By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) â¿¿ A Republican plan to cut jobless payments and raise business taxes to speed repayment of North Carolina's $2.5 billion federal debt on unemployment benefits won tentative approval Tuesday in the state Senate, all but ensuring enactment this summer.
Four Democrats joined GOP senators in voting 36-13 for the House measure, which would cut maximum weekly benefits for new jobless workers July 1 by one-third and reduce the maximum duration of state benefits from 26 weeks to 20.
Businesses both large and small would keep paying higher federal taxes until the debt to the federal government is repaid. Under the accelerated plan, that would probably now be late 2015, instead of three years later if no changes to state law were made. State taxes would go up slightly on a permanent basis, while a surcharge would remain in place until there's a $1 billion cushion in the state trust fund to pay future benefits.
A proposed decline in maximum benefits to $350 per week would bring North Carolina's amount about to the average of other Southeastern states, supporters said, while the current maximum of $535 per week is the highest in the region and has been labeled a disincentive for some to find work.
The overhaul "tries to take care of the unemployed," said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg who is shepherding the House bill through the Senate, but "it doesn't put an excessive burden upon the employers that are struggling." Rucho said repaying the debt more quickly gives certainty to businesses and can help them create jobs again.
The House passed the bill last week. A final Senate vote was expected Wednesday on the bill. If approved, it would then go to new Gov. Pat McCrory, who would be asked to sign the bill into law. The Republican said in an interview Tuesday he supports the overhaul, which is designed to get the state trust fund on firmer fiscal footing before the next recession and avoid debt in the future.