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NC unemployment bill approved by House, moving to Senate

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- A majority of State House Representatives voted to approve a bill decreasing the weekly payout of unemployment benefits in the state and shortening the length of time North Carolinians can collect unemployment.

The measure was approved Tuesday night by a House vote of 77 to 42.

The bill has moved to the Senate, where lawmakers are expected to discuss the changes Wednesday afternoon.

The first of two votes on the measure could come as early as Thursday.

Specifically, the proposal involves cutting unemployment benefits by about 1/3.  Under the current system, the unemployed can receive a maximum of $535 per week for a maximum of 26 weeks.

The new system would decrease benefits to a maximum $350 per week for between 12 and 20 weeks.  The length would be a sliding scale based on the current unemployment rate.

In December, the N.C. Department of Commerce reported 444,851 unemployed people in the state with an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent.  The U.S. unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in December.

Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem had a combined unemployment rate of 9.4 percent in December.

That month, there were 62, 861 initial unemployment insurance claims in the state.

Guilford County had the third-highest number of initial unemployment insurance claims in December, totaling $5,629,068.

Forsyth County had the fourth-highest number of initial unemployment insurance claims in December, totaling $3,317,580.

In 2012, North Carolina paid a total of $2,899,014,002 in unemployment insurance benefits.

Supporters of the newly-proposed unemployment overhaul said the cuts will save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition, it would allow the state to pay back more than $2.6 billion it owes to the federal government for unemployment benefits.

With the new plan, lawmakers believe the state could pay that debt back by 2015 -- three years earlier than current expectations.

Paying off the federal debt would also allow North Carolina to decrease unemployment taxes on businesses, which are now considered high because of the federal debt.  Supporters say decreasing business taxes will attract more to the state, resulting in more jobs.

Protestors of the bill said the overhaul is too much too fast.  They argue the average family's rent, food, transportation, and basic utilities would easily eat up $350 a week, leaving little to no additional money for emergencies and other expenditures.

Advocates for the unemployed challenged Gov. Pat McCrory to try living on $350 a week -- an amount some activists are referring to as a "cat food budget."