas wreath on the podium, Christmas stockings on the chairs of Senate negotiators and lumps of coal on those of House negotiators. This was all in apparent reference to a House member’s warning that a compromise could be as far off as Christmas. Pass the popcorn, please.

In the meantime, Morrison had made a pitch for lawmakers not to cut teacher assistants, which is part of the Senate’s plan to help pay for an 11 percent raise for teachers. He such cuts would cost hundreds of jobs and hurt schools’ abilities to meet new student literacy requirements.

The senators didn’t get to hear that or other public comments. They may not have wanted to. Many lawmakers have said teacher assistants are a waste of money. Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger has reinforced that notion, saying studies show them to be of little value to student achievement. An author of one study he quotes weighed in with N.C. Policy Watch and said that was wrong. “Getting rid of TAs (teacher assistants) is actually going to cause schools far more problems than it will solve,” said Ron Webster of the University of London.

Berger now says he’s willing to reconsider cuts to teacher assistants. Midday Thursday, the Senate offered a plan which allows more than $171 million for the House to earmark toward Medicaid and teacher assistants. Given that the Senate hoped to gain more than $230 million from cutting teacher assistants, that proposal comes up laughably short of meeting either of those needs.

Senate negotiators don’t seem bothered by deep cuts to Medicaid. No surprise there. The Senate budget had already called for changing eligibility guidelines which would toss thousands of disabled and elderly people from the Medicaid rolls.

On Wednesday Sen. Neal Hunt and Dollar jousted over Hunt’s reference to Medicaid as welfare. Dollar responded that Medicaid money is spent on mental health, pregnant women, people who have diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease.

“I don’t see those things as welfare. I see those as treating our fellow 1.6, 1.7 million citizens of our state in a very humane way.”

Given how Republicans in the House and Senate have taken an ax to services across the board to support unwise tax cuts, it is amusing to hear them fight with each other over the matter these days. Amusing and entertaining.

For his part, Gov. Pat McCrory is acting like the adult among N.C. pols. He said he was “extremely disappointed that members of the Senate walked out on superintendents and teachers. I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to have dialogue with our educators… We need to listen to them, not walk out on them.”

Rewind. Is this the same governor who a year ago substituted an exchange of cookies for a conversation with protesters over his stands on women’s issues, particularly his reneging on a pledge not to support further restrictions on access to abortion?

Yes, it is. Good for him.

Listening to the public shouldn’t be that hard for politicians. Every election season, those running for office at least pretend to. The better time to do so is when shaping public policy.

Lawmakers should keep that in mind as they do the public’s business and wind up this legislative session.

You can read more of Flono’s writing here in the Charlotte Observer.