Cover Story: Playing politics with benefits

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - Are North Carolina lawmakers playing political theater with real people's lives?

We're talking about 37,000 desperate families who are stuck in the middle of a squabble between Republicans and Democrats over jobless benefits.

Even though federal dollars are ready and waiting for these needy families, they've gone a month without getting a check.

Democrats are turning up the heating hoping to get Republicans on the fence over to their side.

One month into this showdown, momentum appears to be building.

"Ya'all serve us. You're here for us."

Frustrated, three months behind on his mortgage, with two children to take care of unemployed North Carolinian Greg Smith took the podium at the Legislative Building Wednesday afternoon where normally lawmakers make their case.

"Where are we going to live? Does anybody have a guest room because we're going to be somewhere," said Smith.

He is one of the long-term unemployed who've become known as the 37,000.  Some of them protested in Charlotte this week.

There are 37,000 unemployed North Carolinians whose unemployment benefits have run out after 79 weeks.

"We're kinda like the NFL players where we're locked out.. just like watching these guys go back and forth and do nothing," said Keith Fountain, who is unemployed.

Because North Carolina's unemployment rate of 9.7 percent is now out of the double digits, the final 20 weeks of possible eligibility the state cannot get from the feds unless legislation is passed.

The Republican General Assembly sent a bill to Democratic Gov. Perdue to do allow it.

The trouble is it would have forced Perdue to accepted double-digit cuts in the budget if one hasn't been passed by June 30th.

"It sounds like extortion to me. Dereliction of duty.. all those words," said the governor.

Since April 16th (when the benefits ran out) the issue has been quietly simmering.

Now Democrats smell a blood in the water and are pulling out all the stops - trotting out the Greg Smiths of the world who are hurting.

"It's a bunch of adults acting like children. I don't get my way so I'm not going to give you this unless I get my way," said Smith.

Here's the thing - the money's there.  And both sides say they want to put it in the hands of those who need it.

Republicans say they're willing to work with the Governor and presumably vice-versa.  But right now no one appears willing to blink first, which folks heading in and out of Charlotte's unemployment office think is downright ridiculous.

"Thousands of people who are suffering now from this economic situation.. losing jobs every day.. have no place else to turn but to their elected officials for help. And they should be there for them."

"I think it's wrong for politicians to play games with people's means of survival. And the games should stop."

Gov. Perdue and the head of the Senate met Wednesday on another pressing issue - state workers health insurance.

Senate Leader Phil Berger said unemployment benefits didn't come up.

The number of long-term unemployed is growing.  The number grows about 2,100 each week losing benefits worth an average of $300 a week.

Since the impasse the number of people affected is up to 42,000 long-term unemployed who've lost extended benefits.  And right now, neither side is budging.

Copyright 2011 WBTV. All rights reserved.