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NC Unemployment Debt Fix Backed By House Panel

By GARY D. ROBERTSON

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) â¿¿ A Republican effort to overhaul North Carolina's unemployment system and speed up repayment of $2.5 billion owed to the federal government cleared a House panel Thursday, despite Democratic and worker advocate complaints the proposal was skewed against the jobless.

The measure, influenced heavily by the state's business industry, passed along party lines after the House Finance Committee turned back Democratic amendments that sought to ease proposed cuts in jobless benefits for future recipients.

The measure would require higher state and federal unemployment business taxes, but the maximum weekly state benefits for unemployed workers also would fall from $535 to $350 starting July 1, and the maximum number of benefit weeks from 26 to 20. The benefit period could range from five to 12 weeks during very low unemployment.

"Nobody likes this bill. There are no giveaways in this bill," said Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, one of the primary sponsors.

The bill now heads to the House floor Monday evening for the first of two required votes.

GOP members said the new maximum benefit level largely will be in line with what other states offer and would put the state's unemployment insurance trust fund on sounder footing. North Carolina's maximum benefit is the highest in the Southeast. The proposal would pay back the debt by 2015 â¿¿ three years earlier â¿¿ and put $2 billion in reserve by 2019.

Howard and other supporters said the debt was an impediment to recruiting companies to the state and encouraging current firms to expand. Now businesses have certainty and there will be more incentives for unemployed workers to more actively seek work, other lawmakers said. The proposal makes several changes recommended by the North Carolina Chamber.

"We need to emphasize putting unemployed people back to work rather than compensating people for being unemployed," said Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash.

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