RALEIGH, N.C. – Outraged over reductions in unemployment benefits that took effect over the weekend, civil rights leaders vowed to organize a ninth "Moral Monday" protest outside the North Carolina legislature late Monday afternoon.
North Carolina is the first state to cut off a federal unemployment compensation program for the long-term jobless. Republican lawmakers say reducing the duration and amount of unemployment payments will help the state repay money it borrowed from the federal government to honor a flood of claims during the recession.
But critics say the move will cause 170,000 North Carolinians to lose benefits.
Changes in North Carolina's unemployment law are just the latest in a series of issues behind the "Moral Monday" protests, which have drawn hundreds of civil rights leaders, left-leaning clergy and citizens to the state Legislative Complex almost every week since April 29.
The state's Republican-controlled legislature opted out of a Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare that would have extended coverage to 500,000 low-income people. GOP lawmakers have also proposed reductions in state income taxes while increasing sales taxes, as well as cuts in public school funding and restrictions on early voting.
"It's almost like a major attack on the poor and the vulnerable," said Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. "The real moral issues are, how do we treat the poor? How do we treat the least of these? How do we treat the unemployed? And how do we lift up society together? This legislature is going haywire when it comes to constitutional values and fundamental moral values."
But as with the cutbacks in unemployment benefits, North Carolina Republicans insist their legislative agenda is about financial responsibility.
"We owed $7.1 billion in state debt," said state Sen. Thom Goolsby. "And on top of all that, we owed the feds $3 billion in unemployment insurance. So, we have been trying to get our fiscal house in order."
Republicans, who control North Carolina's governorship and both chambers of the legislature for the first time in more than a century, say they have a mandate to restore financial stability to a state that nearly went bankrupt under Democrat leadership.
"Would the losing team of the Super Bowl go protest the winning team's locker room because they lost the game and they fumbled the ball?" said Claude Pope, chairman of the North Carolina GOP. "Come on! They are wasting taxpayer resources."
Although "Moral Monday" has drawn thousands of people from around the state, the rallies have remained peaceful. But state and local police have spent more than $60,000 on providing extra officers and processing roughly 550 protesters who've been arrested for taking their demonstrations inside the legislative building and ignoring warnings to leave.
Republican lawmakers insist the demonstrations will not distract them from their agenda. But "Moral Monday" organizers say the media attention they've generated outside the General Assembly makes up for some of the political power they lack on the inside.
"This is just the beginning," said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. "We are gonna organize and mobilize so that our voices echo throughout legislative districts from the mountains to the sea."