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Rep. Julia Howard, a tireless crusader against the unemployed
By John Sanford Friedrich
Rep. Julia Howard (R-79 Forsyth) has served since the 1989 session. Even at the tail end of the Reagan Revolution, it would not be fair to cast her as a starry eyed young believer. The now 70-year-old was then a competently mature 44 years of age.
Credited by some as a maverick, she did earn only a B- from the recent Civitas scorecard. Where she deviated from orthodoxy has been over arguably marginal issues such as teen tanning bed regulations and reform of commercial puppy mills, a key issue for First Lady McCrory in the first year of her husband’s administration.
Her committee assignments were downgraded by Speaker Moore, to whom she did not offer support in his race for that position.
The realtor/appraiser has for years kept the issues of the poor in key focus. Following the Clinton ‘Welfare Reform’ bill of 1996, she was key to allowing certain N.C. counties to deviate from the statewide plan, allowing more prosperous (and liberal) urban counties to perhaps be more generous toward their citizens who were TANF recipients.
Since then she most prominently re-emerges in the post-Tea Party landscape as a crusader against unemployment insurance. In the 2013 session, closer to the climax of the Great Recession, she was key in reforming unemployment insurance so as to repay the federal government for such funds. This was accomplished by reducing the maximum unemployment insurance benefit from $535 per week to $350. This is the maximum benefit paid to those at the higher end of the pay scale at their last job. Service workers could expect a fair amount less. The number of weeks which benefits could be received was also curtailed.
This plan was controversial not only because of the hardship placed on unemployed North Carolinians, but also that it made the state ineligible for federally paid for unemployment benefits, negotiated as part of the dire ‘fiscal cliff’ talks that year.
Working people were not the only ones to suffer; a great to-do was made by Howard and supporters over a $21 increase in business taxes, annually, to help cover the costs of the insurance program. That amounts to less than three hours of minimum wage work paid per business, per year.
The plan was successful in that by 2015 the debt to the federal government was satisfied. Business taxes dropped automatically but benefits did not rebound. WUNC was informed by Howard that “Republican lawmakers have no interest in restoring benefits this session.”
Such Republican lawmakers did find an interest in further restricting access to unemployment insurance this session. HB22 and its parallel SB15 (there primarily sponsored by perennial RestoreNC favorites as Senators Rucho and Hise) are set to increase the number of job applications sought by a beneficiary from two per week to five per week.
Those receiving less than the maximum $350 per week may find it difficult to find, drive to and dress for this many interviews in a five business day week. Those with children face extra hurdles and this may lead to workers applying for jobs well below or above their skill set, effectively a waste of time for everyone involved.
A minimum number of weeks linked to certain levels of unemployment are also eliminated. Howard and the bill’s supporters at least do ‘spread the pain’ onto business owners – any business delinquent in paying its share of unemployment insurance funds could now be garnished via its own credit cards.
SB15 has passed the upper chamber and is being treated warmly in the House, where it is scheduled for a vote soon. Howard’s 79th district faces a ceiling of Democratic voters at just under 30 percent. It is rural and does not reflect the twin cities of Winston-Salem and the HBCU or arts school located therein.
In 2000 the seat cost $19,050 to contest. In 2012 the figure reached $351,939. Real estate agents (and developers) along with Duke Power, Bank of America and the Eastern Band of Cherokee donated more than their fair shares.